Notes on “Coupling”


Thoughts on “Coupling”

Well, it started with Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat. He’s the writer who, following the submission of a script a year for each of the four new seasons to date, all of them quite well received, is taking over executive producer and show-runner duties from Russell T. Davies from now on.

Having watched some of those Moffat episodes again recently, I decided to also look at “The Curse of Fatal Death”, another script of his, and then look up what else he’d done before all this Doctor Who business. In one of the Dr. Who dvd commentaries, someone tells him, “Well, Steven, you come from sitcoms, so…”

Sitcoms, eh? Well, that explains “Curse”, I guess. Which sitcoms? Oh, “Coupling.” I’ve heard of that, but never seen it. I’m led to believe it has a bit of a following, or else I wouldn’t have heard of it. I did a little pre-briefing research. Moffat had first written a series called “Joking Apart,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the break-up of a relationship he’d had. This was followed by “Coupling,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the new and lasting relationship he subsequently found.

I was more interested at first in the former than the latter, for various reasons that are completely obvious. Alas, though the two seasons of that series were released on DVD (by some fan of the show who bought the video release rights to the series from the BBC, when the BBC weren’t doing anything with them — kind of interesting), they weren’t available at my favorite local video shop.

They did have “Coupling,” though. There were four seasons (or four series, to use the proper term for a BBC program; or programme, to use the proper term for that as well), and my local video shop had all four of them. Right, let’s give them a whirl.

Summary

The show is about this group of 30-something friends: three ragingly heterosexual men, and three women, also ragingly heterosexual with one exception. They don’t do much except go to their mostly off-screen jobs and then hang out after work. The women drink wine and talk about sex and guys and relationships. The men drink beer and talk about sex and women and breasts and bottoms and panic attacks and how freakish women are about everything.

At the core there’s Steve and Susan, named after Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the show’s writer and producer, respectively, who are also the real-life couple whose relationship some of the material is drawn from. Moffat describes them as being the most ordinary and normal of the characters, with the other four exemplifying extremes of (male and female) anxiety and (male and female) self-confidence. Sally is a tight pill of worries about looks and age and weight and the inexorable slide that takes place; of course she worries about ending up a tragic spinster. Jeff is a manic nervous wreck, a freak with an overactive libido who has experienced nothing but humiliating shame because of it, a paranoid who keeps numbered lists of the different types of fear and embarrassment that can befall someone, and who never fails to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, especially when trying to chat up a good looking woman. At the other end is Jane, a kind of flaky nymphomaniac whose wacky thoughts seem to come from some other planet entirely, making her a reliable source of absurd non-sequiturs; she also claims to be bisexual. And then there’s Patrick, a serial womanizer who breezes through life and sexual encounters with a relaxed self confidence and a lack of self-examination or reflection that sometimes comes across as dim-wittedness, but which is mainly just an inexperience at ever having to actually consider anything deeply.

Reactions

Series 1. I didn’t like it at first. I kind of folded my arms and waited to laugh, but no laughter came until five minutes before the end of the third episode. Jeff finally said something so screwy and outrageous that I couldn’t hold it in, and made a “Bweh-heh!” noise. Then I laughed once during the 4th episode, again at something Jeff said. The fifth and sixth had intermittent but more easily won chuckles.

For something that I could have sworn I wasn’t enjoying, I was eager to start watching series 2 as soon as I finished series 1. Hmmm.

Moffat, the sole writer for all four series, takes these characters and, having established them and the show’s basic format, begins to have a lot of fun with them in the second and third series. There’s the rearrangement and swapping around of them to find new frictions and bounces in different pairings, notably the discovery of sparks between Sally and Patrick, and the dedication of episodes to exploring each of the characters a little more probingly to find new insights into their back-stories and facets to their already-defined personalities.

That’s pretty standard. Then there’s the continual effort to make the show work as a modern farce. The best of the farce episodes hurl these characters into mad situations at breakneck speed, culminating in a final scene where all the different threads that have been spinning in parallel all dovetail into a single shimmering explosion of comedy. Writer, cast, and director all know their jobs, and it’s terrific to see done properly, of course.

There’s another experiment going on, which is a playing with the format itself, and of place, time, and perspective. In retrospect, it makes Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes — and their intriguing exploration of what traveling around in time can look like if you take a step sideways from it and watch it going on from a different perspective — seem obviously a product of the same mind. (Though actually, it’s more proto-spect, since he wrote those later, but I saw them first; See also: Time, Ball of, Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.) In the first series, there’s an episode where Jeff tries to ask out a woman who speaks only Hebrew. He has an entire conversation where they each speak different languages and don’t understand each other at all, but seem to be making some kind of connection. Then the videotape literally rewinds, and we watch the scene again, this time with the woman speaking English and Jeff (and everyone else) speaking Hebrew. Moffat says in an interview that he meant to write a conventional series, but this experiment was so well-received that he allowed himself the license to get more creative about his storytelling.

So, in the second and third series, these formal experiments continue. There’s an episode where we watch the same events two or more times from differing perspectives, a split-screen episode where we watch the two sets of characters simultaneously in different places, and an episode where we see a past event as remembered differently by people; an episode where the screen flashes and announces that an auto-translation will now show us what the characters are really saying to each other as they purport to discuss something mundane; and of course the usual assortment of flashbacks, fantasies, and dream sequences.

