Episodes, and musings on “in media res”

Is it me, or has it gotten really trendy to use the device known as in media res (“in the middle of things”) in pilots? It can be a very effective way to tell a story, obviously, since it’s been around longer than dirt. But I can’t help but feel like it’s become a crutch of sorts. As television has brought us increasingly sophisticated shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, we expect more literary writing styles. So maybe certain devices get used for their own sake.

Episodes just started its second season, but well before it premiered in 2011, its premise was widely advertised. Two highly successful British television writers, who also happen to be a married couple, are offered the chance to develop their hit comedy for American TV. Matt LeBlanc is cast as the lead.

The pilot opens as the writers, Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) Lincoln, are having a fight in the foyer of their mansion. Beverly runs out, accusing Sean of being attracted to another woman and drives off down the wrong side of the street (being that Americans do it backwards). Headed in the opposite direction is Matt LeBlanc, battling with the touchy voice recognition feature on his hands-free phone. He has maybe five lines before he and Beverly collide. We then flash back seven weeks.

As the story unfolds, we meet a happier Sean and Beverly and the NBC executive luring them across the pond. Even if they have never worked in Hollywood, these two seem awfully gullible when the executive, Merc (John Pankow), starts waxing erotic about their show and offering them the moon. They move to Hollywood, take up residence in a former reality show mansion, not everything is as it’s cracked up to be, etc., etc.

There are some laughs and a memorable appearance by Richard Griffiths as the enduringly patient and professional star of the original British show. The “twist,” in case you didn’t see it coming, is that the show’s producers don’t want Griffiths for the role. The button on the episode is when one of the executives announces the perfect person for the role is Matt LeBlanc.

You know what this episode of Episodes is missing? Yeah. Matt LeBlanc. So, the only reason to start the pilot seven weeks in the future is to have him on screen for a few seconds. It doesn’t really add anything to the story; we can anticipate that the move to L.A. isn’t going to be all sunshine and champagne. It’s like the writers are saying, “Look, see! Matt LeBlanc is on our show, we promise!” And the real fun of the show’s premise — that LeBlanc is playing himself, pigeon-holed for all time as Joey Tribiani — is left on hold. It’s freaking funny and kind of meta. But we don’t get to enjoy it in the pilot. The show has been successful, clearly. (Much better than a show creator David Crane would probably like us to forget, Joey.) But I think this stands as an example of a bad pilot and a poor use of a literary device. What do you think?

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