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THE FALL TV SEASON

Will sex sell this show?

Based on a British series, 'Coupling' hits a new level of network raunchiness.

September 25, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Coupling," a tiresome new sitcom premiering tonight on NBC, has been cloned from a British show of the same name, which itself bears a more than passing resemblance to "Friends," the departing series it is being positioned to replace in spirit and (the network hopes) ratings, if not in time slot. Three men and three women of similar age and income go round and round in a do-si-do of attraction, repulsion and indomitable companionship. As in the BBC original, they are named Steve (Jay Harrington), Susan (Rena Sofer), Jane (Lindsay Price), Sally (Sonya Walger), Jeff (Christopher Moynihan) and Patrick (Colin Ferguson), and they stand in the same relation to one another and the world that they did in the British show. They are six characters in search of ... something less than love but more than a hickey.

Described by corporate voices as " 'Friends' with sex" (and I thought "Friends" was "Friends" with sex), "Coupling" is not so different in kind from previous frisky American prime-time sitcoms as it is in the frequency, specificity and explicitness of the naughty bits. ("Seinfeld," that other former star of the NBC Thursday, is another clear influence, for the frequent use of social shorthand -- "the giggle loop," "hand stamp," "the window," "decoy date" are some of the concepts covered here -- and the idea that what dooms human relations is the fact that they involve humans.)

While cable television is routinely naughtier than this, and has been for a good long time, "Coupling" does achieve a level of raunch new to broadcast TV -- what is sometimes amusingly called the public airwaves.

It wasn't all that long ago that sex had no place on TV. Writers found other subjects -- talking horses and cars, Old West spies. There were "sexy" characters, like Elly May Clampett and Catwoman, Jeannie the genie and all those alien girls Capt. Kirk loved and left. But the Act, as anything more than a gleam in the eye or a fade to a commercial, was taboo.

At some point in the last decade, however, driven by cable TV's capability to say or show just about anything, it became the Subject -- the obsession of most every sitcom character over the age of consent. Body parts, positions, technical failures became the stuff of general hilarity. And there is something to be said for a society that can look sex straight on and snigger.

But "Coupling," in its American incarnation, does not make a good case for this trend. There is a thin line between sophistication and puerility, which sometimes comes down to a line reading. Given that the two episodes available for preview almost exactly replicate their funnier, harder-edged British models, and were helmed by their originators, the clear inferiority of the American brand must have something to do with the execution -- with the direction or acting or possibly the accents. (Only Price consistently stands out; she's more of a funny little animal than a human girl.) It is stiff and strained; the naughty bits play as labored, and the characters seem interested in each other only because the script says so.

The series has already been pulled by two affiliates (in Salt Lake City and South Bend, Ind.). Elsewhere, it will probably run a decade.

*

'Coupling'

Where: NBC

When: Thursdays, 9:30-10 p.m.; premieres tonight

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-14 (may not be suitable for children younger than 14)

Rena Sofer...Susan

Jay Harrington...Steve

Lindsay Price...Jane

Colin Ferguson...Patrick

Sonya Walger...Sally

Christopher Moynihan...Jeff

Creator, Steven Moffat. Executive producers, Ben Silverman, Phoef Sutton, Beryl Vertue, Sue Vertue, Moffat. Writers, Gina Gold, Zack Rosenblatt, Kourtney Kang.

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