Friday, November 19, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #18: Coupling (UK)

Whoops, I missed a day yesterday, so I'll have a dangling show to cover later... Oh well...
Series: Coupling (UK)
Years: 2000-2004, 4 seasons, 28 half-hour episodes
Creators: Steven Moffat
Stars: Jack Davenport, Gina Bellman, Sarah Alexander, Kate Isitt, Ben Miles, Richard Coyle

The Concept: Three hip single guys and three hip single girls hang out at a big-city drinking establishment, where they chat amiably about work and sex. Sound familiar? Yes, it was a British knockoff of “Friends”, which is why it had no business being one of the best sitcoms ever made. The problems was that they hired a writer named Steve Moffat who quickly proved to be the TV-genius of his generation. (Did you all watch “Sherlock”? Damn, that was good.)

How it Came to be Underrated: I’m stretching, since this is a beloved show, but here in the U.S. its reputation was besmirched by its big-flop American remake.


Sample Episode: 2.9, “The End of the Line”
Writer: Steven Moffat
The Story: Steve and Susan, the show’s on-again, off-again couple, have been together a year and they’re feeling the malaise of familiarity. After they find themselves flirting with the opposite sex, each attempts to call the other, only to encounter a bizarre series of quickly escalating lies on the other end of the line. As the puzzle-box of a plot unfolds, we see how a few little lies build into a big fiasco.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Though it superficially resembles “Friends”, this show owes just as much to “Frasier”, though it manages to be better than either show at their best. It combines the hipster zeitgeist of the former with the intellectual wordplay and complicated farce plots of the latter, but most episodes of “Friends” were too dopey and “Frasier” was usually too emotionally cold. Moffat trumps them both by basing his witty dialogue on a solid emotional foundation. He really has a lot to say about the way men and women interact—he just chooses to say it as cleverly as possible.
  2. This episode plays some very nifty tricks with overlapping timelines that allow the cast to play out the same scenes from multiple points of view. This episode is quite simply the smartest example of the thirty-minute format I’ve ever seen. That sort of time-trick, and much of the tone of this show, has now been re-borrowed back to the U.S. by the writers of “How I Met Your Mother”, but one of the many reasons that show can’t hope to reach the heights of this one is that American shows are now a full 33% shorter that their British cousins. American sitcoms will soon reach the length of “Saturday Night Live” skits.
  3. The formal beauty of this screenplay is gob-smacking. It’s as intricately structured as a piece of renaissance poetry. In fact, it’s sort of like a sestina, since Moffat has set himself the challenge of getting as many laughs as he can out of a few key lines that each get repeated over and over by many different charaters: “I’m Giselle!” “I’m Dick Darlington!” “Where are you going?” “It’s up to you.” And then of course there’s the title of the episode, which refers to the situation and the structure and the story-arc, all simultaneously. I’m in awe.
  4. What made most of the American “Friends” knockoffs fail was that they couldn’t resist picking sides in the war of the sexes. It’s harder to write a show in which both sexes have equally legitimate grievances. That’s what makes the “multiple perspectives” trick so satisfying—it serves the theme, not just the humor.

What the Remake Did Wrong: This is actually pretty baffling-- NBC hired some “Friends” showrunners to reset the show in Chicago, got a pretty-good cast (it had the same talented star as a previous underrated show “Better Off Ted”), and, for the most part they re-used the original Moffat scripts word for word. So why was it so excruciatingly bad?? Literally the same scripts that made me hyperventilate in the original evoke not one single laugh in the remake. Here are some suspects:

  1. Farce, more than any other form, depends on timing, and apparently that fell off the boat halfway across the pond. In this case, I blame the directors and editors more than the cast.
  2. Everybody was too likable. They softened every line reading. All of the bite was gone.
  3. And they were all equally attractive. Their version of Geoff, the goofy one, was just a handsome guy who had been made up to look slightly goofy. Richard Coyle, the original, was congenitally goofy.
  4. Let’s face it, you can get away with a lot of smutty dialogue if you say it with a British accent, but it just sounds tacky when we say it.

How Available Is It?: The entire show is available to Watch Instantly, as well as on DVD. But beware the fourth season, where Coyle, the most lovable character, was replaced by a pale imitator. (The American show never even made it to DVD, and you can only find it online with Swedish subtitles burned in, which is the funniest thing about it)

But Don’t Take My Word For It:

1 comment:

Frl. Irene Palfy said...

I loved Coupling - esp. Richard Coyle: he was great in it!! (it was hard for me to find him replaced.) Great post. I did not know that there was an US remake. So thank you also for educating me! :")