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With new Showtime comedy, Matt LeBlanc is latest Friend to score

There is a moment, about midway through the seven episodes of Matt LeBlanc's new Showtime comedy Episodes, that you suddenly realize he's not playing a bizarro version of his Friends character Joey Tribbiani.

Instead, he's playing a bizarro version of himself, hired by clueless TV executives to lead the American version of a hit British TV comedy set in a boarding school. This version of LeBlanc is self-aware and charming, a pitch-perfect rendition of a savvy Hollywood star using his power to get one last shot at sitcom stardom — destroying the artistic value of his new show in the process.

And just like that, you realize: He has survived Friends' long shadow.

As clever a Hollywood satire as Episodes is, it's when the show stops making fun of the industry and explores its three lead characters — LeBlanc and the married English producers laboring to remake their British hit — that the series takes flight. LeBlanc uses his celebrity appeal to win over the husband (Stephen Mangan) and snark off the wife (Tamsin Greig), developing a pungent triangle that builds to an impossible conclusion.

By the end of the first run of episodes (premiering at 9:30 tonight), you know two things: Showtime has created a slyly entertaining new vehicle for a star we thought we knew. And LeBlanc has joined his fellow Friends on the reinvention train.

Indeed, what may be most remarkable is how subtly and completely our former Friends have returned. While Kelsey Grammer racks up the divorces and Jerry Seinfeld amuses himself with standup tours, the gang from Central Perk have transitioned quite nicely into new showbiz lives 16 years after departing on top of the sitcom heap.

Here's a quick peek at how they've outdistanced their massive television legacy.

Matthew Perry

Once considered the Friend most likely to land in another hit sitcom thanks to his talent for snappy lines, Perry floundered in movie roles and substance abuse issues before snagging his next TV act, the ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine (debuts Feb. 9). Perry co-created and helps to write the show, starring as a self-centered arena manager whose journey toward a less selfish life reflects the star's own issues discovered in therapy and rehab.

LIsa Kudrow

Not surprisingly for someone who kept working on sitcoms like Mad About You even while Friends was at its height, Kudrow has film roles, a Web show and a Showtime series cooking. But on traditional TV she's working behind the scenes, executive producing NBC's show about celebrities discovering their family history, Who Do You Think You Are? (returns Feb. 4).

Courteney Cox

The show is saddled with a horribly misleading name, but Cox's ABC comedy Cougar Town has become a Friends for the middle-aged, a peek at what might have been had Monica and pals left their Manhattan lofts for a Florida ranch house with a well-stocked wine cellar.

Jennifer Aniston

Yeah, we're not that into wobbly romance flicks like The Bounty Hunter and He's Just Not That Into You, either. But nobody fills out a GQ cover like Aniston (even while wearing just a necktie), and her turn as a quirky therapist on pal Cox's Cougar Town brings her back to the small screen often enough that we'll overlook The Switch. Almost.

David Schwimmer

Critics this summer made the low-key Schwimmer a punch line while interviewing LeBlanc and Perry, but he has been working as a director on independent films and in theater. And be honest. After a dozen years making $30 million annually, you'd take some time picking out your next big job, too.

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A fanboy's open letter to the TV industry

After the torture of suffering through two episodes of NBC's ill-considered superhero mess The Cape, I felt a special need as a comic-book-loving nerd to compose a short message to the television industry.

Please stop. Right now.

Because, when any handy Blu-ray player offers access to an HD-sharp edition of The Dark Knight or Avatar, the slapped-together stories and less-than-convincing effects of TV shows like The Cape and ABC's floundering update of the '80s alien drama V just don't cut it.

We are quickly reaching a point where TV just can't do so-called "genre" shows anymore — science fiction, superhero or fantasy stuff like The Lord of the Rings and Iron Man — because the small screen just can't compete.

When TV does nail these forms, it is when producers focus on the people. AMC's Walking Dead is a massive hit because the people at the center of the zombie drama are complex, flawed metaphors for modern life; Syfy Channel's Battlestar Galactica worked as a meditation on God, violence and a mother ship full of compelling characters.

So please, for the love of Spidey, save the series about superpowered families and cape-flinging outlaws until you find a real story with characters that resonate.

Even a guy who is faster than a speeding bullet can't save a superhero series stuck on sappy or superficial themes.

— Love, Nerdy McCritic guy

With new Showtime comedy, Matt LeBlanc is latest Friend to score 01/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 10:44pm]
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