This British Show Was Like Friends, Except That It Was Much Better

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 24 2014 10:22 AM

Gateway Episodes: Coupling

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 2.53.16 PM
So, Steve, tell us all your embarassing sex secrets.

Screenshot via Hulu.com

When I ask people if they’ve seen the show I’m about to recommend, a common response is, “You mean the British one?” Yes, the British one. Coupling, a sitcom from the early aughts, was created by Steven Moffat, also a co-creator of the current BBC series Sherlock and showrunner for Doctor Who. It was billed as a Friends-like series from across the pond—but while many people seem to remember the title, relatively few Americans seem to have actually seen it. And those who haven't are missing out.

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Coupling centers on Steve and Susan, a thirtysomething couple who begin dating at the start of the show; their respective best friends, Jeff and Sally; and their respective exes, Jane and Patrick. So yes, there are six of them, and a variety of romantic pairings ensue, but a comparison to Friends doesn’t get you far: Coupling gives us a funnier, raunchier, and more honest look at relationships.

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As with Moffat’s other shows, the series is full of quippy dialogue and copious absurdism. These qualities are particularly fitting for a comedy about courtship: Intimacy often looks absurd to outsiders (part of what makes it intimate is that only the participants get it) and dating is the perfect excuse for flirtatious repartee. The show also delivers hilarious but completely sensible advice from implausible sources. (Jeff, Steve’s best friend, offers his “Foreplay Tip No.1” in one of the first episodes: Figure out when to take off your socks, “because no respectable woman would ever ‘do the squilchy’ with a naked man in socks.”) 

The episode that captures all this best is “Inferno,” from early in the show’s first season. Steve and Susan have been going out long enough to be comfortably couple-y, but they’re not yet being entirely honest with each other. Then Steve discovers that Susan was at his apartment when one of his porn videos was lying about (this was the tail end of the VHS era)—and she found it.

A few brief minutes reveal so much about each character, while also being extremely funny. Steve’s immaturity and Susan’s manipulative side are immediately plain—but so is Steve’s besotted-ness and Susan’s bemused patience. After this scene, the group murmur amongst themselves about the consequences of Susan’s find throughout the episode. And it all culminates in a riotous dinner party where Steve and Susan’s friends, plus Jane’s therapist (you’ll have to watch the episode to find out why she’s there), come together.

Moffat envisioned fully-fledged, multifaceted characters for this show, and we get to see each dimension as the series unfolds. Frequently, it’s a character’s weakness that comes to the fore: Jane’s self-absorption, Sally’s vanity, Jeff’s neuroses, and Patrick’s vapidity provide hours of high (and low) comedy. But as each member of the circle is forced to confront the worst in themselves, they actually grow and mature—and viewers come to see more of the good in them.

The show ran for 28 episodes total over four seasons. As Steve and Susan’s relationship progresses, the narrative momentum is sustained by the will-they-or-won’t-they tension that emerges between Sally and Patrick. In the last season, Moffat manages the departure of Jeff, and his replacement with dorky-but-earnest Oliver, with skill. The show has its highs and lows, of course, and with so few episodes, the lesser ones stand out starkly. But that just means you won’t re-watch those. The others, like “Inferno,” get funnier with each viewing.