Coupling is a British situation comedy that aired from 2000-2004.
Inexplicably, I’m on a bit of a British kick lately (not helped at all by Downton Abbey’s big Emmy win, which had me jonesin’ for a look back at the series so bad that I started watching that again last night! Ughhh, so addicting…) I’m not one of those people who thinks that British things are infinately cooler then American things, or that, through the transistive properly of cool, I will somehow be made cooler if I express my stalwart appreciation for British things over stupid, materialistic American things. (I am, however, most unfortunately, one of those people who, after hearing to many British accents for extended periods, thinks that I too should therefore be capable of, or at least entitled to, performing my own life in some sort of Cockney-Scottish hybrid. But I do not do this because I think it makes me cooler. I am 100% certain that the opposite is true actually.)
Some British things are quite cheesy. Some are unbelievably twee. Some are monumentally boring. Some are all three of these things. Some are the Spice Girls. Many go way above my head. But from that vast pool, you can pull quite a few absolutely cool things you would simply never find if you never took a chance and looked across the pond for some of your pop culture. What I’m saying is… you’d be missing out. On a lot.
I wouldn’t have said this a year ago. But it has been proven many times by the repeated failures of British television shows imported to the U.S. with American actors in the leads, there are just some things British that can not be made American without compromising some integral part of their being — their appeal, their quirkiness, their authenticity. And when that part of a shows being — it’s Britishness, if you will — is handled well, it can undoubtedly be somewhat exotic and quixotic and downright hypnotizing. It transports you.
These can be appealing to Americans, but they can not be American. If they become American, as the updated Office did, then these things become a totally separate animal. What I’m trying to say is, there are some things you simply can’t excise the British from… and why would you want to? Doctor Who and Downton Abbey are undoubtably two of those things. Coupling is another.
I’m trying to think of the best way to describe this show to someone who hasn’t seen it… Coupling has one thing on its mind: sex, and lots of it. Whatever image you’ve drawn up in your mind, double it. Then take away all the dirty pictures and replace them with naughty wordplay and coy jokes. Now you’re almost at Coupling.
I know what you’re thinking: television, it’s all about sex or violence in some way or another. Yes, point granted, but Coupling skips all the parts that aren’t directly about sex, or that make only veiled references to sex, or that don’t explicitly scream “Sex!” over and over again at the top of their lungs a la Jeff, this show’s resident idiot savant, who in one episode takes to simply repeating “Breasts,” turning the word into a sort of performance piece… None of that subtle stuff for Coupling. It gets straight to the part where the characters just get in awkward sexual situations, and then talk about them, ad nauseam. Rinse and repeat.
This doesn’t make the show tawdry in any way, mind you. You know how your writing teacher always told you to show, don’t tell? Showrunner Stephen Moffat (now the head honcho over at Doctor Who) thankfully appears to have not listened. This show is all about the ways that people (mostly men and woman, in their own separate corners) talk about sex: how we use language, memory and, well, humor to try and parse out how we feel while trying to cross that comedy gold-mine known as the gender divide.
It’s all about story-telling. The show lives on reactions to wonderful little moments of profound confusion, gender perversion and relationship turmoil, all told wittily by delightfully glib Brits. Here’s what you’ll see if you tune in: the typical episode consists of Steve and Susan, the male and female lead, having an awkward conversation on their couch at home that gets Steve in hot water, followed by a scene of the guys reacting at the bar while drinking beer, then the girls reacting at the bar drinking wine, and then, in the big finale, everyone realizing they’ve all been talking about the same thing and confronting each other about it in a battle of the sexes. All quirky conversation and suggestion. The show manages to be, if you press mute, just about the cleanest show on. It shows nothing. The filth is all in what is… suggested.
This may sound boring, just men and woman sitting on couches and bar stools drinking and making funny about taboo subjects, but you are underestimating the British gift for wordplay, especially of a vaguely (or explicitly) sexual nature. It’s all about the wordplay! You won’t see anything, with your two eyes (assuming you have two), that would indicate this show is anything more raunchy or blue than what you’d find on ABC Family at 8:30 (like Melissa and Joey, for instance). But, oh, what you’ll hear! My two favorite examples so far (I have just finished Series 1), both brilliantly executed by Moffat:
- In the first example, Steve, who, in this show’s universe, is our stand-in for “average guy,” has his pornography stash discovered by his house-cleaning girlfriend. The guys, in their corner, think this is the world’s greatest catastrophe. So nervous is Steve that, to cover for the silence, he says the only thing he can think of: “I love you.” The girls think this all worthy of a little bit of a laugh, until a dinner party pits the sexes against each other, and they force the men to tell them what on earth they find so appealing about a film as pathetically titled as “Lesbian Spank Inferno.” What follows is a madcap, roller-coaster ride of wordplay that never shows you a single naked female bottom, but so intricately plays with the notion of them, the ways to describe them (I love the notion of a “lesbian film collective” creating a… “mood piece”), man’s obsession with them… It manages to both be profound and completely inaudible… because you can’t hear the clever dialogue over your own laughter.
- In our second example, largely considered the show’s piece de resistance when it comes to playing with the ways people talk about and reason through sex and gender, Jeff meets a young Israeli with whom he is immediately smitten. The problem: neither can understand the other. In turn, neither realizes that the other is as filthy-minded and smitten as they are. The show first has us follow Jeff, who is thrilled for once to be able to talk to woman and not have any weird, sexual, threatening thing he says backfire against him. Of course, she misunderstands and thinks that he has chastely fallen in love with her less attractive interpreter, something we do not find out until we hear the conversation from her perspective and realize that she is, in essence, Jeff’s perfect match. (When he tries to coax out her name by miming a name tag on his chest, she thinks he wants to know the Israeli word for “breasts,” which pays huge dividends comedically when we hear the conversation from her side.)
The fact of the matter is, it’s just not that easy to talk about sex and not sound rediculous. My friends think of me as a prude, and as misconceptions go, it’s not an especially inaccurate one. I find talking about sex, relationships, attractive females… all of it… to be exremely awkward if not downright terrifying. And it is. It is extremely terrifying. This show tries to make “rules” for it, rules that get broken, but in real life, there are no rules. This is a show that taps into that inate fear, nee insecurity, that every person has deep down when it comes to talking about sexuality. Talking about it makes it real. Our language just doesn’t have all the words for that reality, and so sometimes we, as a society, as a species, perform some of the most spectacular vocal acrobatics to account for what we find… impossible to communicate. Coupling is that circus act, but raised to an art form.
That’s why I find comparisons of this show to Friends to be shallow. Sure, the surface level similarities are there if you want to compare every show with six friends in it to other shows with six friends. But Friends was truly about friendship. It occasionally delved into how sexual shennanigans could get in the way of those bonds that go deeper then merely sex, but it’s true concern was that deep bond. Thematically, Coupling has no such concern. It gives no reason why these people should be friends with eachother other than that, when you put them in a room, something incredibly crude and funny will be said and they seem to like that. It’s a concept that could only work in Britain, because the way they talk about sex is unique to their culture. American idioms simply do not cover for their rich culture of sexual wordplay (I can personally attest to this. I watched the pilot for the failed American remake. Sheesh…)
Coupling is about, and tries to be about nothing more than, coupling. About how we end up coupling off, and then how we try to communicate this in words to the friends we leave outside the bedroom door — and the partner we brought in. It’s a show, using words and not actions, which explores and makes light of the awkward way in which we, through language, try to communicate what happens when we lie with another human and let words, finally, give way to action.
(Yep, I know, even there it’s awkward. Human language… Never the right words.)