The following is my contribution to The Small Screen Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Maddielovesherclassicfilms on Feb. 20, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on their favorite TV series!
British TV writer Steven Moffatt is best known these days for the TV series “Sherlock” and a “Dr. Who” revival. But long before those came around, he was responsible for a gem of a sitcom titled “Coupling.”
“Coupling” is blatantly based on the evolution of the relationship between Moffat and his girlfriend and then wife, Sue Vertue (also the show’s producer). (As if to drive home the point, the show’s lead characters are named Steve and Sue.) Aside from its traditional three-camera, live-audience setup, the series uses a variety of Annie Hall-like techniques to examine love and relationships: split-screen, depicting a single event from three perspectives, and even performing half of an episode in Hebrew. As Moffat put it, his simple setting encouraged “an epic, ridiculous way of telling an ordinary story.”
Most American viewers are quick to compare the series to “Friends,” as it’s a sitcom about the intertwining of several close friends’ lives. I hate to sound sacrilegious, but I much prefer “Coupling” to “Friends.” I always got the feeling that the “Friends” writers were happy to drop characterizations if they could get a quick laugh (for example, daffy Phoebe suddenly coming up with a searing witticism). By contrast, Moffatt said his show’s laughs sprang from context and that he wrote “no jokes per se” — and I feel his show is much richer for it.
My only complaint about “Coupling” is its fourth season; hence, I will deal with that later as a separate entity. Here is a summary of all of the characters, save for one that was added in that fourth season.
Steve Taylor (Jack Davenport) is a well-meaning guy who is somewhat milquetoast. In the series’ first episode, Steve is shown having trouble breaking off with his clingy and rather ditzy girlfriend Jane Christie (Gina Bellman). He eventually hooks up with Susan Walker (Sarah Alexander), and while their love appears to be true, Steve often cowers under Susan’s short temper.
Susan is a successful but sometimes insecure career woman. The bulk of Steve and Susan’s exchanges revolve around their arguments and differences of opinion.
Jeff Murdock (Richard Coyle) is a co-worker and ex-date of Susan’s and is Steve’s best friend. Jeff is well-meaning like Steve but is even flightier than him, eager to find a woman but mostly unable to carry on coherent conversations with potential dates.
Sally Harper (Kate Isitt), like her best friend Susan, runs a successful business but is even more insecure than her friend (Are you sensing a pattern here?). She sometimes comes off as mean-spirited but is really only (only?) mostly paranoid.
Patrick Maitland (Ben Miles) has a one-track mind when it comes to women, and that track revolves around getting laid. He is an ex-boyfriend to Susan, who refers to him as “donkey” and “tripod” when referencing his below-the-belt appendage. It is this that first perks Sally’s interest in Patrick. Patrick and Sally end up being the show’s romantic counterpart to Steve and Susan.
Jane, as started earlier, has been dumped by Steve, though it takes her several episodes to admit this to herself. As the series evolves, we come to realize why Steve couldn’t take her anymore; she comes on strong and very flighty. She does traffic reports for a local radio station, and her main claim to popularity is her sexually explicit reporting.
As in the best sitcoms, “Coupling’s” laughs (as noted by Moffatt) come from the characters’ quirks and interactions. I would recommend nearly any episode of the first three seasons as great introductory viewing for the show. However, IMHO, the show reached its peak in the eighth episode of Season 2, “Naked.”
In this episode (a showcase for the wonderful Richard Boyle), Jeff goes to a storage closet at his office and happens to bump into his new supervisor, Julia (a winning performance by the late Lou Gish, shown above). Later, Jeff and Julia, separately, recount to the series’ men and women their closet encounter, and in each case, they embellish their recounting with hyperbolic fantasy to cover up the fact that they were very attracted to each other. To top it off, Jeff is about to turn 30 and is lamenting the fact that he cannot manage to have an ongoing relationship with a woman.
The rest of the episode shows Jeff and Julia playing cat-and-mouse, coming right up to the edge of admitting their attraction but shying away at the last moment. I don’t consider it a SPOILER ALERT to state that Jeff and Julia finally get together, because the way that it happens results in one of the most beautifully realized sitcom-episode finales I’ve ever seen. (The episode is embedded below; by all means, please watch and enjoy.)
Sad to say, I feel that this delightful sitcom jumped the rails in Season 4. That season’s very first episode came off as ominous for three reasons:
- With no explanation, some interesting plot threads that were left dangling at the end of Season 3 were inexplicably abandoned by Moffatt.
- Richard Coyle feared becoming typecast as hapless Jeff, so he left the series at the end of Season 3, refusing requests to do a “goodbye episode.” This resulted in what I consider the series’ biggest mistake.
- Just as “The Brady Bunch” started losing viewers when they introduced Cousin Oliver, so “Coupling” went stale when they introduced the character of Oliver Morris (Richard Mylan). While the other characters were rich enough to mine for three seasons’ worth of stories, Oliver’s main characteristic is how accident-prone and clueless he is. Unlike with Jeff, it’s not caused by insecurity or nervousness around women — he’s just stupid. This is not a character for the ages.
Probably the most watchable episodes are the season’s final two episodes, which nicely resolve some plot threads among the characters; otherwise, I consider this season a wash-out.
Other than that, I think “Coupling” is one of the all-time funniest and best-written sitcoms ever. I like to think that, if the show had returned for a fifth season, it would have brought back Richard Coyle and gone all “Dallas” on us, sheepishly admitting that the fourth season was merely a bad dream.