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October 06, 2017

Knowing When to Leave

David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik ended Showtime's Episodes at just the right time.

T.L. Stanley
  • David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik

David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik don’t like to overstay their welcome.

They’re not ones to hang out at a party, for instance, until the bitter end, when the conversation’s gone stale and the hosts are washing the dishes.

“Here’s when you should leave: when people will miss you,” Klarik said recently. “Go while the fun’s at its peak.”

That’s why the writer-producer and 30-year life partners decided to wrap their Showtime comedy, Episodes, with its now-airing fifth season. The premium cable network likely would’ve given the green light to continue, and the hard-core fans no doubt wanted it, but the co-creators sensed “an organic way to end the story that would be really satisfying,” Klarik said, and “tie it up in a little bow.”

By no means does that indicate that Episodes isn’t and won’t be messy until the very final scene, they said. Viewers of the Matt LeBlanc series, in which he plays an over-the-top, post-Friends version of himself, already know that its Hollywood send ups and core relationships are the opposite of neat and tidy.

“We hope people will be pleasantly surprised at the ending,” Crane said, “and they’ll say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

Crane and Klarik had an overarching goal going into this season. They wanted to give LeBlanc and costars Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan (playing Beverly and Sean Lincoln) and Kathleen Rose Perkins (Carol Rance) “one more opportunity to shine,” Crane said, “and to bring the characters all back together” as a dysfunctional group of friends who love-hate-love each other.

That’s the heart of the show, they said, while the behind-the-scenes entertainment industry shenanigans are simply the fertile backdrop.

They also hope that LeBlanc will snag another Emmy nomination (to add to his four nods for this role, and one Golden Globe) for an upcoming episode with a performance that Klarik describes as “so poignant and funny and honest and raw.”

“We always want to showcase Matt’s range and his abilities,” Crane said. “He has so many colors and different sides of himself outside of comedy.”

For the uninitiated, Episodes is a half-hour series centered on LeBlanc as a charming, self-involved manipulator who constantly borrows trouble. To wit: he nearly torpedoes his new gig as a game show host this season with a sexual indiscretion caught on camera.

Naturally that video goes viral, but instead of ending his career, it enhances his bottom line and skyrockets ratings for The Box, the torturous reality show-within-a-show that allows him to keep his Malibu beach house but trashes his acting cred.

Meantime, his friends Beverly and Sean, British ex-pat comedy writers, are stuck working for a horrible boss who stole the series idea out from under them and proceeds to mangle it.

They’re miserable enough on this dreadful new sitcom to consider collaborating with LeBlanc again, even though the last time tested their sanity and nearly ended their marriage. It just proves the point that LeBlanc’s an entitled man-child, but he’s irresistible to many of those around him, especially Beverly and Sean.

The broader scope of Episodes provides a scathing insider’s critique of Hollywood’s power struggles, back stabbing, double-dealing and money grabbing. Television executives take a particular beating, but there’s considerable empathy for Carol, who lost her high-profile network job and can’t find another. She’s hitting rock bottom, fearing for her future and refusing to leave her house (there’s plenty of HGTV to binge watch).

Critics have lauded Episodes, which has earned 10 Emmy noms in total, for the slice-and-dice treatment it gives the entertainment industry, where Crane and Klarik have taken no prisoners.

“It’s more like a documentary, really,” Klarik said. “There’s no exaggeration, so I don’t call that satire.”

The two are veterans of network sitcoms (Crane co-created Friends and Dream On), where they picked up much of their fodder. The rest comes from talking to colleagues in the business, observing agents, managers and actors, and being unafraid to cut to the bone, they said. But no matter how biting they are they haven’t had blowback from movers and shakers.

“People never recognize themselves,” said Klarik, whose credits include The Class, Half & Half, Dream On and Mad About You. “But they think they can identify everyone else that we’re poking fun at.”

Not only has Episodes been a critical hit for them, earning four Emmy nominations for outstanding comedy writing, but it’s provided an education they might not have gotten otherwise, they said.

Crane and Klarik have worn nearly every hat on the series, from writing (a two-person writing room, a rarity in the business) to producing and editing. Klarik directed all seven of this season’s installments, and the pair handled everything from set dressing to wardrobe to stay within a tight budget.

The show, which debuted in 2011 as a partnership with the BBC, was shot almost entirely in London posing as Los Angeles where “we dragged the same few palm trees around to every restaurant and every house to re-create Southern California,” Crane said.

“It really toughened us up and made us very resourceful,” Klarik said. “We learned the shortcuts and the tricks to make something look more expensive than it is. We feel like we could put on a show in a barn.”

That’s in no way a complaint, he said, because both creators enjoyed the vast amount of control they had over Episodes.

“Ultimately, it’s very satisfying,” Klarik said, “because you get exactly what you want.”

They may not look back on this series, as they do most of their others, and second guess themselves or wish it had turned out differently. It’s not that they aren’t proud of earlier work like Friends and Mad About You, but in hindsight they “see the cracks,” Klarik said.

“You remember all the compromises or the times you went for the easy joke,” he said. “It can sometimes be cringe-worthy to watch them now.”

The benefit of juggling multiple roles and dealing with only each other has meant they could “stay with it until we’re satisfied,” Klarik said, “even if that means tweaking things on the way to the studio at 6 a.m. or rewriting a scene that already got a laugh at the table read.”

They also wrote every season from start to finish before they filmed, Crane said, a luxury that premium cable provides.

With the series wrapped, Crane and Klarik recently took their first vacation in seven years. And though they spent a month in Nantucket, allegedly for rest and relaxation, they started honing ideas for their next project, which they’ll spearhead together because of what they describe as their “shared vision.”

They also have a solid tag-team approach where Crane is the organizer, with lists and structure, and Klarik “is a free-flowing explosion of ideas,” Crane said. “I’m constantly corralling.”

The two, who were set up by friends in New York in the ‘80s, “way before Tinder,” Klarik said, have spent barely any time apart since then. So it only makes sense that they’d continue working side by side on their next comedy, which they’ll probably pitch to premium cable or a streaming service.

But for Episodes loyalists, there may be a glimmer of hope. The creators don’t necessarily see the show returning, though they’ve left open a tiny door, but they could end up with a spinoff of sorts.

Producers in the U.K. have approached them about a real-life version of The Box, with the intention of going even darker and more twisted than Crane and Klarik did on Episodes. (Contestants there lived in glass cubes and endured various forms of deprivation and mistreatment, from having to listen to Gilbert Gottfried for hours on end to being showered with live bugs).

“They flew us to London to have a meeting,” Klarik said. “We couldn’t possibly make this up. It’s too meta.”

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