Uncoupled Identities
By A.D. Freudenheim  

12 October 2003

In the last year, I have had a number of opportunities to see the British television show “Coupling,” whether via the BBC programming often run on American public television stations, or through the in-flight entertainment systems on one or another transatlantic flights. The British show is funny, cheeky, and sexy, if not emotionally or intellectually interesting; and as the title suggests, it centers on three men and three women who, in varying ways and combinations, are coupling up with each other or outsiders.

As NBC’s hit series “Friends” enters its last season this fall, much was made of the network’s decision to launch an American version of this hit British show. There has been commentary galore, as a search on Google will reveal, along with a whole weblog of reviews that have been gathered since the sitcom premiered.[1] The desire to have a new series pick up where “Friends” will leave off – and to keep NBC’s “must see TV” appeal to the Generation Y audience – was transparent.

What is less clear is NBC’s decision to transfer the show with no changes in character structure or development, aside from dropping the English accents and doing away with the slightly-dingy pub scene in favor of a more upscale, anonymous American bar. In a review of the by Kate O’Hare show on the Zap2It.com TV web site, she writes “[Writer Phoef] Sutton thinks [Executive Producer Steven] Moffat already has given the American ‘Coupling’ a leg up. ‘Just the way the stories are told and the universality of the characters and their attitudes, it didn’t feel like it was a real stretch to move it.’” To me, this is precisely what makes the show uninteresting – the characters’ universality only works in an environment that sees five white people and one half-Asian as “universal.”[2] The American “Coupling” characters have no depth, and the only thing they are or represent are the (bawdy) one-liners they toss off. They have been uncoupled from any kind of identity that might make them engaging.

In the US, much of what has made for successful television are the shows that have been able to find the right kind of character pitch and tone. We are a large and diverse nation, with many different ethnicities and fields of interest, so for a show to be successful it has to find a way to bridge this gap, either by giving us something to which we can relate (e.g., the hassles of everyday life, in “Seinfeld”), or very explicitly showing us a world to which we might aspire (e.g., the absurd opulence in “Dallas”). Of course, there are exceptions, like the shows that appeal solely for their sexual content[3], but even these contain an “ethnic” element, since the contestants on everything from “The Bachelor” to “America’s Hottest People” are (at least mildly) representative of the diversity of the US itself.

Even “Friends,” the show “Coupling” looks intended to replace, built in different character elements that made it possible to find one or another of them of personal interest: one is Italian (Joey), two are (nominally) Jewish (Ross and Rachel), one is classic-screwed-up-WASP-with-transvestite-father (Chandler), and another seems to be something on the verge of white trash (Phoebe). Sure, they may have been six young, attractive, upper-middle-class “kids” hanging out in New York, but they all had dreams and aspirations, and they all had pasts – and the humor in each episode was usually built onto a framework that combined their pasts and their aspirations into something funny, but something to which we, the audience, could relate.

“Coupling” lacks almost all of this. The show’s five generic white actors and one only-slightly-less-generic half-Asian are its sum total; other than this, ethnicities are eschewed completely. Over the course of the three episodes shown thus far, we’ve learned how they all got to know each other, and what the earlier couplings were that brought them into each other’s company. They all seem to be employed, though it isn’t clear what any of them actually do, nor do they have pasts or identities that stretch beyond the start of the show. The one element of “depth” is a combination of each character’s sexual history and sexual snafus – which, while amusing, is not enough.

As much as England has seen tremendous immigration over the last few decades, it is still a very homogeneous nation. Maybe that is what made the British version of “Coupling” successful – hanging out in the pub drinking pints and bantering until all hours probably fits with what everyone’s normative view of English life is supposed to be like (even if the reality is different). The British version does not even have the half-Asian character, and it does not need to; in the very white English society, the six white actors are as much a part of the crowd as anyone else. My guess, however, is that the American version of the show will not survive; it’s lack of depth and cluelessness about the broad mixture that is American society – the combination of cultures and interests that makes this nation so vibrant, so engaging, and so successful – will doom it to a short season.

[1] See the TV Tattle weblog at http://www.tvtattle.com/shows/fall2003/coupling.html
[2] "NBC's 'Coupling' Translates from the English," by Kate O'Hare, located at:
[3] See my article "The Politics of 'Hot'"
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