I don’t normally subscribe to Showtime, but the network had one of its free preview events over the weekend. This gave me the opportunity to check out three of its recent series that I wouldn’t have been able to watch otherwise, two of which are newly premiering.
‘Episodes’ is a new comedy about a pair of British TV writers (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg, stars of ‘Green Wing’) whose hit show about an all-boys boarding school has been scooped up for an American remake. Despite their reservations, the couple is eventually lured to La-La Land by the promises of money and success. Upon arriving, their dreams are dashed by an arrogant, moronic network head (John Pankow from ‘Mad About You’) who lied about ever having watched their show, and in fact doesn’t much care for television at all. He demands that they recast the role of the erudite headmaster – which they had promised to the original star, an eminently respected elder statesman of British stage and screen – with Matt LeBlanc. Yes, Joey from ‘Friends’.
The show hits a lot of the expected clichés about Hollywood being a vapid cultural wasteland, but still manages some sharp satire and solid laughs. The leads are very likeable, and LeBlanc (who only appears in the pilot episode for a few minutes) seems game to spoof himself. If I were a Showtime subscriber, this would get a series recording on my DVR.
I find it pretty ironic that Showtime would premiere one new show about the lousy American remake of a popular British TV series alongside this one – which is a lousy American remake of a popular British TV series.
‘Shameless’ is supposed to be a dramedy about a huge multi-ethnic brood of kids and their drunken souse of a father (William H. Macy), who barely scrape by from day to day in the slums of Chicago. With dad pretty much worthless, eldest sister Fiona (Emmy Rossum) takes up the responsibility of keeping everyone in line. She’s courted by a wealthy guy she meets in a club who tries to buy her affection with lavish gifts, like a new washing machine that actually works. Having trust issues, Fiona tries to brush him off, until he reveals that he makes all his money by stealing cars, which suddenly turns him into the bad boy she always wanted.
I haven’t seen the original British show, but the American version feels false on just about every level. It pretends to wallow in gritty realism, but the cast is far too attractive, the characters far too quirky, and their problems far too contrived and predictable. I like Emmy Rossum, and she’s actually pretty good here (and even flashes some boob), but she’s undermined by bad writing and leaden pacing that make the hour-long pilot feel twice that.
I hate to say it, but perhaps the worst part of ‘Shameless’ is William H. Macy. Despite top billing, he only appears in the pilot episode for about three minutes, and his drunk act is an embarrassing over-the-top caricature. Also wasted are supporting turns by Joan Cusack and Joel Murray. I would not watch this one again.
(Incidentally, Emmy Rossum happens to be the subject of one of my very favorite of my own movie reviews, which I wrote when I was with DVDTalk.)
The Big C
By far the best of the Showtime series I checked out (and no, I didn’t have time to dive into ‘Dexter’, ‘Californication’, ‘Nurse Jackie’, or ‘The United States of Tara’) was ‘The Big C’. Laura Linney stars as a middle-class wife and mother who learns that she has Stage 4 cancer but refuses to tell her family. Despite the grim subject matter, the show can be blisteringly funny. It’s brilliantly written, brilliantly performed (the cast also features Oliver Platt and Gabourey Sidibe), and can be devastatingly emotional. A series like this puts Showtime in the big leagues for quality original programming, alongside HBO, AMC and FX.
As part of the preview weekend, the show’s entire 13-episode first season was available On Demand. Unfortunately, I had work to do and couldn’t watch them all, but Mrs. Z burned through the entire season in a marathon session while I popped in and out for random episodes. I wish this were announced for Blu-ray so that I could catch up with the ones I missed.