Looking Back At COUPLING - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At COUPLING

Tony’s finding true love. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
You have to give Steven Moffatt credit.

His first TV hit, Press Gang, was largely informed by his time as a teacher.

His sit-com Joking Apart was largely informed by the process of the breakup of his first marriage.

Another sit-com he wrote, Chalk – also drawn largely from his experiences as a teacher.

And then there’s Coupling. Coupling is largely based around Steven Moffatt’s own experiences falling in love with Sue Vertue, ultimately resulting in their marriage.

It’s also extremely fortunate that he wrote it jussst at the point when sit-coms were embracing the ‘group-of-friends’ concept, rather than, as had been the norm in previous decades, and even in his own work, of sit-coms needing a focal point – a relationship, as in Terry and June, Just Good Friends, and Joking Apart, or a job situation, as in Drop The Dead Donkey, Brush Strokes, and Chalk.

With the likes of Friends and Seinfeld proving the concept in the States, a comedy about two people trying to have a relationship while bringing their baggage of friends, work colleagues, and even exes along, in 2000, it seemed like an idea whose time had come.

You can play the game of ‘Pin the Coupling character onto the Friend,’ if you like, and if you do, it goes more or less like this:

Coupling: Steve (Jack Davenport) = Friends: Ross (David Schwimmer)

Coupling: Jeff (Richard Coyle) = Friends: Chandler (Matthew Perry)

Coupling: Patrick (Ben Miles) = Friends: Joey (Matt LeBlanc)

Coupling: Susan (Sarah Alexander) = Friends: Rachel (Jennifer Aniston)

Coupling: Sally (Kate Isitt) = Friends: Monica (Courtney Cox)

Coupling: Jane (Gina Bellman) = Friends: Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow)

Coupling: Oliver (Richard Mylan) = Friends: Gunther (James Michael Tyler).

The comparison is least appropriate for the last two on the list, but otherwise it pretty much checks out. Steve and Ross both try to be modern men, for all they need to grow out of their immaturity. But they both also have the dating goals of a Patrick or Joey – essentially, to get sex as easily as possible – and the fear and awkwardness of a Jeff or a Chandler. They’ve just worked out that the middle way is their most likely way to achieve the former and defeat the latter.

Likewise, Susan’s the relatively stable one of the women, which more or less maps to Rachel. Sally is a driven career woman with passionate convictions and a determination that things should be perfect – Monica much? And Jane is the whacky friend that doesn’t particularly fit into the dynamic, but can’t really be dropped without appearing cruel.

The mapping breaks down when you start considering the relationships involved, but that’s also where Coupling first comes into its own. This group have a somewhat messy past. Jane and Steve are initially together. He makes a date with Susan despite not yet having found a way to break up with the ‘unflushable’ Jane. Jeff is Steve’s best mate, but he also works with Susan. Susan and Patrick used to be together, but Patrick is also a friend of Steve’s. Sally’s a friend of Susan’s but eventually goes out with Patrick. Even Oliver, who doesn’t join the group until the fourth series, when Jeff has disappeared on a holiday to Lesbos, eventually ends up in a relationship with Jane.

That’s mostly the point of Coupling – it explores a group of people who wouldn’t necessarily hang out together in any other circumstances, but who form a big pile of everyone else’s baggage. How, in those circumstances, can a man and a woman finally get the relationship game RIGHT? Especially when the man in question (Steve) really needs to grow beyond his arrested development before he even really DESERVES to get it right?

That’s the core of Coupling. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Firstly, the character of Jeff, played by Richard Coyle, is so much more than just a member of the gang. He has his own mental jungle gym-cum-torture-chamber. Obsessed by women, sex, and the crippling anxiety of embarrassment, he frequently tells a simple lie that then gets embellished the further down the embarrassment-avoidance rabbit hole he goes, leading to cringe-making situations.

Who do you know that would pretend to have lost a leg as a dating gambit? If you actually have an answer to that question, you know a Jeff.

