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Critic's Notebook: British shadow looms over Showtime's 'Episodes' and 'Shameless'

Subtlety is lost on 'Shameless,' a remake of the U.K. original that stars William H. Macy. 'Episodes,' in which an English writing couple attempt to Americanize their show, fares better with Matt LeBlanc ably satirizing himself.

January 07, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

If you decide, as Showtime executives did, to debut a comedy about how impossible it is to make a good American version of a British television show (because Hollywood is hopelessly corrupt and Americans are morons) on the very same night you premiere an American remake of a hit British drama, you had better be quite sure that the first show is very smart and the second very good. Otherwise you, like Showtime, will find yourself proving with one what you hoped to satirize with the second.

Not that the problems that plague "Shameless," John Wells' strangely unlikable remake of the long-running British series of the same name, bear any resemblance to those facing Beverly and Sean Lincoln (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) as they attempt to Americanize their show in "Episodes." While the Lincolns watch helplessly as their venerable star ( Richard Griffiths) is dismissed in favor of Matt LeBlanc (chuckles all around) and their fictional erudite headmaster subsequently turned into a mugging hockey coach, the first episodes of "Shameless" are, by contrast, slavishly faithful to the British original.

The action has been moved from a council estate in Manchester, England, to a rundown neighborhood in Chicago but the storyline remains the same: the six scrappy Gallagher siblings, including mother-figure Fiona ( Emmy Rossum), the brilliant but troublemaking Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and the more restrained but no less complicated Ian ( Cameron Monaghan) struggle to make a family in the face of poverty and a falling-down-drunk father, Frank ( William H. Macy).

Based on the life of Paul Abbott, who created the original and serves, with Wells, as executive producer on the remake, "Shameless" in both countries is a Dickensian-flavored drama in which children shoulder adult responsibilities, drunkenness and neglect are treated with chagrin and humor, petty crime is seen as resourcefulness and love conquers all.

But though an air of sweetness and subtlety pervades the original, Showtime's "Shameless" seems determined to knock viewers on the head by turns with sledgehammers of grittiness and preachiness, never a good combination. Macy is bound and determined to make Frank utterly unlovable, which is to say an actual drunk — despite what Eugene O'Neill has led us to believe, drunks are only fascinating to themselves. And while that is a brave and actorly decision, he seems to be part of another story entirely — in "Shameless," his ruthless narcissism makes his children's rueful fondness less about the cracked but still functioning heart of family and more like horrifying psychosis, which is never acknowledged as such.

Surrounding him are an array of similarly amped up performances — Rossum's Fiona is angry and bitter, which makes her determination to keep Frank in the house baffling and her courtship with Steve ( Justin Chatwin) less a romance than a lesson in codependence. Meanwhile, the relationship between Lip and Ian borders on treacle, and even Joan Cusack, whom we love in everything, is forced to bedeck the agoraphobic mother of Lip's girlfriend with a soul-deadening assortment of twitches, blinks and, eventually, sexual violence.

It's clear that Wells has nothing but respect for the original material; if only he felt the same for American viewers. Unfortunately, he seems to have bought into the notion that Americans need everything to be bigger, louder, messier and drawn in primary colors.

This is also the message of "Episodes," in which the Lincolns are sucked into the maw of dissolute Hollywood — where people have affairs! and cannot be trusted! — by a mendacious (is there any other kind) network executive, Merc (played with merciful brilliance by John Pankow.) The couple have won BAFTAs aplenty, but apparently still have nothing like an agent, publicist or even a secretary, and so are totally at Merc's mercy. He buys their witty " History Boys"-like comedy without having seen it, sets the Lincolns up in a ghastly mansion most recently used for a reality series and proceeds to dismantle their show and make it a vehicle for LeBlanc (chuckles all around).

Like Macy in "Shameless," LeBlanc is both headliner and narrative keystone, and, though mere weeks ago it seemed impossible that these words would ever be written, he creates a far more complicated and believable character than does Macy. By turns imbecilic and wise, self-infatuated and self-aware, LeBlanc presents an entertaining and believable satire of himself, a star we both love to hate and hate to love.

But "Episodes" is not the Matt LeBlanc show. Grieg, an actress of alarming talent and range, is both prickly and neurotic enough to be recognizable as an actual writer. Playing perfectly off Mangan's dry yet wide-eyed charm, she anchors what appears to be an actual working marriage, something rarely seen on television these days. And as Merc's assistant/lover Carol, Kathleen Rose Perkins turns Hollywood doublespeak into an art form.

They are all swimming upstream more often than not but they're very good swimmers. It's difficult for Hollywood to dissect Hollywood, which is why we have so many shows and films about cops and lawyers. Certainly it's always dangerous to let writers write about writers — was there ever a less-appreciated, more put-upon group of humans not in actual captivity?

"Episodes" is not above lazily wallowing in the worried-smooth security blanket of Hollywood stereotypes. It is a bit rich to see the Lincolns as naifs, just as if backstage adultery, actorly ego and creative backstabbing weren't, you know, invented in Great Britain — along with reality and other crap television, but even when it's irritating, "Episodes" is funny. And if, at times, it intentionally or unintentionally pokes fun at itself as much as anything else well, that works too.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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