This will contain spoilers for the British tv show Coupling. If you don’t like being spoiled, please go away.
Coupling is a British tv show that I’ve been fond of for years. When I was in high school it aired intermittently on BBC America and I watched it when I could, but I always seemed to catch the same four episodes, plus it didn’t seem to be aired consistently. These impressions were probably due to the fact that British tv shows have much shorter runs than American tv shows, with a series (British for “season”) typically spanning six episodes, so on an American rerun schedule you burn through the entire show over the course of weeks. Coupling ran for four series and a total of 28 episodes. Compare: Fawlty Towers, considered by many critics to be the funniest show ever aired (they’re right, FYI), spans 12 episodes and two series. The Office: 2 series, 12 episodes, 1 two-episode special. Blackadder: 4 series, 24 episodes, 3 specials. Next to British tv, it is hard to overstate the bloatedness of American television programming. Also interesting to note: series don’t necessarily reoccur annually. Coupling skipped a year and a half between the third and fourth series. Fawlty Towers skipped four years. I don’t really know why this model is feasible (although I know Fawlty Towers was a special situation), and would love to hear from anyone who does know.
Anyway. Coupling. To celebrate my brandy-new Netflix subscription, I decided to watch it beginning to end once and for all, and I am now going to report on it to you.
On first glance it seems to be a Friends rip-off. You’ve got six twenty-thirtysomethings, three men and three women. There’s the gorgeous one, Susan (Rachel); the insecure lady one, Sally (Monica); the nutty one, Jane (Phoebe); the doofy guy dating the gorgeous one, Steve (Ross); the slutty and handsome one, Patrick (Joey); and the insecure guy one, Jeff (Chandler). But while it borrows Friends’ basic structure, Coupling is way more interesting and clever than Friends ever was. And I say this as someone who was faithfully glued to my tv at 7 PM every night for years, watching reruns of Friends. (Ironically, I no longer think it’s a very good show.) Coupling has the freedom afforded it by looser British broadcasting standards to speak and act frankly about sex in ways that American network tv would almost certainly disallow. It’s a grown-up show with grown-up subject matter that is discussed in a grown-up way. That means better writing, specifically better jokes, and way less awkward/uncomfortable/failed double entendres. In case I am not being clear, this show is fucking hilarious, the comedy writing is firing on all cynlinders, and you should watch it because it is awesome.
Fundamentally, Coupling is about the attractive white twenty-thirtysomething Britisher’s search for sex in the early 2000s, and to its credit it does a decent job of avoiding sexist stereotypes – at least, about its female characters. To borrow a line from the wiki entry, “…the women are mainly confident and sexually quite voracious, whilst the blokes are completely useless, riddled with self doubt and awkwardness.” This is pretty much true, but it’s honestly so refreshing to a see a show be honest about women and sexuality that it takes precedence over the uniformly doofy guys for me. These women have sex. They love sex. They talk about sex all the time. They are empowered to seek sex when they want it. There is zero slut-shaming or suggestions that it might be better if one of the women gave into her desires less. (Even the gender-ly laudable How I Met Your Mother falls down on that one.) Entire episodes revolve around how much sex these women have and how awesome that is. Coupling racks up further feminist points for the way in which it deals with its female characters’ insecurities: it presents them empathetically while making a point of debunking them. Sally, a beautician, is the character who most often gives voice to these (“Did you know that your nose keeps growing all your life? If I don’t get married soon, they’re going to have to cut a hole in the veil!”), while Susan is the voice of calm confidence reminding Sally of her many attributes and great beauty. The result of both of these choices, the sexuality one and the latter, is that we’re being given an alternative mode of being a woman, one in which the relationship to the body can be built on things other than insecurity, discomfort, shame, and guilt. That alone is enough for me to recommend the show.
