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Showtime's Episodes ups its game in Season 2

Matt LeBlanc again excels as himself in Episodes. Showtime photo

Cable's second funniest scripted comedy series -- and there's no shame in losing to Louie -- returns for its second go-around Sunday.

It's Episodes (9:30 p.m. central, July 1st on Showtime), the sharp, knowing look at how the prime-time TV sausage is made and unmade. Some of it's a sendup, but there's a big dong of a ring-true feel to the rampant Hollywood phoniness depicted. Season 2 will run for nine weeks. And a look at the first four half-hours is proof enough that Episodes has improved on its promising first season.

Matt LeBlanc again stars as a "fictionalized version of himself," or so publicity materials say. It's four months down the road from where Season 1 left off, with a nice "Previously On" summation making it easy to join in.

The husband-and-wife creators of the hit British sitcom Lyman's Boys have come to terms with an American TV network's mangling of their show into a broad LeBlanc-fronted sitcom called Pucks!. But Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig) are now living separately after she had a daft, drunken one-nighter with Matt.

Still husband and wife, they get along at the workplace before going separate ways. But Sean is determined to cold-shoulder Matt after previously palling around with him during off-screen hours.

"I will always be pissed," he informs him. "With you I'm in a constant state of piss."

As for Pucks!, its premiere is just a night away. And the preliminary reviews range from Pucks! Sucks (New York Post) to the more rarefied "LeBlanc shoots a le blank" (Entertainment Weekly).

"There's so much rage," says Sean, who's compulsively reading all of them. "Why? Why? It's just a little TV show. It's not like we're punching Elmo."

"Oh, please, no one cares about TV reviews," network programming executive Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) later assures him.

Maybe that's a signal to stop right here. But no. We soldier on.

Opening night ratings for Pucks! are stronger than expected, prompting Matt to chortle, "This is gonna kill (David) Schwimmer." That's a reference to his former Friends co-star. And in Episode 3, another one hits home when sexpot Pucks! co-star Morning Randolph (Mircea Monroe) asks Matt, "Do You think if you died, the other Friends would come to your funeral?"

Yes, they would, he says after a brief pause.

"Even Jennifer?" Perfect.

David Crane, the co-executive producer/creator/writer of Episodes along with Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You), is a former Friends show-runner who knows this terrain and has re-tapped LeBlanc's comedic strengths after his Joey series crashed badly. The guy just couldn't play himself any better, whether imploring Sean to be his friend again or accepting sexual favors from the blind wife of mercurial Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), the network president.

Merc, a sandbagging bundle of insecurities, rages at the indignity of a talking dog sitcom on ABC beating Pucks! like a drum when it premieres opposite its second episode. Even worse for him, he passed on it. "I can actually feel the acid eating my stomach," he says.

As his network's fortunes decline all around, Merc compares it to "watching the towers fall." Carol, his dutiful lieutenant and secret lover, is unable to talk him down from that analogy. It's clear that Pankow is having a blast with this role.

Mangan and Greig likewise get the very most out of their characters. She longs to get back together while he's so far less inclined. Their scenes together can be poignant as well as very funny. They provide a welcome rooting interest, sappy as that may sound.

Episodes careens when it should while also knowing when to settle down and behave itself a bit. It's a thoroughly entertaining romp, with the television industry as a combination Tilt-A-Whirl/merry-go-round.

Of course no one in Hollywood really acts this way -- wink-wink. Oh yeah they do.

GRADE: A-minus