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Coupling Comes Uncoupled

It’s rare that I get angry at television shows. I mean, there are things I like and I don’t like, obviously, but most of the time, I recognize that television is a meant to be a diversion, and a rather harmless one at that, so I have my rage for more important things like the Bush administration and the A’s bullpen.

But the Coupling finale — that left me quaking with rage. And it took me a while to be able to articulate why — actually, I’m not sure if I can put it coherently, but I’ll take a stab at it.

I think that by any objective measure, Jeff Murdock is probably the most fully-realized character created for television in the past five years. I’d be willing to entertain arguments that he’s one of the top 10 characters of all time. Certainly, he’s in the top 20, and there’s no real competition among shows of recent vintage.

That probably seems obvious, but it really isn’t. The awkward, horny guy is a staple of TV comedy, and on most shows, it’s a role handled with deadening incompetence. As brilliant a character as Jeff may have been, you make the performance a little more broad and the scripts a little less sharp, and what you’re left with is Screech from Saved by the Bell.

Certainly, Richard Coyle should get a share of the credit for walking that fine line between genius and stupid — hell, we gave him a fake award last year because of it. But Steven Moffat also deserves his share of the credit. He put the words in Jeff’s mouth. He formed Jeff’s particular idiosyncrasies. He created the character.

So I guess I don’t understand why he would treat a character he took great care to create with such contempt.

Because that’s what he did with "Jeffina," a bizarrely chosen dream-sequence version of Jeff trapped in the body of a pregnant (but still Welsh) schoolmarm. He took a fully realized, endearing character and turned him into a toothless punchline. Jeff’s uniqueness, his endearing insecurities, his unique percspective — everything that made him an fun to watch, in other words — got stripped away, leaving us with the run-of-the-mill awkward, horny sitcom guy. Only this time, he comes with his own breasts.

Har de fucking har.

Richard Coyle apparently did not leave Coupling on good terms, not offering to make an appearance to write his character out or even explaining why he refused to return to the show. And really, I can conceive of no other explanation outside of pure spite for why Moffat would turn one of his own brilliantly constructed characters into an overly self-aware ain’t-I-being-clever narrative device. I can't think of a better way to take a parting shot at an actor, than by turning the character he’s most closely associated with into a joke. The trouble is that by taking such pains to belittle Coyle’s contributions to Coupling, Moffat only underscored how badly the show missed Jeff this season.

It probably didn’t help that the actress they had play Jeff’s doppelganger was — in my estimation, at least — screamingly awful. She had no since of timing, no spark of invention — she sounded like a bad stand-up comic churning out a barely recognizable imitation. In the end, she only succeeded at making a bad joke worse.

There were a lot of things to dislike about the last episode. Spending time on the Oliver-Jane and Patrick-Sally storylines killed the pacing. Someone needs to explain to the horrible man playing Oliver that shouting his lines doesn’t make them any funnier. And perhaps if I ever become a father myself, I’ll find the overwrought blather about the transformative power of fatherhood spewed by Steve at episode’s end to be heartwarming and moving. But probably only if, during the delivery, someone hits me at the base of the skull with a bat, turning me into a drooling vegetable. And even then, I’d probably still find the speech a little schlocky.

But all that is forgivable. What isn’t is the stupefying disrespect with which I feel Moffat treated his own creation. That’s his right as creator of the character in question, I suppose. Just like it’s my right as an audience member to wonder why I bothered caring in the first place, since he made it clear to me that he doesn’t.

(Editor's Note: "Coupling" creator and writer Steven Moffat vociferously disagrees with this article, and wrote us to say so. It is Mr. Moffat's stated opinion that he was not acting spitefully toward Richard Coyle or anyone else when he wrote the scene featuring "Jeffina":

This the kind of rubbish that ends up being accepted as true and getting back to the people concerned. And since I have no desire to hurt Richard's feeling... I would be grateful, if you would append to the review a statement that the above reflects your own views and not mine, of which you have no knowledge.

Fair enough. Philip Michaels and TeeVee won't retract the opinions or interpretations of the meaning of Mr. Moffat's work in the piece. But we're happy to make his dissenting opinion clear in this space.)


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