The men, though, are kind of a disaster. Steve (who honestly even looks like David Schwimmer, it’s uncanny) gets together with Susan in the first episode, yet remains in a sort of arrested-development-manchild-state throughout the show. Even the idea of too much responsibility practically makes him break out in hives. This is funny for the first three seasons, but in the fourth series Susan is pregnant, and Steve’s typical reluctance and lack of conviction within the relationship are way less funny when he’s talking about his pregnant girlfriend. Jeff (who, tragically, leaves before the fourth series – more on this later) is simultaneously completely oversexed and completely terrified of both sex and women. This is sometimes totally adorable (see: any time we get him actually talking to a woman) and sometimes creepy and borderline harassing (see: the episode where he hides behind a pillar and shines a light on a woman’s dress so he can see her tits). The show really doesn’t seem to understand that there is a line, and that our sympathy with Jeff – who gets some of the best comic writing, and whose insecurity and anxiety definitely ring familiar bells for lots of people – cannot be extended as far as excusing antisocial behavior. (To my great delight, however, when Jeff does get a girlfriend she is as crap with men as he is with women. Sample pick-up line from Julia to Jeff: “I’m 28 and no one can get near me for all the rubbish I’m talking!”) Finally, Patrick is basically a walking erection, with the corresponding amount of bloodflow to his brain. To a man, they are slaves to their sex drives and emotional idiots who are totally baffled by the mystery that is woman. The show’s women all seem to agree with this as The Way Men Are, going so far as to say things like, “It’s a scientific fact that if you say “naked” three or more times, to any man, he has to cross his legs.” The show accepts The Way Men Are as an immutable fact of nature, and Steve is often dispatched as the explainer of this to women via rant. This is hilarious when he’s talking about cushions – and oh my god do you want to click on that because it’s fucking brilliant – and incredibly, wildly offensive when Steve-ranting-about-men just becomes Steve-ranting-about-things-women-don’t-understand and the topic is pain relief during childbirth and why women are crazy to not get it. That gem, again, comes from series 4.
Let’s talk about series 4, because it is a problem. Coming a full year and a half after series 3 ended, series 4 is palpably different on a number of fronts. A big change is in the sudden diversity of settings, as well as more non-traditional sitcom material such as dream sequences and extended flashbacks. My impression in watching it is that the production team was given slightly more budget to play with, but rather than making the show better, the freedom to use more settings and have more dream/fantasy sequences just feels like it’s messing with a formula we know and love. An even bigger change is the absence of Jeff. His departure is sort of hand-waved away in episode 1 of series 4, and a valiant but largely failed effort is made to replace his character with that of Oliver, another insecure guy, this time one who’s trying to date Jane. Oliver is less sympathetic than Jeff, in part because his insecurity sometimes manifests as really inappropriate meanness (such as when he rants explosively at his pregnant ex-girlfriend), and in part because he’s generally less funny. That said, six episodes is not that long to get to know a character, and Oliver did seem to be getting funnier and more sympathetic towards the end of the series. Finally, series 4 has much stronger continuity than series 1 – 3 – it had to, really, as one of its characters (Susan) spends the entire series pregnant with a baby and another (Oliver) is only just being introduced while simultaneously acting as a principle – but this has the effect of removing a lot of the spontaneity that led series 1 – 3 to be so compelling and hilarious. When I rewatch Coupling in the future, I may just skip series 4 entirely.
Overall, Coupling has the same sort of problems as lots of British tv shows. For one, it has an overall lack of regard for strong continuity, and while I do think this contributes to its high quality as detailed above, it can be frustrating to see a storyline remain permanently unresolved. Steve and Susan wind up engaged through a series of botched proposals, none of which ever clearly point towards a “yes.” Jeff’s girlfriend’s ex reappears, which is one of the primary plot points of an episode, but rather than later being given a detailed viewing or description of the end of their relationship, we just get Jeff not talking about her for awhile and then saying to Jane, “Julia’s exploring her feelings. In Bolton.” (Bolton being a city very far from London.) A person less obsessed with the line of a story than I would probably find this stuff less irritating than I do, but I find it incredibly irritating. (Aaron Sorkin, I am looking at you. West Wing didn’t get a single interpersonal plot line resolved in seven seasons, you dingbat.) Happily, it doesn’t have the classic BBC low-budget look,but it does lack the glossy finish most Americans have come to expect from our tv.
All that said, these are small problems compared to the sheer quality of the first three series. The comic writing is so, so sharp and clever. Like How I Met Your Mother, Coupling makes extensive use of nontraditional storytelling methods such as split screen and extended flashbacks. One of the high points of this is also the episode that got the nontraditional methods off the ground, in which Jeff and an Israeli girl who speaks no English are flirting disastrously and we are shown the conversation first from Jeff’s perspective, with the girl speaking Hebrew, and then from her perspective, with Jeff speaks Italian (to facilitate our lack of comprehension). Another great non-traditional storytelling moment surprisingly occurs in series 4, where a late-night conversation between Susan and Sally turns into a five-way call incorporating all then-current members of their group, each of whom enter in a way guaranteed to beget misunderstandings. That’s another thing I like about Coupling, though; it never takes the easy way out and lets a misunderstanding hang in the air and form the backbone of an entire episode as so many American tv shows and films do. (I can’t count the number of movies I’ve seen where one simple question or verbal clarification would eliminate its entire primary conflict.) The characters, being more or less reasonable people, tend to ask more or less reasonable questions and thereby keep the show rooted in a more or less realistic view of what it’s like trying to acquire sexy times as an attractive white British twenty-thirtysomething in the early 2000s.
Coupling is awesome. You should watch it.