Coupling is the new Friends! At least that’s what NBC wants us to believe. Friends is leaving the Thursday night “must see” lineup at the end of this season and the executives appear to be worried we won’t cope well with the loss. Since Coupling arrives before Friends actually leaves, it’s okay to like the new show. It doesn’t mean we love Friends any less.
Continuing the practice of U.S. networks remaking popular British series, Coupling is lifted from a series of the same name (airing for three seasons in the U.K and now on BBC America). The U.S. version cuts the original scripts to allow for commercial breaks, changes “loo” to “ladies’ room,” and transplants different actors into the roles. But something is lost in the translation. The American affection for agreeable characters and politically correct gender relationships is incompatible with sexual parody; reportedly, NBC omitted an exchange in which two male characters refer to women they no longer want to date as “flushables.”
Coupling depicts men’s and women’s sexuality in the usual way: men are slaves to sex and women use it as a weapon. Steve (Jay Harrington) tries to extricate himself from dopey, clingy Jane (Lindsay Price of Beverly Hills 90210), but she proves to be an expert at sexual manipulation, going panty-less and enticing him with details of past girl-on-girl action (“She played the bisexual card!” he moans). Cocky Patrick (Colin Ferguson) is also thwarted by the baffling wiles of a woman. When he tries to slow things down with his girlfriend Susan (Rena Sofer), she mocks and emasculates him for thinking that hooking up once a week constitutes a relationship worthy of fidelity (“you must have been taking a lot of solo flights,” she taunts).
Rounding out the group are Susan’s best friend Sally (Sonya Walger) and Steve’s best friend Jeff (Christopher Moynihan), the dowdy ones who can’t get laid. The six tend to turn up at the same places to share pillow talk and swap partners. There’s no discernable reasoning for these trades, except maybe to set up the most aesthetically pleasing matches: brunette with brunette, blond with blond, and dopey Jane and superfluous Jeff left out in the cold.
The Coupling gang is blessed with television-life coincidences and quick fixes. Though Steve has attempted to break up with Jane five times, when she catches him on his first date with Susan, she instantly cuts him loose and amiably accepts an invitation to join the group for dinner. Sally pounces on Patrick the moment he and Susan call it quits and yet, when Susan finds out, she takes it in stride (“We’ll talk later,” she says to Sally, sounding like she’s getting off the phone with someone she doesn’t know very well). Coupling isn’t about emotional intimacy and it isn’t about friendship. It’s just six people in their early 30s, with unspecified careers and backgrounds, living it up and sleeping around.
NBC’s marketing of the show as a racy Friends appears to have been taken seriously: two stations in strongly religious areas (WNDU in South Bend, Indiana, and KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah) have refused to air it. But it’s not nearly scandalous enough to warrant such controversy. The characters talk about sex an awful lot, but in an era when police dramas routinely show naked butts and teen audiences are offered plotlines featuring raunchy sex between a vampire and a slayer, it’s nothing that would cause your typical TV watcher to blush. Only two pieces of dialogue that pass between Steve and Jane (the only truly naughty character) step outside the bounds of standard television sex talk (Jane notices that Steve has his “serious face” on, then asks, “Can I be on your serious face later?” and then diabolically persuades him to have sex with her by displaying that she’s “shaved!”).
In many ways, Coupling is what it is marketed to be: a more explicit, more adult Friends. It’s all in the titles: Friends could be the name of a children’s picture book, Coupling, a sex guide. But the degree of raciness isn’t the only difference. Whereas Friends focuses on the emotional drama within friendships and relationships (i.e., the ongoing melodrama of Ross and Rachel), Coupling attempts (though does not succeed) to be purely satirical. The result is a muted show without emotional resonance or laughs. It’s the type of show that makes the laugh track seem creepy.