It's difficult to believe that the creators of Showtime's Episodes are not holding a grudge against network TV.
Their last series, the CBS sitcom The Class, was axed after one short season, and their follow-up comedy (for cable, natch) is nothing if not an indictment of how the worst broadcast shows get made, sometimes in spite of a great idea. Just take a gander at Episodes' fictional network honcho, a crass and careless tyrant who transforms an urbane British hit about the headmaster of an elite boys school into a broad comedy for American audiences starring Matt LeBlanc.
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Still, executive producers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik insist Episodes was not born out of bitterness.
"Oh, it is very personal to us," says Crane, who previously co-created Friends for NBC. "But this show didn't grow out of revenge. I'm not bitter. Neither of us can say the industry hasn't been good to us."
So what was the motivation? "This is looking at the showbiz world we live in, and going, 'This is hilarious. It's insane.'"
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Crane and Klarik's world didn't seem so hilarious following the cancelation of The Class, a sitcom about the now-grown, reunited alumni of a third grade class. The project incited a bidding war among the broadcast networks based largely on the reps of its creators, but after 19 episodes and decent-but-not-spectacular ratings, the show was dropped.
"'No more network! I can't do it again!' That's what I was thinking," says Klarik, who had been a producer on Mad About You. (Last July, he said the experience made him feel like a puppy in a dryer.) Neither will say what specifically went wrong with The Class, but they do say the process wasn't so different from the way it was on Friends, which ended its successful 10-season run in 2004.
"I don't know the industry has changed," Crane says. "Maybe it's more anxious because there are more networks, more competition, less money, more on the line... But there's been insanity as long as we've been doing it." Which is to say, even after the failure of The Class in 2007, Crane was still itching to go back to work on a new series. Klarik offered a compromise: They would work in England, where "you can be really under the radar, and we can write it all ourselves..."
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That show, satire or not, is a rather damning (and, as the pair says, "personal") account of the incestuous inner machinery of Hollywood. Standing in for real-life couple Crane and Klarik are Episodes' protagonists, married British hitmakers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), who are suckered into adapting their series Lyman's Boys for a U.S. network. They stumble helplessly from episode to episode as their show is gradually dumbed down, epitomized best when LeBlanc is eventually cast as its lead against their wishes.
"You need a bad guy," LeBlanc says. "The head of the network is a fun villain." Like Crane and Klarik, LeBlanc, whose fictional self is self-serving and shallow, suffered through an embarrassment of his own that was the ill-fated Friends spin-off Joey (a project, neither Crane nor Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman wanted a part of.) But he downplays what could be easily read as Episodes' sour attitude toward broadcast television. "I've had good and bad experiences at the network," LeBlanc says. "There are obviously some very smart people in Hollywood, and there's some great stuff that comes out of it. But there's also room for everybody — talented and talent-free."
Using LeBlanc as the show's punching bag, evidence of a star system gone wrong, was mandatory.
"Once we had the idea that he would be the perfect worst piece of casting, we loved it so much that even the thought of someone else doing it... We thought if he said no, we'd just do a different show," Crane says. LeBlanc adds he was their willing target. "If it's a good joke, sure," he says.
Crane and Klarik say the harsh, sometimes hard-to-believe stereotypes pervading the show — the network's fear-based decision-making and lemming-like yes men; the lead actress who lies about her age and has popular a sex tape — are based in their reality. "In fact, we pulled back," Klarik says. (As evidence, the pair recalls a recent situation in which a friend of theirs sold a show to a network about a "short, sweet Jewish guy." Says Crane: "The network said, 'Cedric the Entertainer, or it's not happening.' The show died. First pilot they picked up last season, killed. And you think, 'This is madness!'")
Even LeBlanc keeps mum when asked about how similar he is to his alter ego. "I'd rather not discuss," he says with a smile.
So far, bitter or not, their take appears to be working. Episodes has been praised as "sharp" by critics from USA Today, New York Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, among others. (Viewership, however, could stand to improve. Sunday's episode drew just 332,000 viewers, down from the premiere audience of 770,000.)
Though the reviews have been comforting, Crane and Klarik say they still don't expect to return to the more lucrative world of broadcast network. "David keeps talking about not burning bridges, and my feeling is it doesn't matter if you don't intend to go back again," Klarik says. "I don't, thank God."
Then again, Crane says, "the not-so-secret secret about Hollywood is they'll let anyone work again if they like the script." "If Hitler came with something good..." Klarik begins.
"Suddenly, we're picking up the Adolf script," Crane says.
Episodes airs Sundays at 9:30/8:30c on Showtime.