As it turns out, Matt LeBlanc's fictional new sitcom is pretty darned bad -- which, it seems, is very good news for Matt LeBlanc's actual TV sitcom.
Episodes, in which the former Friends star plays a fictionalized version of himself starring in a dreadful U.S.-network adaptation of a high-toned British TV comedy, returns this week (Monday at 11 p.m. on Movie Central), and it's clear from the outset that the worse things get for fake LeBlanc's fake series, Pucks!, the better it's going to be for viewers looking for out-loud laughter from real, new episodes of Episodes.
In the series' first season, celebrated British TV writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig) succumbed to Hollywood temptation and agreed to oversee production of an American version of their distinguished U.K. series, Lyman's Boys, a historical comedy set in a private boarding school.
In typical Tinseltown fashion, however, the network executive who lured the Lincolns across the pond had never actually seen the Brit original and had no intention of maintaining its identity, theme, concept or cast. Instead, Lyman's Boys became Pucks!, a lowbrow comedy starring LeBlanc as coach of a boys' hockey team. Sean and Beverly were shattered, so badly that all the money, sunshine and perks Hollywood has to offer could not mend their gloomy English hearts.
Season 1 ended with Beverly, tipsy and unjustifiably jealous over Sean's ogling of Pucks!' buxom female co-star, allowing herself to be bedded by terminally libidinous LeBlanc. As the new nine-episode campaign begins, it's four months later and the Lincolns are living apart, but the successful transition from pilot to series has forced them to keep working together.
LeBlanc (the fictional one, as played with delightful, disarming ease by the real one) is trying to make peace with Sean, hoping to repair what had the makings of a for-real friendship before make-believe Matt became, yet again, unable to keep things zipped. But Sean has no more interest in renewing buddy ties with the actor than he does in mending his marriage, so the Pucks! set remains a strictly-business zone.
Except, that is, for the fact network head Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) is continuing his affair with studio exec Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins), LeBlanc engages in a tryst-y interlude with Merc's blind wife, Jamie (Genevieve O'Reilly), and Sean is offered a rather intimate birthday gift from series co-star Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe).
The ever-so-slightly fictional Hollywood that houses Episodes' show-within-a-show is a pretty frisky place. And funny, too -- each of the first few episodes previewed is good for at least a couple of genuine, deep-in-the-gut laughs.
Mangan and Greig remain the anchors of the narrative, but it's LeBlanc, Pankow and Perkins that deliver the lion's share of the laughs. LeBlanc, in particular, is a formidable comedic force who's willing to fully embrace a dim, shallow version of himself for the sake of a humorous end-product payoff.
As its ratings begin to plummet after a promising start, the future looks bleak for Pucks! And that pretty much guarantees upward-trending amusement throughout Episodes' second season.
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HRH on PBS: Given the enduring love affair between the U.S. public broadcaster and all things British, which has been superheated of late by Downton Abbey's ascent, it's hardly surprising to see PBS get all a-flutter over Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.
It's true that PBS is a bit late to the party, given all that has already aired on other outlets, but royalist-minded viewers will likely think the four-part Queen & Country, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Prairie Public TV, is worth the wait.
This well-appointed and relentlessly upbeat series, presented by British journalist Trevor McDonald, pays tribute to Her Majesty's 60-year reign by examining its impact on various aspects of Commonwealth life. Sunday's opener, London: Royal City, focuses on the royal family's place in Britain's busiest city during and since the Second World War, from Elizabeth's parents' decision to remain at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz to the Queen's current relationship with London.
Episode 2, Royal Visit (July 8), assesses the impact of the Queen's journeys to outlying locations; Episode 3, The Queen's Possessions (July 15), reveals some unknown bits of royal property that fall under the heading of "peculiars of the Crown," and the series finale, Traveller (July 22), follows Queen Elizabeth II on a trip to Australia and ponders the role of Commonwealth nations in suggested amendments to the rules of succession.
Starring Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig and John Pankow
Monday, 11 p.m.
4 1/2 stars out of 5
Queen & Country
Narrated by Trevor McDonald
Sunday at 8 p.m.
3 1/2 stars out of 5