Monday 24 October 2016

Episodes has been granted another series... but why?

Tamsin Greig as Beverly Lincoln, Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc and Stephen Mangan as Sean Lincoln in Episodes
Tamsin Greig as Beverly Lincoln, Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc and Stephen Mangan as Sean Lincoln in Episodes

THERE are series that become critical darlings but never attract a large enough audience to be viable. There are ones that the critics hate but the viewers adore.

There are some that manage to score on both fronts, pleasing all of the people all of the time, and become runaway successes. And then there’s the fourth type: those series few people really care about, yet which for some reason, just keep being recommissioned.

They drag on and on for years, hovering in the deep background of most people’s consciousness, like one of those ancient actors you hadn’t even realised was still alive until their obituary appeared in that day’s newspapers.

Sooner or later, the merciful cattle bolt of cancellation will be administered; sometimes, though, the inevitable is a long time coming.

BBC3’s sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps lasted for an unfathomable nine series, despite being complete crud. Channel 4’s Shameless ran for 11, even though its original audience’s attentions had long since drifted elsewhere.

BBC1 repeatedly applied the defibrillator to Last of the Summer Wine to keep it alive for a mind-boggling 31 series. Alas, it couldn’t do the same for the cast, which had to be replaced innumerable times as age, infirmity and death took their toll.

It’s about time we added Episodes to the list of series that have outstayed their welcome. It’s just been recommissioned for a fifth series, yet it remains largely unloved by the public.

Since the first episode on BBC2 in 2011, its audience has frequently dropped way below the million mark. Any other series scoring numbers like that would have been axed already. Ripper Street, for instance, got the chop when more than four million people were still watching every week.

In spite of star Matt Le Blanc picking up several Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe, viewers in the US have warmed to Episodes even less. The audience for one particular episode plummeted to 240,000 — pathetic, even by cable TV standards.

It’s not just a matter of poor ratings, which are never a real reflection of a series’ worth anyway. The truth is that Episodes simply isn’t any good. From the very start, it was riding on the coat-tails of far better comedy series.

HBO’s brilliant, groundbreaking 1990s comedy The Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling as a fictional chat-show host who invariably clashes off-screen with his real-life celebrity guests, perfected the art of having A-listers gamely play monstrously exaggerated versions of themselves.

A decade later, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant shamelessly (though very amusingly) borrowed the concept for Extras.

Episodes isn’t in the same league as that series and doesn’t come within shouting distance of Larry Sanders. But if it’s limp as situation comedy, it’s limper again as satire.

The tiresomely cliched view it peddles — that the American TV industry is run almost exclusively by greedy, venal idiots — doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny these days, not when a lot of the finest and most intelligent television is currently being made in the US.

The only explanation I can think of for the continued existence of Episodes is that, with Showtime sharing the production costs, it’s a cheap deal for the BBC.

Shot predominantly in London, standing in unconvincingly for Hollywood, and featuring a cast of mainly British actors pretending to be Americans, Episodes looks cheap, too.

No wonder ordinary American viewers have failed to take it to their hearts.

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