Review for Episodes - The Complete Collection
You can share in the worst entertainment experience I have had in my life. Just go to Youtube and search for Red Dwarf US, and you’ll find footage for both of the pilots; the first pilot is there almost in its entirety. Now I love Red Dwarf, the popular cult sci-fi comedy that has run on the BBC, and latterly Dave for 25 years now, on and off. A show this popular attracted US attention and they took the writers, along with Robert Llewellyn (Kryten) across the pond to translate the show into American. They proceeded to gut the show, and then recast it with some of the usual Hollywood pretty people. Lister was a hunk, not a slob, Rimmer lost his trans-am wheel arch nostrils, Holly became Daphne from Frasier, and the Cat became Jadzia from Deep Space Nine. They killed Red Dwarf. They slaughtered it. They then incinerated the corpse with a flamethrower, gathered up the ashes, got a skunk to urinate on them, put them in a steel casket and sank it to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This is not the first time that UK shows have been so treated by US networks, and it wouldn’t be the last, while some half-hearted attempts to translate US shows to the UK vernacular have been just as desultory. I suppose it was only inevitable that this practice would inspire a TV show in its own right. Enter Episodes, the worst named show in TV history?
Seriously, try searching for ‘Episodes’ on a retail website. You may as well not bother with the search, and instead just go through their listings one by one. That isn’t the reason it has taken me this long to get the show though. Episodes is a show made well into the HD TV age, and when the first season got a Blu-ray release, I almost jumped on it there and then. But then a little voice in the back of my head, reminded me of the BBC’s track record with HD home media release, and told to me to wait for the second season to be released as well. It never happened. The show ran for five years, and all it got, aside from that first season, was DVD releases. The series ended in 2017, and I’ve been waiting for a subsequent HD release ever since. I’ve now given up waiting, and seeing that the DVD collection has just got a re-release, I wound up getting the original version in a clearance sale. Watch them release the Blu-ray now...
Sean and Beverly Lincoln are a married couple riding high on success. They’ve won the BAFTA again for their comedy series Lyman’s Boys, and things couldn’t be rosier. Only it turns out that they could be rosier, when the head of a US network, Merc Lapidus corners them at the ceremony, tells them how much he loves their show, and would love to have them come to Hollywood to write a US version. And unlike previous failures, this would be a sympathetic translation, keeping as much of the original as possible. Given that Lyman’s Boys is about the relationship between an erudite headmaster and the students in a typically British boarding school, there are a lot of unique elements for Sean and Beverly to be protective of, not least their lead actor.
Hollywood seems idyllic at first, the network relentlessly schmoozes them, tells them how wonderful they are, and seems willing to throw money at them with abandon. And then it becomes clear that Merc Lapidus wants Matt LeBlanc in the role, and given that he’s not exactly known for his erudition, the part will have to be re-written, to make the headmaster, into a hockey coach. And the show’s name will be changed... to Pucks. The nightmare is only beginning.
41 episodes of Episodes are presented across 5 seasons of the show, in a 7, 9, 9, 9, and 7 distribution across 10 discs.
Episodes gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer on these discs. Season 1 looks terrible to be frank. The image is soft, and prone to ghosting, not helped by the fact that it was filmed here in the UK, with digital effects to create US backdrops. There is also pixellation in noisy scenes. It’s notable that Season 1 was the only one to be released on Blu-ray, and my uneducated guess is that they just took that Blu-ray and down-converted it to NTSC, and then gave it a PAL standards conversion.
From Season 2 however, the show looks as it should, clear and sharp, no issues with ghosting or the like, and the digital backdrops become a thing of the past, as location filming switches to the US. Detail levels are good, and there are no issues with compression or the like.
And then we get to Season 5, and the crappy transfer gets worse. It looks like the worst kind of NTSC-PAL standards conversion I have ever seen, but one step worse. I remember some DVDs getting the 25th PAL frame by repeating the 24th frame, resulting in jerky pans. They’ve obviously done the same thing here, but tried to mitigate it with motion blur and interpolations. So once every second, any moving part of the image blurs. Then there are the poorly placed layer changes.
Seasons 1 & 2 get a DD 2.0 Stereo English audio with optional English subtitles, while the final three seasons upgrade the audio to DD 5.1 Surround although in practice, there’s not a lot in it. It is the worst, catchy, earworm of a theme tune ever, but the all important dialogue is clear.
You get 5 Amaray cases held in a thin card slipcase. Each season comes on two discs, held on each inner face of the Amarays, ten discs in total. The discs boot to animated menus.
Season 1 Disc 2 has the Making of Episodes featurette, which runs to 18:02, with cast and crew interviews.
Season 3 Disc 2 offers 8:52 of Bloopers.
Season 4 Disc 2 offers 21:42 of Bloopers.
Well, that was disappointing. Primarily the issue is with the release format, which we’ll come to later, but a lesser, although predictable issue is that Episodes is not as good as I remember it to be. That’s not surprising, as when I watched it when it was broadcast on a weekly basis, I was very much indulging in the ‘best thing since sliced bread’ glee that came with a comedy show of a sort that I hadn’t seen before. A second time viewing in binge-watch mode makes clear Episodes’ flaws, and it turns out that there are many.
