Many years ago, I saw a commercial on BBC America for a television show called Coupling. The commercial made it look like a good laugh, so kitanzi and I decided to give it a look, and completely fell in love with it. It was quirky, it was funny, it was full of highly entertaining characters, and it very quickly became my favourite situation comedy of all time. We bought the seasons on DVD, and showed them to pretty much anyone who would sit still for them, to the extent that I can still probably recite entire episodes of the first season from having seen them so many times. (With only a couple of exceptions, everyone we showed it too also loved it too.)
In 2003, NBC announced they were going to launch a US remake of the show, with an all new cast but retaining the show’s creator and principle writer, Stephen Moffatt (who is now much more widely known for his work on Doctor Who). We greeted this news with a fair bit of trepidation; the show starred absolutely no one anyone had ever heard of, and the track record of remaking quintessentially British shows in America wasn’t very good in recent years1. Still, it did have the original writers working on it, and they were putting a lot of effort into promoting it. How bad could it possibly be?
Fifteen minutes into the first episode, we had our verdict. It could be very, very bad indeed. The episode was pretty much a complete script-lift of the first episode of the UK show, which made already inevitable comparisons to the original impossible to avoid. The dialogue was like a poorly fitted suit, and the actors looked physically uncomfortable with the material. Every single joke fell flat, and the whole exercise was suffused with a general sense of wrongness. By the first commercial, we’d pretty much made our judgement, switched it off, and watched the first season of the UK show on DVD again just to wash the taste out of our mouths. Apparently, that was a pretty universal reaction to the show; it was cancelled after 10 episodes, and is referenced today primarily as a cautionary tale.
Until recently, this would be the end of the story. I certainly had no reason to revisit my opinion of a terrible TV show with no redeeming qualities 10 years after it aired, did I? Prior to this year, I’d have scoffed at the notion, and often did. The US version of Coupling was a punchline, a story to tell children in order to make them behave. What could inspire me to watch that travesty?
Oddly enough, two other shows sparked my curiosity. Eureka and Better Off Ted.
I’d heard a lot of good things about Eureka when it was on the air, but I never got around to watching it. It was another one of those shows that friends and other people who’s taste I generally trust would say generally positive things about, but never so much to make me actually watch it. I caught one of the Christmas episodes at my mom’s house, and she said a lot of nice things about the show, and I knew that Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton both had recurring roles in later years, which piqued my interest, but not enough to drop into a show I’d never watched in the middle of its fourth season. When we moved in with runningwolf, it turned out it was one of her favourite shows and she suggested it as a dinnertime viewing selection, so we started with it from season one and it quickly became our go-to programme to watch together. We’ve gotten up to the last season and I know I’ll be a bit sad to see the end of it, but I’m very grateful to have experienced it.
Better Off Ted was a criminally short-lived comedy that I first heard about from markbernstein. It got two half-seasons on ABC, and while it was well received by critics, no one watched it and it died of low ratings. Because of Mark’s recommendation2, I had added it to my Netflix queue as a thing to watch one day, and a couple of weeks ago, when kitanzi suggested we watch “something funny”, I pulled it up and said “I hear this is good. Give it a try?” It was a good choice. Better Off Ted‘s absurdist satire is right up my alley, and watching it now, long after its exit from the airwaves, I can only wonder how badly it must have been promoted to have not taken off. Terrific cast, snappy writing, and innovative breaking of the fourth wall. If you’ve not seen this show, go watch it. It’s worth your time.
As I often do when watching some new show that I hadn’t seen before, I glanced through IMDB to see what else I might have seen various actors in. Sometimes I just do this because they look vaguely familiar, and sometimes because I figure if I like someone in something I might like them in something else. And it was here that I discovered that Tim Harrington, who plays the lead in Better Off Ted, was also Steve in the US version of Coupling. And not only that, but Colin Ferguson who plays the lead in Eurkea, was Patrick.
“Wow,” I thought. We’d not heard of either of them when that aired. I wonder if it would be interesting to rewatch that, just to see those two in it now that we know who they are?
I resisted this notion for a while. I mean, that show as terrible. Everyone knows that. And watching actors you like in a painfully bad production is never fun. Is it?
I decided to test the notion. Searching around the dark corners of the underweb, I found the 10 episodes of Coupling US, which had been capped from a European cable channel called Canal+, complete with, of all things, subtitles in Swedish. I decided that if I was going to review this, I was going to commit to it, and watch all ten episodes, rather than just bailing on it like I did the first time. I’m glad I did, because the first three episodes are still painful. Each was a remake of an episode of the UK series, and they suffer from the same problems I’d observed in my first viewing of the pilot ten years ago: bad timing, poor execution, and generally flat lifeless storytelling.
But in the fourth episode, something amazing happened. Rather than being a forklift of an existing episode, it was an entirely original script. With dialogue written for them, the actors for the first time looked comfortable in their roles, the jokes popped, and I found myself genuinely laughing at the show for the first time. Given the freedom to create their own parts rather than simply copying their British counterparts, the show relaxed and started to gel into something that could stand apart from its origins. Tim Harrington’s Steve isn’t nearly so flustered and panicked as Jack Davenport’s, and Colin Ferguson’s Patrick isn’t quite as thick as Ben Miles3. Christopher Moynihan’s Jeff lacks the fundamental weirdness that Richard Coyle possessed, but manages to bring the part a certain self-awareness that humanises the part, while Lindsay Price’s Jane is more grounded (and, in many ways, more predatory) than Gina Bellman. Rena Sofer manages to play Susan as less uptight and a bit more wounded, and while Sonya Walger never really did manage to do much with the part of Sally, there were signs she was developing into a more interesting character too, particularly in the Christmas episode. By the time the final episode rolled around, I found I was genuinely enjoying the show – not as a remake of the original, but as something new that had striking similarities to the programme which inspired it, but which nevertheless stood on its own.
I’m not going to try and convince you that the US remake of Coupling was great. It suffers from a lot of the problems that all sitcoms do, and is wildly uneven, especially when it tries to go back to the recycled scripts well in episodes like “Foreign Affairs” (which lifts from “The Girl With Two Breasts”) or “Dressed”, but even those have enough new material mixed in that they aren’t entirely unbearable. As a series, it doesn’t approach the genius of its predecessor but there are individual episodes which indicate that given enough time to find it’s own rhythm and its own voice, it could have been a fine series in its own right.
1And Coupling is in many ways quintessentially British. A common reaction to it when we were first watching it was “You’d never get away with that on American television.”
2Aside from Better Off Ted, Mark turned me onto So You Think You Can Dance and The Big Bang Theory. As a result, I value Mark’s recommendations very highly.
3Its amusing, at times, to imagine that Steve and Patrick here are in fact younger versions of Ted Crisp and Jack Carter. It doesn’t really hold up in the long run, but it’s still funny.