The best episodes are where the formal experiment and the farce are both flying at the same time and working with each other to make something that feels original and fresh, and is genuinely funny. Probably the height of this is the end of series 2, which ends with everyone (the main six, plus an extra seventh) loudly declaiming that they’re either an Australian named Dick Darlington or a French woman named Giselle, a situation we the audience understand only because we’ve seen everything leading up to it from all the different points of view.

In fact, it’s clear that the show peaked in series 2, although series 3 is quite good and has some favorite moments in it. It goes a little deeper into the characters, which sometimes tames down the comedy, but keeps you interested. The show had the standard six episodes in the first series, an incredible nine in the second, seven in the third, and then six again at the fourth, which makes you feel the waning interest and energy of everyone involved.

Series 4

In fact, the fourth series is a little disappointing. Probably famously so, though I haven’t researched it, but I can intuit this just from watching it. Most importantly, it lost one of the main cast members — Richard Coyle, who played Jeff.

This actually didn’t surprise me. Somewhere on the first series disc, there’s an incredibly brief interview snippet with Coyle, who was the only one in the cast who seemed 1) completely unlike their character, and 2) completely reticent to talk about the show or their work in it. Unlike manic Jeff, Coyle was reserved and sober and I immediately recognized the fact that this person was first and foremost a serious actor, and this role was just a job he got, and that this is all it is. I was not the least surprised to then read that he was classically trained as an actor, and probably equally capable of playing Hamlet as he was this insane breast-obsessed Welsh bloke. Further, everyone in the cast contributed to recording commentary tracks to episodes that centered on their characters — except for Coyle.

As soon as I looked at the fourth series dvd cover and did not see Coyle on it, I easily imagined that he had grown tired of playing this character and wanted to move on with his career. Three years is a lot, and the character (while growing a little) wasn’t that deep; the challenge of it had probably waned, and there was the danger of casting directors not taking him seriously because they assume he’s going to be like this character he’s famous for playing. I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he next went on to play a steely, cold-eyed killer or some other type of villainous sod after he declined to reappear in the fourth season.

So, the whole fourth season is thrown off by having one of its linch-pins knocked out. I can sense the scramble. Some of the episodes bear the marks of having originally been plotted out with Jeff being there, only to be re-tooled to remove him (or to insert a replacement character called Oliver, who is as disastrous as Jeff when talking to women, but not quite the same nervous wreck otherwise). It puts me in mind of negotiations going on, trying to convince Coyle to stay on and give it another go, and him finally putting his foot down and saying, sorry, can’t do it — even while preparations are underway for the fourth series. The removal of Jeff also removes a fair amount of random comedy, as the character was known for launching into a bizarre monologue full of weird stuff from his brain, usually winding up with a memory of his chastising, castrating mother expressing her shamed disappointment with him. Sometimes these monologues were tied into a conversation the guys were having, and sometimes they interrupted these conversations as non-sequiturs, which Moffat admits at one point as being a little lazy: there hadn’t been enough jokes on this page, so it was time for Jeff to spout off about whatever. Still, they were funny, and now there was no Jeff.

He was also trying to explore the insecurities hidden within the crazy exterior of Jane, that her strange self-confidence was masking a frightened loneliness, but this made Jane considerably less funny as well. In some scenes in the fourth series, she’s the straight man, where she had been the equivalent of Jeff for the women: the one who could be relied on to say mad things when the scene hadn’t been funny for 30 seconds. So with neither Jeff nor Jane saying random mad things, the whole series feels a little off-balance and empty. Moffat feels like he’s running low on inspiration, and there’s a general sense that, while everyone seems to enjoy doing the show, and that doing another go-round made sense because of the show’s popularity, that they might all have rather been brave about it and stopped after the third series.

It’s the sort of reasoning that kept John Cleese from doing a third round of Fawlty Towers, I suppose. And he was right.

Thus

So, after watching all that, I went back and looked at the Moffat episodes of Doctor Who again. Now they very obviously sounded like the work of the same writer. It’s the same sense of humor, especially when the characters engage in light-hearted banter or act slightly crazy. It’s funny, because I had been associating the Moffat episodes with fright and horror, since they had that unnerving, make-the-kids-hide-behind-the-sofa quality to them. But it’s also true that they are playful, and crack jokes. It’s kind of like how after watching a ton of Buffy and Firefly that you easily recognize a line as being Whedonesque; there’s dialogue in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” that’s obviously Moffatesque. (Side note: there was a line of dialogue in Dr. Horrible that I laughed at and tagged as being particularly Whedonesque, only to learn in the commentary tracks that Joss Whedon’s brother had written that particular line — although, since he’s also named Whedon, it can still be called Whedonesque, I suppose.)

In general, though, a series with justifiable fan following. Good characters, funny jokes, well-executed farce, and enjoyable formal experiments in storytelling. Moffat is clearly a prolific writer who writes top-quality stuff; it’s not easy to single-handedly write a series, and he’s done it three times now. But secretly, he’s always been what he calls a “tragic” Doctor Who fan, and has now been given the keys to the Tardis, as it were. As his first act, he cast the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, and I hope that works out. But it does make me look forward to the upcoming fifth series of the reincarnated Doctor Who.

Coupling: Series 2 and 3 recommended; series 1 probably a good idea to watch to get into the swing of things; series 4 a disappointment, but an interesting one and Oliver’s not that bad a character really, plus there’s a documentary on the bonus disc about how the series is produced from script to screen that I found quite interesting.

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