As mentioned, the title of the show is stupid, and the theme tune is annoyingly cheap and tacky, and it gets stuck in your head after hearing it just once, which probably means that it works perfectly. I also realised that Episodes has a really bad opening episode. The star of the show can only be in it briefly courtesy of a flashback framing device, and the opening episode story actually feels cheesy and trite, with the writers loading up on the clichés to compensate, as they have yet to develop the characters.
When you consider the premise of the show, it quickly becomes clear that it can never really sustain beyond one season. The US studio can only maul Sean and Beverly’s show just once in the process of translation, and once the show is in production, the damage is done. The first season of Episodes is about getting the pilot of Pucks into the can, and you get a little more of the mayhem as the show goes into full production in Season 2. Thereafter Episodes has to rely on character development, and the soap opera antics that develop as the motivation becomes about keeping Pucks on the air. It also becomes about trying to maintain Hollywood success, now that the British protagonists have got a taste of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Thankfully this is where Episodes excels, and really hits the mark, and it reveals that it has more than enough energy to sustain over the bulk of its 5 seasons. There is the opening episode, which is a bit of debacle of course, but the show also exits on a sour note, opting for a clichéd ‘meta’ ending that is almost as trite and cheesy as the opening. Episodes doesn’t leave on a good note, but thankfully there are the intervening 39 episodes to appreciate.
The show takes every cliché about Hollywood and treats it as real, with a world that revolves around sex and money, and in between they create some entertainment as well. Into this world enter our naive British ingénues, married writer couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln, trying to strongly maintain their British reserve in the face of all this American exuberance and false bonhomie. They may be award winners here, but that doesn’t prepare them for the sheer shock of Hollywood, although the overly tactile network exec that woos them, Merc Lapidus should have been warning enough. He makes all the right noises about doing their show justice when he recruits them, but when they show up in LA, he’s forgotten that they even exist, let alone their show. He was just in the UK to make deals, and they were just a couple of names on his target list.
Of course now they have to make the show, and they instantly run into the reality of ‘translating’ the show for the US market, which means gutting it of everything they hold dear, and worse, casting ‘Joey from Friends’ in the title role. Matt LeBlanc plays a (I hope) twisted version of himself, a Matt LeBlanc with the appetites of Joey when it comes to women and food, but in the real world, where being a gourmand and a sex addict have consequences in his personal and professional life. On top of that, he has the intelligence and savvy to be successful in Hollywood, but he lets that considerable intelligence be drowned out by his limitless narcissism. And he is the most straight talking guy, and best friend that the Lincolns can make in Hollywood, which puts into perspective just how venal, shallow, and self-obsessed everyone else is.
There are a couple of missteps in the show from my perspective. Certainly Sean and Beverly stick with Hollywood far longer than seems rational, given just how often they are burned like the proverbial moths to the flame. Yet again, it is the whole point of the show, and quite necessary that they stick with it, even if we as the audience start rolling our eyes at the plot developments. They initially suffer from professional jealousy, for as they see their masterpiece defiled by the studio, at the same time, their former, annoying assistant has actually hit the big time. Later on, they’re trying again with a different project, and circumstances force them to have to work with Sean’s former writing partner Tim, whose annoying personality and sheer lack of talent is pushed to extremes in the show, and briefly cross the line of credibility.
Then there’s Merc’s assistant Carol, who eventually becomes Beverly’s best friend in Hollywood, and cannabis buddy. She’s a woman who’s sleeping her way to the top, having a series of demeaning sexual relationships with every boss she has. She spends years hoping that Merc will leave his wife for her, but that never happens. The next boss of the network is another Tim, in his complete lack of talent and utter annoying personality. Castor has psychological problems, exacerbated by his on and off relationship with his prescription drugs. At one point, he’s on a drug that causes unwanted and prolonged erections. When he starts using Carol to deal with that, I once again thought “you’ve pushed it too far, Episodes. Reel it back, reel it back”. It does, but never quite enough.
Episodes is still the funniest comedy that I have seen in recent years, especially from the US. It has this twisted, messed up view of network television, and Hollywood in general that offers plenty of grist for its comedy mill. It’s utterly unreal and far-fetched of course, but there’s a small part of me that suspects that the real world of Hollywood has more in common with Episodes’ worldview than not.
But then there is the release format. This is the first time I’ve seen a release that explains why so many people are ditching their hardcopy home cinema collections and switching to the streaming model instead. A show, well into the HD age, gets a DVD only release, and on top of that, these DVDs are the most poorly authored, janky transfers I have seen in a long time, at least for Seasons 1 and 5. Desultory extra features, and dodgy layer changes, and I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to tell you to ignore these DVDs, and watch the show on Amazon Prime instead. God I feel so dirty now!
Note: You could do that when I wrote this review, but apparently you can't now that I've posted the review. Welcome to the brave new world of Video on Demand!