Farcical, slightly surreal, and completely obsessed with sex – Coupling was a very British take on the modern group sitcom.
With its theme of sex and dating amongst a group of friends in an urban setting, and an ensemble cast of six, British sitcom Coupling was inevitably compared to its American counterpart Friends. But it was more than just a quick copy, it captured the spirit of modern relationships in new millennium perfectly, and in a uniquely British way. Coupling perhaps owes more to the stage tradition of the bedroom farce than formulaic television show.
Written by Steven Moffat, and first airing in 2000, it ran for 28 episodes over four series on the BBC. Coupling was driven by sexual pairings, disconnection and re-coupling, embarrassing misunderstandings, and how situations can be interpreted differently by men and women, particularly when it comes to sex.
The set ups and situations of the episodes verged on the improbable, yet there was a warmth and familiarity to the show which younger audiences could relate to. The experience of navigating modern relationships, conversations between friends, and viewing friends as our modern urban family. And there was sex talk, lots of it.
Coupling was the concept and lovingly crafted product of one writer, rather than being over-engineered by committee in a writer’s room each week. Commissioned (possibly) as a result of the success of its transatlantic cousin, the group dynamic was an intrinsic part of its appeal and capitalised on the popularity of group-based sitcoms.
But the show is essentially about two people, Susan and Steve, who get together but bring with them all the baggage from their past. Their friends, their ex-partners and all their relationship insecurities. Those characters were essentially autobiographical in nature and based on Moffat’s own relationship with his partner Sue Virtue.
Coupling was tightly cast, predominantly focussed on six main characters – three women and three men. New couple Steve and Susan, played by Jack Davenport and Sarah Alexander, are at the centre of the friendship group, but the other four main characters have equal attention.
Jeff (Richard Coyle) is awkward and constantly sexually frustrated, with his eccentricity and bizarre actions responsible for a lot of the comedy. Susan’s rather serious best friend Sally (Kate Isitt) is insecure and terrible at relationships. Patrick (Ben Miles) is Susan’s ex-boyfriend with a one-track mind (sex again). Successful at pulling women but not keeping them, numerous plot points revolve around the rather generous size of his penis. Jane (Gina Bellman) is Steve’s self-obsessed and unconventional ex-girlfriend who can’t seem to get over him. When the character of Jeff leaves the show by the final series, the group is joined in his place by geeky Oliver (Richard Mylan).
There is perhaps an overstated sense of the women being the more confident, more knowing, and ultimately victorious in most situations, with the men often portrayed as frankly useless. But due to the originality of the storytelling there is no feeling of caricature, despite pushing those traditional sitcom stereotypes.
The show felt fresh and original, and very of its time. The style, the characters, situations, even the colour palette of the title sequence scream early 2000s. It also challenged the usual sitcom conventions, employing split screen and non-linear storytelling, different perspectives, and even an episode half spoken in Hebrew.
Some plot points verged on the ridiculous, adding to the feeling of surreal nature of the show. The characters themselves, particularly Jeff and Jane, often take the absurdity to a whole different level, which perhaps links it more to Seinfeld than Friends in tone.
Eminently quotable, with situational farce at its core, each episode of Coupling presented 30 minutes of intricately woven, sharply scripted stand-alone comedy. With its distorted narratives and playful visual style, it cleverly challenged our perceptions of what a traditional ensemble sitcom could be. But it also relied on warm characterisation, in-jokes and longer-running themes which had you invested in the outcome for each character, without resorting to sentimentality.
Despite the comedy being focussed very much on the situational, it still had a lot to say about modern love and relationships. There are universal themes within the show, but they are presented in a unique way which sets it apart, rather like a Nora Ephron script played out on the set of a Brian Rix stage farce dressed for the modern age.