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"Coupling" Casting Call

If it weren't for academia's crushing dissertation requirements and my need to actually have a career that makes money, I might be a professor of television at some poorly accredited institution of higher learning right now. Or at least, that's what I think when I write stuff like my theory of TV life cycles. But in lieu of tenure at Mideast Kansas Tech or the Kentucky Institute of Mines and Fisheries, I just foist my half-baked theories off on TeeVee readers. Here's the latest one.

Through various means -- not all of them particularly legal -- I managed to acquire the not-yet-aired pilot for NBC's remake of the British sitcom Coupling. The original series is the best thing on TV today -- a comedy that's consistently laugh-out-loud funny in an age when most sitcoms aren't even sit-and-stare funny. The good news is, the new NBC version has had some supervision from the BBC version's creator and producers. They're using the UK scripts (supplemented by their own, of course, since the first UK season was only six episodes long).

And yet the new Coupling is, while not horrendously bad, clearly lacking when compared to the British version. It's the same script, albeit trimmed by about eight minutes due to our silly American compulsion to air commercials. And yet scenes that were mostly fine in the UK version are somewhat cringeworthy in the U.S. edition.

How to explain it? If you listen to the cranks on the BBC America message boards, you'll hear that it's because American television is awful and therefore was bound to screw up Coupling. Not good enough of a reason, I'm afraid. First off, there's plenty of good stuff on U.S. television. And unlike some UK-to-U.S. transfers (Bea Arthur in a Fawlty Towers remake -- without a Basil? John Larroquette in a Fawlty Towers remake -- with a painfully unfunny one?), this remake has managed to repurpose the original's series scripts, character names, character traits, you name it.

UK Coupling

Steve and Jeff in UK (above) and U.S. (below) versions.

U.S. Coupling

I'm tempted to say it's the accents. Anything sounds better if it's in a British accent, some would say. And you can't discount the exotic nature of a series hiding in the upper reaches of your cable or satellite program guide, imported from a far-off land, with numerous references to subjects strange and unknown here in the states (things like murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen or TV presenter and columnist Mariella Frostrup are not exactly topics of conversation on this side of the pond). Being a fan of the UK Coupling is tantamount to declaring yourself a clever, differentiating person. You're the member of an exclusive club.

For an American fan of the original, the U.S. version is rough and crude, if only because of the accents and the search-and-replace removal of odd Britishisms. Out with Crippen, in with... the Titanic? I'm very curious to see how someone who hasn't seen every episode of the UK series a half-dozen times reacts, because the show might play quite differently without the baggage I bring to it.

So while I'm sure that's part of the reason behind my reaction to this new American take on Coupling, I'm not convinced it's the real issue.

I think of Couplings A and B as a bit of a science experiment. What happens if we take the same show with the same script, and attach two different casts? For arguments sake, let's assume the differences between American and British sensibilities are negligible. But the fact that Susan looks like Rena Sofer and not Sarah Alexander -- that's a real, tangible difference. The childhood (and childlike) friendship between Steve and Jeff is no longer played by Jack Davenport and Richard Coyle, but by Jay Harrington and Christopher Moynihan.

Imagine watching an episode of Friends played by an entirely different set of actors. Or of Seinfeld. (Strike that. There was an episode of Seinfeld with everyone except Jerry playing the familiar characters -- Jeremy Piven as George! -- and it was creepy as all get-out.)

UK Version

One of these things is not like the other...

UK Coupling

So perhaps the real problem with NBC trying to replicate Coupling's overseas success is that the show succeeds as much because of its casting as because of its script. I'm not trying to knock Stephen Moffat's excellent writing. Far from it: I think Coupling's the best-written comedy around. But bad casting can kill even good writing, and good casting can make up for a lot of script deficiencies. (I can think of several seasons of Friends that were only salvaged by the strength of that show's cast.)

NBC knows casting is important, too. Only two of the six U.S. Coupling cast members survived the original pilot the network shot. I shudder to think about how bad that beta group must have been, but I do have to admit the last half of this second U.S. Coupling pilot was a lot better than the first 15 minutes. Perhaps the casting decisions NBC has made this time around will work. But even with a half-dozen solid scripts, the U.S. version of Coupling is a gamble. Good casting is a mixture of skill and good luck; if NBC is lucky, they'll make good. The scripts certainly are good enough.

But still, part of me wonders if the safest way to approach a U.S. version of Coupling would have been to re-shoot the series with its original actors -- and just ask them to speak a little more clearly. You know, without the funny accents and the references to Mariella Frostrup. Or, failing that, just take the British version of the show and find six American actors to dub over it, Japanese monster movie-style.

I'm sure Bea Arthur and John Larroquette would jump at the work.


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