Jeff’s also extremely good at encapsulating the sources of his anxiety in killer phrases, such as the Giggle Loop – the paralysing fear of laughing in an inappropriate setting, like a funeral or a minute’s silence. The self-fulfilling prophecy of his anxiety means that “to know of the Giggle Loop is to become part of the Giggle Loop,” so having had a conversation about giggling in inappropriate situations means you immediately RECALL the conversation whenever you’re IN those circumstances, and almost laugh immediately. Then you think of how terrible it would have been if you’d laughed, and so you nearly laugh again, only this time it’s a bigger laugh. And so on, and so on, the laugh getting bigger and more unstoppable the longer the inappropriate circumstance goes on.

Do you have a Giggle Loop in your brain? Do you overthink everything and avoid the spiral of panic by saying the first, most absurd thing that comes into your head? You might be a Jeff.

It’s fair to say that a large part of the appeal of Coupling – at least to male viewers – was the combination of Steve’s bewilderment as his attempts to be a ‘good guy’ struggled with the growth needed of him, and the frequent peeks into the chaos factory that was Jeff’s brain.

Patrick, to most guys watching, was That Annoying Friend. Shallow as they come, with no subconscious, he is the Anti-Jeff. There’s no panic and hesitation in Patrick’s brain, he’s sleek, smooth, unconscionable, appallingly successful with women, and – in a move guaranteed to prod the insecurities of every man watching – he even has a 10-inch penis. The combination of slick repartee and what Susan refers to as the ‘tripod’ is what made Susan stay with him for a while, and it’s what makes her recommend him to Sally – despite his being a Tory, which is Sally-code for ‘despicable scum of the Earth.’

There is perhaps less differentiation between the women in Coupling – Sensible Susan is much more friendly overall with Sally than she ever is with Jane, which is understandable given Jane’s position as Steve’s ex. (And yes, Steve has issues with Susan’s ex, Patrick, too, both over his…reputation…and the fact that Patrick has a cupboard full of sex tapes – and Susan’s in there). But sometimes, there’s an attachment between Sally and Jane too, when Susan’s being just too perfect and rational, and the other two want to indulge their own inner childishness.

What are we saying, then? Ultimately, that Coupling presented a great cast of believable characters for their age and the times in which they lived, even if none of the guys were ever exactly likeable.

There’s more to Coupling’s appeal than that, though. This being Steven Moffatt, viewers coming to Coupling fresh in the 2020s having already watched his Doctor Who and Sherlock episodes will find no surprise in the occasional bursts of staggeringly daring sit-com presentation. Some episodes take advantage of split-screen to show the same story from two different perspectives. One episode (Nine and a half Minutes) delivers exactly what it promises – the same space of time run three times over, each from a different perspective. There’s an episode in which Jeff, desperate to date an Israeli woman despite having not a word of the language, bluffs his way through, leading to scenes spoken in Hebrew with English subtitles – which gets particularly hilarious when there’s a misunderstanding over the woman’s name.

All of this was highly innovative in a sit-com format, breaking the linear chronology that was traditional, and allowing Coupling to have more than any one character point-of-view in an episode.

It’s as much that level of storytelling innovation as the elevation of traditional relationship comedy into relationship comedy with extra baggage that puts Coupling in a league above most sit-coms of its era.

Adding a willingness to push the boundaries and include relationship elements that hadn’t been spoken about in sit-com before, like Steve’s porn collection, Patrick’s cupboard of love, and Susan’s positively compulsive rate of ‘battery use’ gives you a comedy that still feels funny and interesting to watch, even if the characters and their dilemmas are no longer the dilemmas faced by young people trying to date.

When Richard Coyle left the show after Series 3, Jeff was written out, and comic-store owner Oliver (Richard Mylan) was added to the group. More geeky than Jeff ever was, he had some of the same insecurities, but none of the spiralling absurdist Hellscape of embarrassment in his mind. As such, after just the one series, he had yet to really compensate for the lack of fundamental Jeffness.

That might have happened in the fifth series that was planned. But with Jack Davenport increasingly in demand in dramas and movies on both sides of the Atlantic, and the call of writing for the rebooted Doctor Who proving irresistible to Steven Moffatt, the decision was made that Coupling had reached its point of logical conclusion at the end of Series 4.

Coupling is, absolutely, a product of its time – a time when watching twentysomethings trying to find the people they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with was hitting the comedy hot spot for lots of people.

But it’s also a product of its time written by Steven Moffatt, so it’s innovative, frequently fabulous, slightly too macho for its own good, and above all, still damn funny nearly twenty years on.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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