Return to lonely town: Episodes on BBC2

Given the absence of jokes, tension, consequence - and the presence of Matt LeBlanc - what is there to keep the audience of Episodes on its side?

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I loathe Los Angeles. Whenever I’m sent there for work, I seem to sink down into myself, my confidence evaporating faster than you can say: “Let’s go enjoy a fat-free soda at Chateau Marmont!” If it were possible to walk in LA, my eyes would be downcast, permanently fixed to the pavement. But it’s not possible and herein, perhaps, lies the reason this existential despair is so hard to shift, even in the perma-sunshine. How to ease a low mood when the best cure is deemed infra dig unless you happen to be wearing Lycra and “hiking” in some canyon? Usually, I end up eating every gummy bear in the minibar before falling into a stupor in front of reruns of Frasier.

Which brings me to Episodes (Wednesdays, 10pm), surely one of the weirdest series ever made. I thought it was strange when it started and now that I’ve returned to it – this is the third series – I see no reason to disagree with my original verdict. What it resembles most, being neither very funny nor very dramatic, is a BBC Radio 4 comedy, the kind you might listen to perfectly contentedly while peeling potatoes but would most definitely not seek out on iPlayer. Is my loathing of LA connected to my feeling of estrangement from Episodes? Surely not. If anything, it should make me more inclined to enjoy it, for isn’t its primary purpose – its raison d’être – to show how laughably dumb, venal, ruthless and shallow the city’s movers and shakers can be?

Our British comedy writers Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) are still in LA and following their estrangement – the city does peculiar things even to the most loving of couples – are now reunited. Naturally, they must still endure the tedious man-child antics of Matt Le­Blanc (he stars, you will recall, in the US version of their hit British sitcom), as must we. And yep, sure enough, in the opening moments of the first episode, there he was, dry-humping his latest squeeze while, at the other side of the picture window, her estranged husband, Merc, the network boss (John Pankow), begged her to come home. “I can feel the breeze from your charades,” she said, without even turning to look at LeBlanc. Hmm. All I could feel was the sense that the series is turning in ever-decreasing circles. Mangan and Greig are delightful, of course: straightforwardly winning, the characters they play somehow cheeringly innocent beneath their periodic shows of cynicism. But sometimes, when they fall back on gurning, as they are wont to do, you become painfully aware of just how little help they get from the script (by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik). Sometimes, it’s as threadbare as a towel in a cheap hotel.

Given the absence of jokes, what is there to keep the audience of Episodes on its side? Nothing much seems to be at stake – all the characters live in palatial houses with marble floors and refrigerators the size of fur storage units – and the machinations of network TV have been so much better portrayed in other series (for instance, 30 Rock). Our sweet and slightly daffy Brits are, moreover, safely back in one another’s arms, spoony as newly-weds. OK, Merc was fired by the network at the end of series two but who cares, honestly, whether or not his deputy and ex-lover, Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), will now ascend to the throne? I liked the scene in which, gazing on Merc’s empty office, Carol mentally flashed back to all the gruesome things she and Merc had done together – groping, office sex, her loyally patting his forehead as he sat on a loo from which there emanated repulsive splashing sounds – only to burst into tears as if it had all been so very romantic. But she’s so self-obsessed, with steely pragmatism beneath everything she does like the red sole on a Christian Louboutin shoe, that most viewers won’t give a stuff if she gets, well, stuffed.

As for LA, you might ask: how does it come out of it? Strangely, this is the one thing the producers have pulled off quite brilliantly. I gather that most of the series was filmed in the UK – it’s a co-production between the BBC and Showtime – yet it feels so convincingly like LA: sterile and perversely drab, the blue sky doing nothing to mitigate against loneliness and futility.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall