If I described a television show to you by saying it was one part Friends, one part Sex in the City with a generous dash of Home Improvement-style misogyny, you’d run screaming, no? I consider those last two examples to be claw-your-eyes-out offensive 90% of the time. And yet Coupling, the UK’s raunchier version of Ross, Rachel & co., manages to charm me despite embracing every possible gender stereotype imaginable.
I think the show works in large part because it manages to simultaneously embrace the traditional multiple-camera, live-audience sit-com format while playing extensively with narrative structure and language. We have our three guys (Steve; bumbling everyman, Patrick: macho player; Jeff: goofball catch-phrase machine) and our three girls (Susan: slightly uptight everywoman; Sally: superficial, neurotic “spinster”; Jane: Steve’s grating, delusional ex). We have almost everybody pairing off at one point or another. We have nearly constant sweeping generalizations of the “Mars/Venus” variety. But we also have an episode where the same 9-minute scene is shown from three different perspectives. Or another shown entirely in a split screen, following a couple immediately post break-up. Or one that features a subtext translator.
Each character has his or her gimmick, and Steve’s tendency to speechify on behalf of Men Everywhere gets tired more often than not. But then you have a scene like “Lesbian Spank Inferno,” which is just unapologetically goofy and hilariously uncomfortable in that way that only British shows tend to be.
I keep asking myself: what kind of show is this? I can’t always tell if we’re supposed to take the characters and their “Men act like this, women act like this” proclamations seriously. These people are absolutely cartoonish most of the time, which, if I’m giving creator Steven Moffat a lot of credit, could be seen as a satire on the genre itself. If you’re going to do the traditional sit-com thing, why not take it to its logical extreme? On the other hand, given the particularly one-dimensional, often shrewish portrayal of women on the show, I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with that interpretation.
That said, I think Moffat’s work on the new Doctor Who is pretty brilliant (though Jacob of Television Without Pity has a lot of interesting, if obtuse things to say about the gender politics on that show under Moffat’s direction), and I loved his Jekyll miniseries. Is Coupling a great show? Sometimes. I’d recommend any number of series before this one, but it satisfies a certain yen I have for frivolous yet smart television, and clearly, it makes me think.
Recommended if: you’ve got Netflix Instant Viewing and some time to kill. (Stand-out eps: “The Man With Two Legs,” “Size Matters,” “Her Best Friend’s Bottom,” “Naked.”)
Not for you if: Cutesy takes on the War Between the Sexes make you foam at the mouth.