After David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik watched their last series, The Class, flop on the networks, the creators swore off pitching to broadcast television.
That's why Episodes, the duo's new Showtime comedy starring Matt LeBlanc, paints a not so flattering portrait of the business behind making network TV shows.
The networks are "ruled by fear and panic," Crane said during Television Critics Association's fall TV previews on Thursday. Crane is best known for creating with Marta Kauffman the longrunning NBC hit Friends.
"I said, 'The only way I'll [work on Episodes] is if we can do it somewhere under the radar,'" said Jeffrey Klarik , who was a writer-producer on Mad About You and also serves as executive producer on Episodes with Jimmy Mullville.
"We didn't want to get pummeled like we did last time," Klarik said, recalling the experience making The Class, which was canceled in its first season. "Last time I felt like a puppy in a dryer."
Klarik recalled the kind of creative meetings he took with network executives: They'd say, "'He's got to be more likeable, we want the audience to like him,'" he said. "They're always trying to second-guess what the audience is going to think or feel."
Episodes is the story of a husband and wife producing team (the U.K.'s Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan), whose hit British show is being adapted for American audiences. Once they arrive stateside, however, the network quickly turns their show, originally about a headmaster of a boys' boarding school, into Pucks!, a comedy about a hockey team and its coach. To play the lead, the networks decide to recruit former Friends star LeBlanc.
Judging by the clips screened, LeBlanc stars as a cruder, more desperate version of himself. "C'mon, you gotta help me here," fictional LeBlanc says in one episode. "I need a hit here. At least something they can't make fun of on a talk show."
"It's not really myself," LeBlanc said. "It's a character that David and Jeffrey wrote that happens to have the same name as me."
So far, working on the series has been bliss, Klarik said. "This is what you assumed it'd be like when you watched Dick Van Dyke. You sit in a room and come up with funny stuff and you turn it into television."
Despite the sour taste left by their last experiences with the broadcast networks, the producers said Episodes was not designed to only lampoon that process. The show is less of a behind-the-scenes TV satire as it is the story of a marriage tested by Hollywood.
"The marriage goes through a real crisis and the backdrop is the crazy world of network TV," Mulville said.
"It's about show business the way I Love Lucy was about showbiz," Crane said. "It's on the periphery... It's really about the three of them."
Episodes premieres on Monday, Jan. 10 at 10:30/9:30c.