Why TV's 'Coupling' failed

Sorry for the delay in writing; I've been trying to create a personal theology based entirely around the new fall season. Why is it that some good shows are cruelly cut down before their time ("Skin," "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.") while others, despite their wickedness, walk and flourish upon the earth ("Whoopi")? Thankfully, the rumors at the time of writing that "The Mullets" is not long for this world make me certain that somewhere out there in Burbank, or some such place, exist benevolent and beneficent programmers. Perhaps not all-knowing, and certainly not always kindly (look what they do to people on "Fear Factor"), but still.

A mystery, however, that has baffled the wisest philosophers and executives alike is the failure of "Coupling" as the newest attempt to fill the gaping hole that will appear in NBC's schedule and profit statements as "Friends" comes to a conclusion. It's not like NBC hasn't been aware of the problem for several years now, and many shows have come and gone, most without a trace. (Which is, incidentally, where many of NBC's viewers have gone on Thursday nights; "CSI" and "Without A Trace" on CBS are drawing bigger and bigger audiences.)

But it seemed like the suits had finally come up with the answer. "Coupling" was, after all, the show based on the hit British show "Coupling", which was itself based on "Friends." So how much more perfect could you get? To ensure quality control, the executives didn't take any chances: they filmed, basically word for word and shot for shot, the original scripts from the British show. When you've got lightning in a bottle, after all, you don't let it out and just kind of hope it decides to wend its way back in.

But the show was an utter disaster. Critics yawned. Rival networks rejoiced. Television watchers at home idly considered taking up reading, and then turned to QVC and bought items they would regret later. And the producers, stars, and network executives donned ashes and sackcloth, and engaged in a time-honored process of blaming everyone under the sun but themselves, confiding to their loved ones that they had never really thought it was going to work, but everyone else was behind it, and so who were they to say no.

But perhaps we can delve deeper into the mysteries of "Coupling"'s failure, given the impressiveness of its pedigree and its somewhat audacious attempt to earn its excellence by wholeheartedly importing the good work of others. Now, you might say that "Coupling" failed because of the Xerox formula: a copy of a copy of a copy always lacks the freshness, the clarity, the sharpness of the original. But I think there's more to it than that, and for that, I turn to my good friend Pierre Menard.

Or, more precisely, to my well-respected literary idol Jorge Luis Borges, who once wrote a story called "Pierre Menard, Author of the 'Don Quixote.'" In the story, Borges suggested that there was a contemporary, twentieth century gentleman, the aforementioned Pierre Menard, who took on the task of writing "Don Quixote." The discriminating readers among you may have noted that there already was a "Don Quixote," a pretty good one at that, written by a guy named Miguel de Cervantes a couple of centuries earlier. But Borges, playful and complex thinker that he is, suggests something different: that Menard somehow manages to create a cultural and an intellectual environment around himself where the sentences that naturally and originally spill from his pen (Borges wrote before laptops) are precisely the same ones as constitute the entire text of "Don Quixote."

Except, of course, that they're entirely different, because coming from a twentieth century writer, they suggest possibilities, ironies, nuances, which are quintessentially modern. A similar thing seems to have happened with "Coupling". The same jokes which resonated so strongly with particular British cultural moments - the homey pub feel where the central characters congregated, the somewhat intentionally wimpy copying of "Reservoir Dogs" in one scene, even the way in which sexually provocative talk figured into one episode - all of these hit the British funny bone in particular ways, and glance off the American funny bone in noticeably different ones. The bar where the American characters sat around with beers felt like an awkward cross between the Central Perk on "Friends" and Cheers; the "Reservoir Dogs" parody felt just out of place; and the dirty talk - well, the less said about the talk, the better.

At the end of "The Producers," one of the characters says something along the lines of, "We had the wrong script, the wrong actors, the wrong director - where did we go right?" Messrs. Bialystock and Bloom of that movie didn't figure their audience right, and neither did the producers of "Coupling".

We are indeed two countries divided by a common language, and those divisions are more profound than we might think. As we go through the process of alienating most of the world, we might want to remember that the people Tony Blair leads aren't necessarily going to follow American policies in lockstep forever. Something to think about as you keep your fingers crossed for the success of "Arrested Development" and warily watch the last struggles of "All About the Andersons."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.