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'Coupling' loses its wit in translation

Lacking the nuance and naughtiness of its British counterpart, a new sitcom offers pretty people playing it safe.

Published September 19, 2003

First, let's note that the idea of basing an American comedy series on a British TV show is nothing new. Some of our most classic sitcoms share this pedigree, including All in the Family, Three's Company and Cosby.

But few series have attempted what NBC is trying with its new sitcom Coupling, which features scripts almost completely imported from the BBC version, with minor tweaks to tone down language and remove the Britishisms.

The BBC's basic concept was simple: nice guy Jack meets beautiful blond Susan while he's trying to dump clingy, wrong-for-him girlfriend Jane. Susan had just been dumped by shallow boyfriend Patrick, who winds up dating Susan's friend Sally. Susan, who works in an office with Jack's weirdo best friend Jeff, tries dating Jack while keeping all their oddball friends at bay.

Okay, maybe it's not so simple.

Still, given Coupling's success overseas - the show has completed three seasons in Britain - one might expect an easy transition. NBC has paved the way, handing the show its coveted 9:30 p.m. Thursday time slot, between popular hits Will & Grace and ER, virtually ensuring it will debut in the Top 10.

But despite its billing as the ultimate combo of Friends and Sex and the City - NBC's copy of Coupling is more dud than stud.

How did such a promising property go so wrong?

Let's go to the tape - or, in this case, the DVDs - and compare the first two episodes NBC provided to critics ("The Right One" and "Sex, Death and Nudity") with their original BBC counterparts ("Flushed" and "Sex, Death and Nudity").

Forget all the controversy over the series' sexual content; watching both offers a crash course in how a few changes in inflection and production can entirely remove whatever comedy there was in a show that wasn't consistently funny to start with.

The Setting

BBC - The British Coupling is filmed in the streets of London, inside pubs and restaurants and within sets that look like realistic approximations of places people might live, similar to how New York is portrayed in Sex and the City. The result: a series that feels less like a pampered producer's fantasy and more like a really cool evening out with some oddball (if highly sexed) friends.

NBC - Like Friends, the U.S. Coupling is filmed on a brightly colored studio stage that looks even less like New York City, lending an unrealistic feel that hardly helps the comedy. Rather than evoking the idealized urban playground Friends dabbles in, Coupling's cardboard world makes accepting its shallow, uninspired characters even tougher.

The Characters

BBC - Industry types joke about how ugly some British TV actors can be, but Coupling's English cast simply comes across as more real. Certainly, beautiful blond star Sarah Alexander (as Susan) is a knockout by any stretch, but her Steve (played by Jack Davenport) is a small-screen Hugh Grant - bumbling, reasonably attractive in an uptight, British sort of way, and totally believable.

NBC - This cast is blindingly beautiful, in typical Hollywood fashion. Rena Sofer tops the list as Susan, backed by Mind of the Married Man refugee Sonya Walger as best friend Sally and exotic knockout Lindsay Price as the sexed-up ex, Jane. With a star as jaw-dropping as Sofer, the pilot's showcase scene - in which Susan flashes a breast at the five other characters in a restaurant for some reason or another - feels contrived and needlessly exploitive.

The writing

BBC - Writers use explicit terms for male and female body parts and allow the age-phobic Sally to heap mean-spirited insults on an 80-something woman at a funeral ("This has got to be your last funeral standing up," she cracks at one point). But other touches are curiously old-fashioned - like the scene in which Jane tries to tempt Jack by wearing stockings (in NBC's version, she tempts Jack by not wearing underwear).

NBC - Besides taking out particularly raunchy Brit jokes (one line NBC excised involved wordplay about swallows), the U.S. version speeds up the comedy, stripping out the nuance. Toss in actors who deliver punch lines with all the subtlety of a Mack truck, and you have a show that's trying too hard (the only American actor who really nails her character is Price, who plays the clingy, sexy Jane as a streetwise Anna Nicole Smith type).

The sex

BBC - While trying to dump Jane, Jack winds up having sex with her in the women's lavatory of a bar, with no mention of condoms.

NBC - Jack has the same encounter, with slightly more left to the imagination and a big joke made of him sending weirdo pal Jeff out to get a condom from a stranger.

So while Americans may not be as explicit about sex as our British neighbors, it seems we're much safer about it - at least in prime time.

[Last modified September 18, 2003, 10:37:41]

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