The new Showtime series Episodes marks a return to TV for Matt LeBlanc, who, for 11 smash seasons, played would-be actor Joey Tribbiani on Friends, then put in two more seasons on its misfired spinoff, Joey, which ended in 2006.Now, on Episodes (which premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m.), LeBlanc is making himself the show’s biggest punch line. He plays a fictitious TV star (and Friends alumnus) named Matt LeBlanc who, saddled by the stereotype of Joey, is a joke in an industry that can’t see casting him in anything but Joey-like parts. A co-production between Showtime and the BBC in the United Kingdom, Episodes charts the bewildering, dismaying journey of the husband-and-wife team who created an acclaimed comedy called Lyman’s Boys, then, on arriving in Hollywood to oversee its adaptation, are appalled by the changes forced upon them by the U.S. network. The veteran Shakespearean actor they signed to play the headmaster of a boys’ boarding school is swapped out for LeBlanc as a hockey coach, and the show is renamed Pucks! Joey left the air in 2006, and LeBlanc had been taking life easy and spending time with his daughter, Marina, now 6, when he got a call from co-creators Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You) and former Friends colleague David Crane. They roped him in with their Episodes pitch: “a show about a show about all the promises made by a network to people making the show, and how those promises don’t come true. “But it’s not just about Hollywood,” LeBlanc said. “It’s issues that could come up in any industry. I think that’s what helps keep it relatable.” Viewers have a head start knowing LeBlanc (or they think they do) in this parallel universe. “But the character is not me,” LeBlanc insists. “He’s more manipulative, a lot more carefree. In a nutshell, it’s more of the public’s perception of me versus who I really am. The character that I play on the show-within-a-show — Pucks! — is more like Joey Tribbiani, and that’s a joke, because that is what the industry would probably want to hire me back as.” At 43, LeBlanc is thicker, hair graying, with a husky voice he deploys in a near-whisper. But hasn’t he chosen the very project for his comeback that could bind him even tighter to his Joey past? “If you’re pigeonholed, then you’re pigeonholed,” LeBlanc said, “and I think that ship’s probably sailed. I think people are always going to identify the six of us” — he and Friends co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer — “with those six characters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “My career has fallen into this weird sort of work-slash-hobby,” he sums up. “That’s a great place to be. I’m looking for the experience now. Whatever course my life takes next, it’s all gravy at this point.”
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