There’s a common myth among British TV critics that there’s a common myth among British TV viewers that British TV comedies are superior to American ones. In fact, we know perfectly well that The Simpsons, Friends, Frasier, South Park, Seinfeld etc are superior in terms of consistency and longevity to anything we’ve produced. We buy the box sets, after all. British TV is good at quirky little innovative things like The Office, Spaced or Miranda, fostered primarily in the stand-up circuit (the one comedy area where Blighty really is unrivalled), which briefly burn bright and then die. America produces the mega-comedies. And given the different systems – Britain favouring individual talents; America pumping money and hot writing teams into successes – that’s pretty much what you’d expect.

But perhaps there’s another myth, on the other side of the Pond: an Anglophile American one that British TV is a utopia for the the auteur writer, where the laissez-faire, anti-populist attitudes of the programme commissioners allow talent to flourish unmolested, with soaring quality the result (thus, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps). That Episodes (BBC2 Monday nights, 10pm) was written by an American duo – creators of Friends and Mad About You – suggests such a myth.

Episodes is David Crane and Jefrey Klarik’s revenge on a Hollywood studio system that is “ ruled by fear”. Made and mostly filmed in England, it follows a husband-and-wife writing team whose classy public school-set sitcom Lyman’s Boys wins critical awards in Britain, gets picked up by an American studio and is subsequently bastardized into unrecognisability by ratings-chasing bosses.

That, at least, is the set-up in episode 1 and if it seems a little comedy-world onanistic, well that’s because it is; and it also employs the modish technique of blurring reality and fiction (with Matt LeBlanc playing a version of himself). All of which could equally be said of The Trip, but the only thing that ultimately matters is: is it funny? The Trip was, and Episodes is too, episodically, as a comedy of Anglo-American manners playing on the “two countries divided by a common language” theme. There are some decent sitcommy gags (a giant bath that takes so long to fill it kills the couple’s desire for some soapy passion), and a rather laboured scene involving an officious security guard, but the key moments are two excellent set-pieces.

The first is the meeting at the TV studio when the couple (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) discover that the boss who has flattered and flown them to Hollywood has in fact never seen their show (“Um, there is a chance Merc may not have actually seen your show…I’m not saying that he hasn’t seen it.” “Has he seen it?” “No.”) and they get the first glimpse of the utter disillusionment to come.

The second is the audition by Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths) for the lead role of Lyman. A Royal Shakespeare veteran, Bullard ‘is’ the show in the British version, and has already taken the insult of having to audition in good grace, assuming it to be a tiresome formality. Strolling calmly in, he brings the house down with his impeccable performance as the crusty  schoolmaster. But then boss Merc demands he be ‘less English’ because ‘we want people to like him’. Julian attacks it with confidence, but suddenly, with an American accent, he just isn’t funny anymore: he’s cranky or creepy. It’s a brilliant piece of acting by Griffiths, as he runs with increasing desperation through his repertoire of Deep South drawls.

There’s an odd thing about all this, however. Are we meant to just laugh at how ignorant and unsophisticated Merc is? Because I was rather on his side. In the context of an American school the English Lyman would indeed be unlikeable – insufferably snobbish and his gentle ironies would be nasty underhand jibes. Merc was right. If the writers Crane and Klarik intended this degree of subtlely, then it’s impressive.

We’ll see how it turns out, but so far it looks like a contender. Mangan and Grieg do well as the polar opposite of their personae in Green Wing (he’s dopily sympathetic, she’s hard and harsh), and things may well pick up when Matt Le Blanc gets involved next week. Worth a look.


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  1. Worm on Thursday 13, 2011

    you can just picture the creative process:

    American writer of Friends to TV execs: “Hey, how about we jump on this cool new limey TV comedy style! Lets make something exactly like Ricky Gervais’s Extras ….except call it Episodes…whaddya reckon?”

    • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

      But it’s not even a Limey thing really is it, the fact/fiction blurring… Curb Your Enthusiasm etc.

  2. martpol on Thursday 13, 2011

    Saw it, enjoyed it, had much the same feeling that it was probably going to be very good.

    Although I don’t hold with the view that classic sitcoms need to cease after a couple of series – Peep Show is good evidence to the contrary – there’s a definite American tendency to let things run on way too long. Thus Friends (good for the first 5 or 6 seasons) and more importantly The Simpsons (classic after classic for the first 8, even 10 years – now annoyingly ‘surreal’ and unsubtle). Mind you, South Park just gets better and better. So the rule is, with sitcoms, there are no rules.

    • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

      I thought Friends was awful until about series 3 – very syrupy – then got into its stride and was pretty consistent til the end. Agree that the Simpsons has come to the end – although there’s always a good number of ace gags even in the worst episodes -…. but what a legacy!

  3. David Cohen on Thursday 13, 2011

    Hmmm, are Steven and Sue going to sue?

    • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

      Not with you there, David. Who are Steven and Sue?

      • David Cohen on Thursday 13, 2011

        Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue created Coupling based on their own relationship (loosely based, one can only hope). They were brought over to America to produce an American version, which promptly tanked. Moffat blames the failure on network interference.

        (And, Googling for a link about their experience for this comment, I found this, which I swear I didn’t see until just now.)

        • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

          Great Britcom sitcom knowledge, David!

  4. Gaw on Thursday 13, 2011

    I think you were more than fair. We’ll have to see how it develops but it did seem to play to the usual stereotypes. I thought the Brits were irritatingly smug – hoping this was deliberate!

  5. Nige on Thursday 13, 2011

    Well I didn’t think much of the opener (as they call them in the US), which seemed oddly clunky and with some strange timing – but eps 2 and 3 are much better, largely because Matt LeBlanc steals the show. God he’s good!

    • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

      Opening episodes are notoriously ropey though, aren’t they Nige? They have to establish the characters while forcing in enough easy gags to make you laugh enough to tune in next week. Tricky to pull off.

  6. Joey Joe Joe Jr. on Thursday 13, 2011

    On the subject of opening episodes did anyone catch The Great Outdoors on channel 2 earlier? I enjoyed it – there’s something inherently funny (and familiar) about the seeing people strolling through the gentle countryside of the chilterns absurdly dressed in garishly flourescent hi-tech survival gear fit for Kilamanjaro.

  7. Gadjo Dilo on Thursday 13, 2011

    There’s another myth: great British sitcoms are (were, perhaps) so good that they would also have worked as straight dramas. Steptoe & Son and Porridge prove this point – to my satistfaction, at least. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine Seinfeld – “I bought these carrot the other day and, you know, one of them isn’t quite the same shape as the others – don’t you just hate it when that happens?! – working as a drama, not a snowflake’s chance.

  8. Nige on Thursday 13, 2011

    You’re so right Joey Joe – they’re the kind of people who get walking a bad name. When I was out walking last weekend I was in my old Donegal tweed (which blends perfectly with any terrain)…
    Gadjo: I thought Seinfeld was a drama, a pretty dark one that happened to be funny – those Comedy bits at the start always seemed a waste of time to me.

    • David Cohen on Thursday 13, 2011

      Certainly, Nige, a very modern drama, written by someone with a Masters Degree.

  9. Rosie Tatton on Thursday 13, 2011

    Why should anyone care about the minor annoyances in the lives of two pampered writers living the dream in sunny LA? This will crash and burn and soon be forgotten, yet another expensive flop from the BBC.

  10. Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

    I thought the second episode really picked up – some very funny scenes, espeially Matt LeBlanc.

    Enjoyed the excutiating awkwardness of Merc pulling faces while his blind wife talkied earnestly about the orphanage….

  11. Michael on Thursday 13, 2011

    Sorry, bit longer than I expected, I just wanted to put a point across that I have to disagree with your sentiments completely. Things are completely different on both sides of the Atlantic, this does not necessarily make either “superior” in any way. And veiled insults such as calling things quirky, suggesting an idea of “well that’s all well and good for a bit, but clearly this is what/how it should be done” are incredibly petty and insulting.

    The British comedies are often written by only one or two people during their free time, whereas the American comedies are often written by well paid large teams of, just as equally talented, full time writers. The writers of British comedies often stop when they feel they have no more unique stories to tell (spaced, black books, the office to name some recent examples of this, but there are many classics as well), programmes like friends were milked for every last penny for no other reason than it was profitable. I’m not having a go at this, I enjoy ad watch many of them and do not have the stereotypical “ours is better view” at all. One of my all time favourites is Scrubs which had some incredible episodes, but your views on this subject seem limited and massively bias to what is your obvious preference.

    In reality there are about 20 uniquely individual Friends episodes, apart from these the rest are a by the books formula repeated over and over and this just would not generally happen over here due to the difference in culture (there are some examples of where it does though, such as My Family – but it is no coincidence that this is also written by an entire team of full time American writers. Not necessarily the best example for my point, as My Family is not seen as that good of a comedy by most, but I wanted to point it out anyway). The American way may be a different system but it does not make it worse, and certainly does not make it or what it produces superior.

    • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

      I think you ascribe too strong a position to me there, Michael – I did after all add the qualifier ” in terms of consistency and longevity” when describing US superiority. I like British comedy plenty so your hostility is a little puzzling. But thanks for your comment. With you on Scrubs.

      • Michael on Thursday 13, 2011

        I apologise if you do think there was some hostility, there really wasn’t. My personal opinion is that the consistency thing is a bit unfair and not really true (as I said there are normally only a couple of series of a few episodes and they are all consistently good), and the longevity issue is more cultural and a product of a different system. I agree with plenty of aspects of what you say completely though, and don’t necessarily think you were doing anything on purpose. And I agree with your views on Episodes as well.

  12. Thom on Thursday 13, 2011

    How can you write about Episodes without talking about the biggest, weirdest thing about it: the bizarre CG backgrounds. Astonishing that anyone thought you could film a show set in LA in this country and fill in the backgrounds afterwards. Aside from that this is clunky, uneven fare. Le Blanc is the best thing in it by miles, virtually everyone else plays it way too big, it’s watchable but entirely forgettable stuff. Also check out how Le Blanc’s part was obviously written generically, for whoever they could get. Hence all the gags around his celebrity are weirdly general (no references to Friends, the absurd idea that he’s only in it for the money !)

    • Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

      Not sure about your LeBlanc theory, Thom. Friends was mentioned a few times in this week’s episode, and the writers claim he was on board very early (one of them was one of the creators of Friends – see interview).

      He’s meant to be a warped version of himself (a la mode in current sitcoms).

  13. mark hodsman on Thursday 13, 2011

    Hmm…Ep 1,2,3 – I switched off 3 after 10mins and 1&2 made excruciating viewing. Its not green wing is it? Its also not funny.

  14. John Crichton on Thursday 13, 2011

    However good or bad this show turns out to be, at least it will be better than the American remake will ever be.

  15. dan on Thursday 13, 2011

    while finding some jokes funny in episode 1 episode 2 ruined it for me with its contribution to the stereotype of people with tourettes. it also showed me that it promotes bullying and the making fun of people with tourettes with matt le blanc branding it as ‘funny’ and, i dont want to use the male writers name in the show so, the other writer guy married to beverly promptly saying just go along with it. i thought that promoted not fighting this sort of bullying. as a sufferer myself i found it extremely insulting.