Curb your enthusiasm

It's a pity the English actors in Episodes have had their craziness toned down.

Episodes, the latest episode of which airs tonight on BBC2 (10pm), is the latest Atlantic-straddling comedy to hit our viewing schedules. In line with other autoreflexive fare (like Extras, Grandma's House and The Trip) it is self-referential to the point of narcissism: it's a TV comedy about making a TV comedy, in which Matt Leblanc plays Matt Leblanc.

Hollywood and its drones have been rich pickings for sitcom and screenwriters, but the carcass has been pulled apart so much that it now feels like self-indulgence to go back for more. Just how interested and excited are we expected to be by all that is implied by "behind the scenes" and "backstage"? It's surely a little like hubris to think we care too much for yet another anatomisation of pampered dysfunction in La La Land.

In Episodes Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan star as a BAFTA-wielding writing and romantic partnership, who are seduced into doing an American version of their critical comedy hit Lyman's Boys. Whilst there has been a steady North Atlantic Drift of comedies to our shores (of which of course Leblanc has been honourable part, in his role as Joey Tribbiani in Friends), it is hardly a reciprocal stream, and few British comedies make big in the States. The Episodes people (who include David Crane of Friends) have waggishly anticipated bafflement and criticism on both sides of the Atlantic by weighing in there first, and putting the "lost in translation" theme centre-stage.

Greig and Mangam are a mettlesome pair, but in general our home-grown comedy actors have a different rhythmic emphasis from their American counterparts, and a delivery pattern that doesn't rely on various iterations of the wiseacre. Something rather peculiar happens when Brits get to play British in US-written shows: the rhythms clash, and appear to give rise to mini eddies of European disappointment. Jane Leeves in Frasier, Helen Baxendale in Friends and even Ashley Jensen in the egregious Ugly Betty all seemed to end up being a glitch and a snag in the otherwise tight fabric of yankee banter.

Arguably, another distinguishing feature of the Brits is their willingness to make complete unattractive arses of themselves. We do so love a loser. Whereas the Friends cast, for example, could never hope to be more, or less, than their glossy, preening selves. But for all that, they were our friends too, or so we thought. So much so that, after mainlining a few episodes, I found it was sometimes mildly disappointing to glance in the mirror and realise I didn't look much like them. It was easy to cosy up in their coffee-cup world; one felt something akin to affection for the coiffed ones.

It's too early in Episodes to feel anything like this for our protagonists - but the signs are not good. They are too similar in tone, as batch-processed Brits, to be intriguing or absorbing. I'm also missing the warmth that the live audience brought to Friends, which gives energy to combustible ingredients and polishes up the timing.

Then there are Greig and Mangan themselves. Their careers to date have been predicated on being decidedly off the wall (think of Greig's kooky, klutzy turn and Mangan's surreal, self-seeking doctor in Green Wing). But in Episodes they are required to be the sober foil to all the Hollywood madness, the innocents abroad, with their craziness curbed accordingly. I miss the crazies.

There are a couple of promising cameos in the show, for example from the Head of Comedy, a sculpted blonde who gives her pained pronouncements "it was really funny" and "it was hysterical" as though they are being tortured out of her. One wonders why such turns are not built up to be fully-fledged sub-plots. Matt Leblanc had a bigger piece of the action in the second episode, and, perhaps commensurately, the second episode was better.

But Episodes will stand or fall on its writing. So far the jokes have been overstretched: they come out of the starting gates promisingly enough, only to be flogged comprehensively to death. The comedy-within-a-comedy, "Lyman's Boys", was a particular, unfortunate low. As Greig says, when gazing in awe at LA's gated community mansion that has been provided for the writing team: "our show's not this good". For the series to be anything more than Joey-with-cussing, the writing had better sharpen up, sharpish.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump