Friday, February 4, 2011

"Coupling" - Sex and Death, Minus the Death

The notoriety of "Coupling" reached me long before the show did, when NBC tried to launch an American version of the British sex comedy in 2003 to fill the gap left by "Friends" on its Thurdsay schedule. I didn't have any interest in it, and apparently neither did anyone else. The American "Coupling" only lasted four episodes. Too much sex, said some critics. Too much corporate meddling, said others. I never caught any of these episodes, so I can't provide an opinion on the fiasco. However, I'm steadily making my way through the original British version, and I can see why NBC made the attempt, even if it was probably doomed to failure from the start.

The show is about the romantic and sexual adventures of three men and three women, all in their late twenties and early thirties. First there's the show's central couple, Steve (Jack Davenport) and Susan (Sarah Alexander). Both have recently ended relationships with Jane (Gina Bellman) and Patrick (Ben Miles) respectively. Both of the exes are on the more sexually confident end of the scale. Balancing things out are Steve's best friend Jeff (Richard Coyle) and Susan's best friend Sally (Kate Isitt), who are more neurotic and self-conscious about sex. The first episode of the first series starts with Steve and Susan meeting, and the show proceeds to follow them through several stages of their relationship.

The DVD covers proclaim that "Coupling" is all about sex, but more that, it's about a certain attitude of openness and candor about sex. We never see anything onscreen that wouldn't pass muster on prime time American television, but the characters talk about sexual topics constantly, without hesitation. They talk about porn. They talk about impotence. They talk about accidental nudity etiquette. Sex isn't treated as taboo or romanticized all out of proportion, but rather as something matter-of-fact, just another part of everyday life that can cause all sorts of unique aggravations. There are certain topics that are handled more delicately than others, but there's never a sense that anyone's holding back.

Most of the action, that is to say the discussion of the action, takes place at a local bar. Usually at some point the male and female trios break off to hold their own chats, sometimes dissecting the same problems or events from different points of view. Series creator Stephen Moffat gets a lot of comedic mileage from the gender-balanced approach, exploring a full range of sexual insecurities and dilemmas. Sally obsesses about getting older and rounder with a saggy neck. Jeff finds it impossible to hold a conversation with a woman without blurting outrageous lies. Jane pretends to be bisexual and doesn't understand why this means gay men still doesn't want to sleep with her. Steve, when cornered, has a habit of going off on rants about minutiae like bathroom privacy and couch cushions. Susan slept with Australia. Patrick is a tripod.

My favorite character, who seems to be the most universally popular one, is Jeff. He's obsessed with women and sex and has a massive catalog of favorite fantasies and deviances in his head. He's the one who is always ready to offer advice about common pitfalls like The Sock Gap and the Giggle Loop. However, he's so nervous and ill at-ease with actual women, he is by far the least lucky in love of the group. Instead, Jeff has real knack for getting himself into ridiculous situations like going on a date where he has to pretend to only have one leg. His finest moment may have been an attempt to compliment a beautiful foreigner, which turns into an extended ramble on keeping women's ears in a bucket. Oh, Jeffrey.

All the performances are great, and the actors have great chemistry with each other, but the bulk of the credit for the show's success has to go to Stephen Moffat. His scripts are fantastic throughout, and once in a while he'll do something really ambitious like a split-screen episode, or a story told out of chronological order, or one memorable effort where a key scene is played out twice in different languages. As a result, he helps make a fairly small-scale comedy often feel like a much bigger one. And most impressively, I didn't find the show until this past December, and I couldn't tell that it was made ten years ago. Aside from the odd glimpse of an ancient Playstation, "Coupling" still feels contemporary.

Alas, British TV seasons are so short - only six to eight episodes apiece! And the show only ran four years! This means my fling with "Coupling" must be brief. I'd better enjoy it while it lasts.

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