During the second act of a story (after crossing the threshold from the ordinary world into the special, if you’re Joseph Campbell savvy), the writer sorely tests his protagonists with all manner of problems and obstacles, the object being to bring the characters down to their lowest point. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and all that rot.
Since the first season of Episodes, we’ve been in one long Act Two. Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) are our protagonists in this story, living out their Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land plot of successful British comedy writers who come to Hollywood, USA, to helm an American version of their successful BAFTA-winning show. Think Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant bringing The Office to the US.
The series has heaped problems on Sean and Beverly in cruel and often funny ways. Sometimes just cruel ways, minus the funny.
In previous reviews, I’ve listed Matt LeBlanc, playing an exaggerated version of himself ala Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, as one of the stars of this series. And he is. I was never a huge LeBlanc fan until he appeared in this. But, this has always been Sean and Beverly’s story. Matt is just a force of nature helping to cause and/or exacerbate the problems and issues heaped upon our protagonists. He ends up sleeping with Beverly early on, which causes problems in our writers’ marriage. He suggests “improvements” to Sean and Beverly’s show that ultimately make it awful, and nothing like the original. As Season 3 was ending, it appeared that things were looking up. Pucks!, the show-within-the-show was getting cancelled, which means the Lincolns can return to their beloved England to finish salvaging their relationship. It also means that Matt can take a coveted role in an NBC drama, until the head of the network gets wind of this and maliciously orders an additional six episodes of Pucks!
That’s where things stand as Season 4 begins, with Matt, once again, doing something that negatively affects the protagonists in our story. Sean and Beverly just thought they had reached their nadir, only to have the rug pulled out from under them, contractually obligated to return to Hollywood to make the final six episodes of a series that no one—not the public, the star, nor the writers—even wants.
I still like the series, but it’s no longer the series I started watching. The show is still about the Lincolns, with a generous side helping of LeBlanc, but this season seems to spin off in a lot of new directions that aren’t always about the Lincolns’ central story thread. It’s kind of a nod-and-a-wink to the fact that the end of Season 3 could easily have been a series finale. The Lincolns go from success, to failure abroad, and return back home, which is a different kind of success. But, they were forced to come back.
And, I watched. Willingly. Because this suddenly protracted second act is still interesting, and entertaining.
Matt discovers that his long-time financial guy stole half of his life savings from him prior to committing suicide. It leaves Matt with $31 million, but that means he has to tighten his belt or find other ways to make money. This drives much of the Matt story thread this season, even causing a brief reconciliation with his ex-wife and the thought of remarrying her to save on alimony. Matt considers selling his father’s condo out from under him, until his father is hospitalized for a heart attack. Eventually, he agrees to host a game show with Merc Lapidus that seems to be an amalgam Big Brother and Fear Factor. That’s not destined to go well.
Beverly’s best US friend, Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) begins a relationship, true to form, with her new boss, Helen Basch (Andrea Savage). We spend probably too much time on the Carol thread as the relationship goes through predictable ups-and-downs. Savage is a delightful addition to the cast, though.
Sean and Beverly set off on a new thread of their own, when they sell a new sitcom even before Pucks! is officially laid to rest. This looks like another victory, until Sean’s old writing partner, Tim Whittick (Bruce Mackinnon), drops in claiming that the idea for the new sitcom was one that he and Sean came up with together. Compounding the Lincolns’ problems, once again, is Matt LeBlanc, who believes he will be in their new show, but they don’t want him. Also, Helen Basch becomes jealous that Carol spends too much time with Beverly, and hers isn’t the quiet kind of jealousy.
All of these story threads arrive at the final episode without actually ending. We’re just at a new status quo for the show, everything seriously dysfunctional, with the Lincolns no closer to home.
I liked this season, but not as much as the ones that came before. Of course, I knew that Season 5 was the last for the series already, but I still couldn’t help but think, while watching Season 4, that it was time to begin wrapping things up. In some ways, it seemed that the writers were trying almost too hard to prolong Act Two.
Firewater’s Season 4 Report Card: B+
There are plenty of worse shows out there.