Coupling is what used to be called a comedy of manners. Such pieces deal with the minutiae of social etiquette between members of the “mannered” (i.e. elite) class. If you count young urban professionals who hang out in designer bars and restaurants as an elite, then this one fits the bill. If that also sounds quite a lot like Friends, then it’s not surprising, as the format – six twentysomethings in permanent friendship plus shifting states of relationship – is pure Friends-on-Thames.
True to its purpose (and unlike the real Friends), Coupling is obsessed with codifying the unwritten social rules of smart urban life, and to this end the characters sit round telling each other about them for what seems like most of the time.
The plot in this week’s repeat concerned one of the Friends seeing the naked backside of his girlfriend’s best friend, who is also a Friend. This was the cue for the Friends to divide along gender lines and head off to separate designer bars, where they could endlessly discuss whether the butt-view constituted the crossing of a line, how the “head laugh” was a giveaway of a Friend With Something To Hide, and so on. At times it was more like an Open University foundation course (“Unit S492 – Introduction To Smart Urban Living”) than a sitcom, and about as visually immobile, too.
The show’s underlying formality is made worse by an almost total lack of chemistry between the characters. Now in their third series, they still seem as if they’ve met for the first time in rehearsals that morning. At times Gina Bellman, the Phoebe figure, seems as if she’s wandered in from a different sitcom altogether, something the real Phoebe, Lisa Kudrow, manages to avoid. But with scripts as textbook (literally) as these it would be hard to achieve anything more naturalistic.
There are some very good punchlines, as in this week’s anecdote about Patrick (the Joey figure) dating twins who pretended to be the same woman and wore him out. “If they’d been identical it would have been even harder to tell them apart” he said, giving us a neatly surreal insight into how much attention he paid to the women he slept with. But these lines are spaced too far apart, the gaps filled by yet more mannered interactions.
One reference book notes that comedies of manners are “usually written by sophisticated authors for members of their own coterie or social class.” That’s exactly how Coupling feels – smart media professionals making a show for other smart, sophisticated professionals. Nice of them to let the rest of us watch.