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Showtime scores with Episodes, struggles with Shameless

Flush with increasing critical respect and an armload of Golden Globe nominations for the likes of The Big C and Dexter, Showtime starts the new year off right -- and very possibly wrong -- with a pair of new series fronted by old familiars. Their due dates are Sunday, Jan. 9th.

Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame plays himself in Episodes. Thankfully he also follows the scripts, meaning that this decidedly is not yet another voyeuristic "reality" series tour through a celebrity's concocted ups and downs.

Shameless, off-putting premise included, stars William H. Macy as a decrepit, alcoholic father of six. His offspring are mostly left to their own devices while Macy's Frank Gallagher spends most of his time at home in drunk, horizontal snores on whatever floor he passes out on.

Let's look 'em over.

Matt LeBlanc with Brits Stephen Mangan,Tamsin Greig. Showtime photos

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 9th at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig, John Pankow, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Mircea Monroe
Produced by: David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik

"For the erudite, verbally dextrous headmaster of an elite boys academy, you're suggesting -- Joey?"

This particular line doesn't sail forth until early in Episode 2 of Showtime's seven-part Episodes. But it's the bottom line gist of this very amusing and splendidly acted comedy about what happens when an American television network mucks up a long-running, award-laden British hit.

Matt LeBlanc, in his first TV series since Friends and its failed spinoff Joey, turns out to be very up to the challenge of playing himself. But Episodes is by no means his show alone. It also draws upon the winning pair of Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, who play the co-opted, husband-and-wife British writing team of Sean and Beverly Lincoln.

Basking in the glow of more trophies for Lyman's Boys, they're approached at an after-party by an effusive U.S. television president named Merc Lapidus. (John Pankow). He wants their show for his network, and pledges that it won't get lost in translation. "I want what's in these amazing British-y heads," he enthuses.

It's all very seductive. Live in Beverly Hills for a short time in a rent-free mini-manse. Make more money than you've ever made in your life.

"My God, you're already starting to tan, aren't you?" Beverly tells Sean during their drive home on a rainy night.

So they have a go of it, with initial assurances that the show's lead role will go to the same portly, middle-aged British actor who has carried the overseas version. Reading for the part in front of Merc and his minions is a mere formality, the Lincolns are assured.

But the esteemed Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths) sounds a "little too butler-y," says Merc, who in fact has never seen Lyman's Boys at all. How about using an American accent? Things start to go south from there, including the Southern accent that drifts in and out of Bullard's second reading.

LeBlanc is little-seen in the opening half-hour but gets rolling in Episode 2. He initially has no idea why he's been asked to have lunch with the Lincolns. Instead he's preoccupied with the planned expensive launch of a restaurant bearing his name. But Merc and the network fill him with visions of a big "money truck" awaiting his return to television. So why not? And at a subsequent party thrown by Merc, LeBlanc's already wondering whether he might play a coach instead of a headmaster. More specifically, how about a hockey coach? Ergo, the show soon has a new title -- Pucks! (with exclamation point included).

Episodes also is braced by standout work from Kathleen Rose Perkins as Merc's second-in-command, Carol Rance. She's become very adept at going and getting along with all of the Hollywood phonies and phoniness in her profession. LeBlanc connives and manipulates while also remaining a passably likable lug who off-handedly notes in Episode 3 that he has a super-sized private part.

"It's that big?" Beverly asks Sean after his late night return from an impromptu Vegas road trip with LeBlanc.

"It could attack a city," he says.

Episodes' co-creator and executive producer, David Crane, previously worked in that capacity on Friends. Both he and LeBlanc are now having a grand time biting some of the Hollywood hands that made them multi-millionaires. Whether the show goes on beyond its seven-episode order will be up to the resident phonies at Showtime. So far, though, all involved somehow are doing something very right.

GRADE: A-minus

William H. Macy as the ever-besotted patriarch of Shameless.

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum, Joan Cusack, Justin Chatwin, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan, Ethan Cutkosky, Emma Kenney, Steve Howey, Shanola Hampton, Laura Slade Wiggins
Produced by: John Wells, Paul Abbott, Andrew Stearn

This is going to be a very tough sell. Let alone a stark transition from the previous absurdity of Episodes.

Set in Chicago and adapted from a real-life British drama series, Shameless is the antithesis of escapist TV. Its nominal lead character, played by William H. Macy, is a seemingly irredeemable drunkard whose wife is long gone and whose six progeny are hard-pressed to make any ends meet. In the premiere episode, Macy's character, Frank Gallagher, spends nearly as much time horizontal as vertical. He'd be a pitiful figure if he weren't so contemptible.

The family's titular head, twentysomething Fiona (Emmy Rossum), copes and tends as best she can while also finding time to hit the clubs and hook up with a hunky and benevolent guy named Steve (Justin Chatwin). Their budding relationship, which takes an odd and rather discordant twist near hour's end, is the main reason to perhaps stick a bit with Shameless. Then again, many viewers might not want to be subjected to any of this. Life is tough enough, and trying to unwind with a show like this is akin to using a porcupine as a pillow.

Fiona, her younger sister and four brothers are crammed into a creature-comfortless house whose floors serve as Frank's mattresses.

Oldest brother Lip, short for Philip, is a physics whiz who currently enjoys tutoring a nubile neighboring teen blonde in return for under-the-table oral sex. The girl's clueless mother, Sheila, is played by the now well-worn Joan Cusack.

Lip's younger brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is gay and secretive about it until Lip finds some graphic men's magazines under his bed. Lip later discovers that Ian also is pleasuring himself with his employer at a nearby liquor store.

Ten-year-old Carl (Ethan Cutosky) isn't all that much a part of the opening episode, but Showtime publicity materials describe him as a "budding sociopath and arsonist." Toddler Liam is none the wiser to any of this. Youngest daughter Debbie (Emma Kenney) is helping to put food on the table by stealing from the UNICEF donations she's collected.

Any resemblances to the Waltons are obviously non-existent. Shameless instead is about as uplifting as rectal cancer, even though it's hard not to at least respect the gumption and resilience of Fiona. Rossum's performance in this role is all together pretty terrific.

Still, why feel any sympathy at all for Macy's Frank Gallagher? Fiona shows her frustration with him in a too brief scene. But on the other hand, she's also more than willing to drink and smoke pot with her old man, who by all odds should be hunted down by child social services before being thrown kicking and screaming into the clink. Instead he's sleeping another binge off on the kitchen floor in the premiere episode's closing image.

Shameless will sorely test any prospective viewers' compassion fatigue. My guess is that most will turn their backs. Or in my case, decide to pass on the second and third episodes that also were sent for review. Sometimes enough is enough.