Tim Goodman's TV Review: Showtime's 'Episodes,' 'Shameless' Are Essential Viewing

Shameless - PR Shot - 2011
Matt LeBlanc's comedy and William H. Macy's dramedy start 2011 off so strong that the new year can claim budding greatness in the very first month.

Well, that didn't take long. Two new series from Showtime start off so strong in 2011 that the new year can claim budding greatness in the very first month.

The comedy Episodes and the dramedy Shameless -- premiering back-to-back Jan. 9 -- nail their worlds with impressive dexterity. The first, starring Matt LeBlanc as a loose variation on himself, skewers the television industry (in particular the networks) for importing great British series -- in this case a fictional one -- and then screwing them up royally. The second, starring William H. Macy, actually is a real British import, lovingly transformed into a believable alternative to the one created by our cousins.

Episodes, which got uproarious laughter in cut-down form at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in July, does not disappoint an ounce as it rolls through a seven-episode season. It also signals a savvy return to television for LeBlanc, who manages to be the butt of the joke one moment then hilariously likable the next. It takes confidence to play yourself but not really yourself and to know that moving past Joey and Friends means a simultaneous embracing/mocking of the legacy.

The premise of Episodes is simple (and all too real). Over-the-top, hug-happy, faux-sincere network president Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) meets the happily married writing team of Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) right as they've snared a slew of BAFTA Awards for their (fictional) hit series, Lyman's Boys.

Lapidus loves the series and wants it on his network. He tries to woo the duo to the States, saying the show's perfect as is and would require a mere 20 minutes of their magic to make it Americanized. They can spend the rest of their time counting the money and screwing in the pool.

So they make the leap. And, not surprisingly, it's a long drop. Lapidus wants the British star of the series that has run for four seasons to audition -- despite Sean and Beverly having told him he had the job.

Turns out, Lapidus doesn't watch much TV. "There's a chance that Merc might not have actually seen your show," says Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), second-in-command to Lapidus. "What?!" Sean and Beverly say in tandem. "I'm not saying he hasn't seen it," Carol says. "Has he seen it?" Beverly asks. "No," Carol says, shaking her head sadly.

And so it goes. Episodes was created by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, the writing duo that knows more than a little something about how the industry works. (Crane wrote for Friends, and Klarik wrote for Mad About You; both wrote for The Class.) There's so much delicious fun-house-mirror truth here. When the British thespian (played with gravitas by Richard Griffiths) does the audition, Lapidus and everybody else howls with laughter. They ask him to step outside for a moment, and Lapidus says, "Is it me or does anyone else think he comes off a bit too English?" They then make him read it again with an American accent. Nobody laughs.

Episodes might be inside baseball to some, but viewers are savvy enough about real-life industry types to get the joke. (God help them if they really were to see how shows evolve.) One of the sly bits in the series is Myra (Daisy Haggard), the head of comedy development, who has the same sour smile and confused look at all times -- a visual joke that never fails.

Mangan and Greig are exceptionally good as the fish-out-of-water Brits, horrified that their show is getting rejiggered. Mangan's Sean is seduced by Hollywood, and Greig's Beverly is repulsed and appalled at the cluelessness. When the network hires LeBlanc to play the lead, Episodes takes off to all kinds of unexpected places -- with LeBlanc getting a glorious showcase -- and the show avoids any potential trouble spots.

In fairness, not every network would take a British series called Lyman's Boys, about a headmaster at an elite boys boarding school, and change it to Pucks! about a hockey coach at said school. But then again, one or two would. And that's all the truth Episodes needs to tap into.

Shameless, a real series in England about a poor but relentlessly optimistic family -- one drunken father and a gaggle of cagey, street-smart kids -- really does get Americanized. But in Showtime's hands, disaster is averted.

First, Paul Abbott, creator-writer of the original, was on hand to help executive producer John Wells get it right. Abbott's acclaimed series was set in the dank council housing of England, where scraping by is a way of life way down the class ladder. Abbott agreed with Wells that setting it in the South would be a cliche and that an ethnically mixed working-class neighborhood in Chicago was a better plan.

From there, the near-verbatim reworking of the plots and characters was merely a matter of getting the casting right and not softening the dour, unlikable nature of the father, Frank Gallagher (Macy), who shows barely an ounce of compassion for the kids, who are essentially keeping him alive. Shamelesshas kept almost all of the British character names and DNA intact, transferring them successfully to these shores. Although Macy gives stellar performances, he doesn't dominate the screen time. He's the center of his drunken, malcontent-filled universe, and the stories about those who revolve around him are the most telling: heartfelt, real and funny.

Emmy Rossum as Fiona, the eldest daughter keeping the Gallagher clan together, is wonderfully impressive, and the rest of the strong cast includes Jeremy Allen White as son Lip and Justin Chatwin as Fiona's love interest Steve. Joan Cusack has a smaller role as an agoraphobic, clueless housewife with interesting sexual quirks.

Shamelesshas a sprawling cast -- 11 actors -- but they seem close-knit as everyone bands together to make ends meet on the other side of the tracks. The realism that Abbott was able to tap into in England continues -- and that might mean the show's biggest hurdle has been cleared.

You can't choose your family -- Shameless proves that in every episode -- but rather than fracture under the borderline-poverty conditions, the Gallaghers typify a real family forced to keep things together. In their ramshackle existence, if one messes up, they all go down. Besides, with Frank messing up so spectacularly every day, dealing with the fallout keeps everyone else in line.

Shameless is excellent, compelling television from the first moment. As long as it stays true to the roots of the original, it's going to be essential viewing.