October 9, 2003
You can't do that on television!
Well, actually, you can. It's been done before.

What happened to Thursday night on NBC? Time was, the whole family could sit in front of the TV and enjoy Bill Cosby doing his fluttery jazzbo dance moves with his wife and kids and follow that up with Dwayne Wayne flipping his shades up at every attractive Hillman College girl. Once the little ones got sleepy, mom and dad could enjoy some Sam and Diane sexual tension on Cheers. It was all very clean and tidy and if ratings were any indication, a success.

Then, at some point, Thursday night was re-branded "Must See TV," which was more of a command than a description, and everything got a bit screwy.

If you tuned into "Must See TV" during this year's fall season premieres, you
were treated to the sight of Ross and Joey kissing (in a fantasy straight out of some rather feverish fan fiction) on Friends (not to mention a joke about Ross having trouble standing up with a hard-on), Will and Jack shirtless and in bed seemingly post-coital on Will & Grace, an NBC-produced "One Minute Movie" starring Carmen Electra and the surgically made-for-FHM Pussycat Dolls in diamond-encrusted bras and panties, and, in the much-hyped centerpiece of NBC's new season, Coupling, which featured a joke about a woman being completely shaved and two pals boasting of being so close, they're "porn buddies."
Clearly, this isn't your parents' Fall Season.

The funny thing is—and there wasn't much funny about the shows
themselves—none of this was particularly shocking. It was as if NBC drained as much juice as possible from parent company General Electric in an attempt shock us and all they could muster was a tiny static zap.

The biggest disappointment by far was Coupling, the American adaptation of the ribald BBC series of the same name. Much press (and some cold feet from affiliates in the hinterlands) heralded the allegedly groundbreaking Coupling, but as with any copy, there was significant generation loss when the show crossed the Atlantic.

The show's generically-attractive cast barely sold the jokes about porn, breasts, and public restroom hook-ups sampled from the original. It was actually sort of painful to watch them all leaning into their punchlines like third graders wringing laughs out of words like "peepee" and "boobies." In translating the show for Americans, the producers seemed to forget that the pleasure of the BBC version was in its characters venality and casual self-absorption, not in the American sit-com standard of bland likeability for all.

Another reasonCoupling was so bad was that it arrived in the midst of a Fall Season that could easily be branded "Must Transgress TV." As The New York Times noted recently, this season "Comedy writers [are] eager to forsake stale Seinfeldisms and show off their harsher material." Pick your favorite taboo and there's a good chance that at least one show is milking it for laughs. Young guys with older women your thing? Try Happy Family. (If that Harold and Maude stuff is really your bag, turn off the TV and pick up US Weekly, which has turned into a hybrid of Tiger Beat and The AARP Bulletin with its weekly reports on Ashton and Demi and Justin and Cameron.) Into porn? Check out Skin on FOX for all the naughty bits you can (almost) see without cable. Maybe adultery gets you going? Temptation Island is full of hot couples cheating on each other. Like seeing men together? Heck, even stalwarts like Frasier are spicing it up with bald man-on-bald man action in the form of Patrick Stewart as a gay admirer of Dr. Frasier Crane. How shocking!

No, actually, how boring.

There was a time when producers could actually push the envelope (remember
staying up extra late to see Amanda Donahoe kiss Michele Greene on LA Law back in 1991?), but that's because there was an envelope to push. Blame it on NBC's own Dr. Evil, NBC President Jeff Zucker and his maniacal quest for ratings hegemony, or on The Sopranos, or on Dennis Franz's pasty tuchis on NYPD Blue, but TV is a lot dirtier than it was a decade ago. This is a fine thing to be sure, but networks shouldn't claim innovation when this stuff has all been done before.

And in the case of Coupling, it's been done a lot better. The BBC version of the show received rave reviews and a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic for its frank, single-minded plotlines about sex and relationships. While many of the jokes had been done before (Straight men love lesbians? No way!), Coupling stood out for its innovative format (flashbacks, "replays" of scenes, etc.), and the many funny coinages and new slang each episode provided viewers. Coupling immersed us in a world of "unflushables" (exes who just… won't… disappear), "solo flights" (masturbation), and those porn buddies (a friend who has a key to your house and will remove your porn when you die). Like Seinfeld with its "sponge-worthies," "soup nazis," and "yada-yada-
yada," Coupling created its own vocabulary that quickly became everyone else's vocabulary as well.

But wait, there's more (as they like to say on TV): beneath all that witty
badinage, the show had just the right amount of depth, daring to depict men and women wrestling with their own shallowness as they hook up, grow up, and (natch) couple up. Credit for both the wit and depth should be placed at the feet of Steven Moffat, the show's creator and sole writer. (Depressingly, Moffat is also credited with writing the
pale reflection that passes for his own show on NBC). While I didn't laugh at the BBC Coupling as much as I'd hoped, I could see the work of a unique comic voice. As luck would have it, the show was produced by Moffat and his wife Sue Vertue. It was straight line from Steven Moffat's brain to mouths of his actors; as Vertue boasts on the Coupling Season 1 DVD, the show was developed over time without any outside interference.

And therein lies the problem with NBC's version of Coupling. An idiosyncratic, racy, mostly original BBC series was squeezed through the American TV sausage factory only to emerge as something else entirely: a bland, homogenized, very unsexy American sitcom. Gone is the unusual structure of episodes, the single camera shooting style, and the clever wordplay. In numerous articles and interviews, Jeff Zucker has expressed his desire to make Coupling a long-term franchise like Friends. If the first two episodes are any indication, Coupling will be more like an awkward one night stand that you look back on and wonder, "What the hell were we thinking?"

Earlier Coupling thoughts from low culture

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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