A little over a year ago, I wrote an article discussing Matt LeBlanc, and how much he actually overlaps with the version of himself he portrays in the HBO smash Episodes. We have one more season under our belts, and in the last year the show has moved a little bit away from network insides and realistic depiction of their industry, trading some of that for extra screen time for LeBlanc. LeBlanc has also changed, overexaggerating some qualities from previous seasons and becoming a Flanderized version of himself.
What is Flanderization? It is a TV Tropes term for the degradation of a character, exposing their comical traits and extending them until they are the main premise of the character – named after Ned Flanders, who over the years went from good father who happens to go to church unlike Homer to the bible-obsessed eccentric neighbor we see today.
In the last year of Episodes, LeBlanc continues to cross that line as he portrays himself. In some ways, he actually is becoming more realistic; for example, the show had the fictional LeBlanc driving under the influence, which has in fact happened in real life. But the fictional LeBlanc has also inherited a few questionable qualities, like pouting like a child at the thought of being Jay Leno’s “second guest” for an episode, or mourning the fact that his stalker is transitioning into a healthy life – presumably, at a rate faster than he is. We also see some remains of the ghost of Joey from Friends, with LeBlanc’s character getting progressively dumber; the first episode of this past season featured LeBlanc unable to write a basic apology letter to his ex-wife, enlisting the help of professional writer and friend Sean to get the words right.
So what is wrong with this picture?
The characterized version of Matt LeBlanc in Episodes has always channeled a little Charlie Sheen, but he has a few episodes in the earlier seasons where, against all odds, he was the voice of reason. In one episode, one of the writers Sean struggles with all the changes the American adaptation made, most notably the change to make the librarian character of “Lyman’s Boys” (what Sean and Beverly’s show used to be in England, compared to the Americanized “Pucks!” that it has turned into after some time in Hollywood’s hands) into a straight and sexy librarian rather than a dignified and unobtainable lesbian. LeBlanc points out that “Lyman’s Boys” ran for four seasons, but the number of episodes was approximately one season’s worth of content in America, which would quickly cause recurring jokes to get stale if the plot had nowhere to go, or room for characters to grow together. Even with all of “Pucks!”‘s flaws, the show was being primed to ultimately survive American audiences for longer and leave more directions for writer’s block to go.
This particular scene was a big turning point for these two characters, who up until this point did not get along well due to disagreements about the number of changes their adaptation had already made. Sean and Beverly, for the most part, write off LeBlanc for the better part of production as just a big-shot actor trying to get his way at the cost of their creative control. Without scenes like this, the fictionalized version of himself that LeBlanc plays becomes a flat character, provoking fewer thoughts beyond a simple, “Oh, what is this guy going to get himself into next?”
The other issue with this is that the balance the show strove for prior to this season is starting to waver. Sean and Beverly were frequently the heart of the show, with the fictional LeBlanc being the bull in their China shop that provided comic relief, with well-timed role reversals to keep us on our toes. LeBlanc’s character got a little more screen time this season, and with that the exaggeration of his character also takes plot lines away from the industry stories that make this “inside” show insightful and unique to audiences. Sean and Beverly have plots, but they aren’t always about this anymore – the show explores their personal lives to balance out the over-saturation of the fictional LeBlanc’s life. The work on the actual show they’re producing isn’t really explored until the last few episodes of the season, where the show builds up the idea that LeBlanc is constantly trying to get kicked off the show, Sean and Beverly are constantly trying to get it cancelled to do other things, and Carol from the network is constantly, for one reason or another, trying to save the show and keep it on the network.
Admittedly, at its core, this remains consistent with the core conflict of the first season: that the network is very clearly acting on its own agenda, and Sean and Beverly are having their creativity stomped out of them by “Pucks!” and the changes made without their consent. Sean shows a yearning for the old days, even going behind Beverly’s back to pitch a script to another network that is more true to their writing style – satirical, heartfelt, witty, and not at all Americanized. But the dynamic is not as prevalent as before, giving way for the show to explore the character’s personal lives. Which, with any other show, would be the natural progression of things; shows like The Office would go episodes at a time without being actually in their office, and Bob’s Burgers’ current run features few episodes of restaurant conflict. But with this kind of show, where the draw is this look at how the Hollywood sausage is made that we don’t normally get to see, to go this direction compromises the very reason one would watch it.
The show still had a strong season, but I’m very interested to see where the next few seasons are going to go. Are they going to have the same fate as the show within their show, where the show spirals out of control and loses its original premise? Will they return to their roots? Or will they do the former, but somehow still stick the landing? Sometimes, with shows we love, this conflict can be just as entertaining to watch develop as the conflicts the characters themselves continue to endure – but unlike those, the world in no way prepares us to expect a specific ending there.