Thursday, January 20, 2011

The bitter taste of Episodes' smug satire

Posted By on Thu, Jan 20, 2011 at 2:41 PM

click to enlarge Episodes.jpg

Episodes has a funny premise: Sean and Beverly, two married British writers, are hired to move to Hollywood to adapt their successful British television shows for American audiences. With increasing horror, they find their very British series changed by tone-deaf executives. Most glaringly, their central character (the very British headmaster of a boarding school, played by a posh elderly Brit) is suddenly swapped out for a hockey coach, played by a very un-posh Matt LeBlanc.

It’s not a bad show.

Compared to the meandering and gleefully pornographic misogyny of Californication, it’s downright charming. The banter between the two married leads is lightly humorous, and LeBlanc is perfectly cast as the perfectly miscast character.

Many scenes hum with a low-key sweetness. The married couple, upon discovering their new place has a hot tub, tears their clothes off, ready to sink into warm water. But as the hot tub fills up — ever so slowly — the moment passes, and they’re left with frustrated disappointment. Not a hilarious scene, perhaps, but a charming one, and one that underscores the general theme of the show. —-

But when we get to the scenes portraying the television executive — idiotic, ignorant, narcissistic, bumbling — and his sycophantic cronies, there’s the stench of something else. It’s not charm. It’s an overpowering whiff of smug.

The exasperating idiot, as a character archetype, usually has the feel of a cheap ploy and lazy writing. Gee, Michael Scott (or Dwight Schrute, or David Brent) sure is an exasperating idiot, The Office, says. That’s because you wrote him that way, I yell at the television.

But this character is worse. Where Michael Scott is generic-white-collar-boss idiot, the role of a television executive is much more integral to the writers world. This feels personal.

“We, the viewer, are so much more clever than those Los Angeles TV dolts,” the series seems to be saying with us.

“And I, the writer of this show, am so much more clever than those Los Angeles TV dolts, many of whom I have worked with," the series seems to be saying at us.

When Aaron Sorkin pits his White House heroes against bloggers, when M. Night Shyamalan casts a critic as a villain, when countless male TV writers introduce a one-off “crazy female girlfriend" character, you can hear the bitterness bubbling. Maybe the writers of Episodes don’t have a grudge against a specific executive or actor, but it feels that way — and that’s the problem. Episodes can be simultaneously petty and haughty — not a fun combination to watch.

Pure seething hatred can invigorate a stand-up comedy routine. We all know Louis C.K. hates people in the line at the post office. Patton Oswalt hates the people who dreamed up the KFC Famous Bowl. Lewis Black hates, well, everything.

But love for something — despite its many flaws — has long been a stronger position to satirize or parody from. Shaun of the Dead works because of the writer’s love for the zombie genre, and Hot Fuzz works because of the writers’ love for the dopey tropes of action movies. Any truly insightful points of satire regarding Hollywood are drowned out by the loud and broad caricature of this character the writers seem to truly hate.  

The early seasons of The Office temporarily fixed the problem of the exasperating idiot by humanizing Michael. They gave him moments of genuine talent, of tragedies and triumphs. In other words, he became a three-dimensional character, instead of a two-dimensional shooting-range cutout.

The television executive needs to stop just being “television executive.” He needs to become “Merc Lapidus,” a well-rounded character with strengths and epiphanies to go along with his flaws and idiocy. Good satire, in other words,is not just about the thing you’re satirizing. It’s about fully-formed characters who exist apart from the points you want to make.


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