When the cast of Friends disbanded in the spring of 2004, Matt LeBlanc hardly qualified as the one most likely to succeed as a solo act, not even with the spin-off Joey set to debut that fall. When Joey was cancelled after only two seasons, one could have reasonably expected LeBlanc to quietly fade away — and for a while, he did. But the odd Lisa Kudrow performance, including her under-praised supporting turn in Easy A, aside, LeBlanc has actually ended up becoming the most watchable ex-Friend, thanks to the Showtime sitcom Episodes, a British-American production (co-created by Friends co-creator David Crane) that will air its third season sometime in 2013.
He’s already won a Golden Globe, an Emmy nomination and a second Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a fictionalized version of himself headlining a terrible sitcom called Pucks. I hope he wins another Globe come January 13, though with The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons back in the running this year, and one-time Friends guest star Alec Baldwin up for the final season of 30 Rock, it’s highly unlikely. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing LeBlanc end up becoming the Julia Louis-Dreyfus of the ex-Friends. I always loved “Joey Tribbiani,” and now I love “Matt LeBlanc,” too. Here’s why?
1. He chooses his friends wisely. While I’m pretty certain that LeBlanc didn’t have any say in the casting of Episodes, he certainly lucked out again. He’s surrounded by a cast of British actors, many of them (at least six in season two) convincingly faking American accents (including Sam Palladio, currently doing the same thing, though with more lines, on Nashville), and a couple of very funny Americans (John Pankow, the guy who played Cousin Ira on Mad About You, and the awesome Kathleen Rose Perkins as a network executive who is having an affair with Pankow’s character, the network head who is married to a blind woman). Yet, somehow the star of the film version of Lost in Space manages to avoid getting lost in all the talent that surrounds him. (P.S. The fight scene in the season two finale is funnier than any showdown I’ve seen since the one with Jack Lemmon and that ridiculously tall guy in Irma la Douce, which I watched on Saturday.)
2. He plays to his strengths, but he still gives the character some distinguishing features. At first glance, “Matt LeBlanc” could almost pass for the character LeBlanc played on Joey, eight years later. After all, he’s an actor, too, with the same sweet charm. But there’s a certain arrogant swagger to “Matt LeBlanc,” and he’s a little darker, too. The way he responds to his lover — his boss’s blind wife — after the powers that be at the network demand that he loses weight is something I couldn’t imagine Joey doing. And Joey definitely wouldn’t nearly break up a marriage just for a one-night stand with a smart-over-obviously sexy writer like Beverly Lincoln (a UK-to-Hollywood transplant played by British stage actress Tasmin Greig, a Laurence Olivier Award winner who first impressed me three years ago when I saw her on the London stage in The Little Dog Laughed). Meanwhile, I buy his odd-couple friendship with Beverly’s husband Sean just as much as I believed that a guy like Joey would ever be friends with someone like Ross.
3. He’s aging gracefully (in other words, naturally). There’s one season-two scene in which LeBlanc, depressed over all the griping about his weight, sits in the dark and watches a TV clip of himself as a younger actor. As I watched along with him, I was reminded of the first time I saw LeBlanc, in those ’80s TV commercials. Sure he’s let his hair go gray, and he probably couldn’t pull off “How you doin’?” now without sounding kind of creepy, but at 45, he still looks great, and most importantly, like a grown-up guy who isn’t trying to pull off twentysomething, or even thirtysomething.
4. He’s still friends with Gunther. I was never particularly fond of Gunther or his unrequited crush on Rachel throughout Friends‘ run, but James Michael Tyler’s cameo in the second season of Episodes as the one former castmate who is still there for LeBlanc, if only somewhat reluctantly, is actually funnier than anything he ever did on Friends.
5. He’s self-deprecating. At various points, Episodes pokes fun of LeBlanc’s talent, his weight, his middle age and his stalkers, and LeBlanc plays it all in stride and for laughs. Jennifer Aniston would so never do that!