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Tuned In: 'Coupling' entwined in smut, not laughs

Thursday, September 25, 2003

By Rob Owen

Morally, NBC's "Coupling" (9:30 tonight) is pretty reprehensible. Skin is intimated, not shown, but the dialogue and innuendo are pretty graphic, some would say pornographic. Perhaps it's the first porn-com, since all topics lead back to sex.

But my job is not to be a morality cop. Besides, one man's porn is another's art. So looking at "Coupling" as a TV show, I can only say it's more smutty than funny, taking innocent phraseology and sullying it in the service of tired double-entendres.

NBC has hyped the show as the successor to "Friends," but even though "Friends" can be racy, from its first episode it had distinct characters and relationships based on friendship, love and at least a modicum of respect.

In "Coupling," the horny characters are indistinguishable because the topic is so one-note (this is especially true for the guys).

Steve (Jay Harrington) wants to break up with Jane (Lindsay Price), but he can't because they keep having sex.

"You have sex? How?" asks best friend Jeff (Christopher Moynihan).

"She suggests it," Steve says.

"Evil," Jeff replies.

Other characters include Jeff's co-worker, Susan (Rena Sofer), who breaks up with tall Patrick (Colin Ferguson). I mention that he's tall because that's his only distinguishing characteristic. Patrick then begins dating Susan's best friend, Sally (Sonya Walger), who's obsessed with her looks.

By the end of tonight's premiere, Susan ends up revealing a single breast to her friends, "just to show you how pathetic and desperate you all are," she says.

Sort of like NBC?

Some of the humor is amusing and original, particularly the notion of Jeff and Steve as "porn buddies."

"In the event of Steve's death, I'll go to his place and remove all his pornography before his parents can find it," Jeff says. "He's supposed to do the same thing for me. That's how close we are."

That's at least clever, but in general, there are more shocks than yuks. Even in next week's episode, the humor is too much an exaggeration of reality. When Jane's aunt dies, Jane invites Steve to the funeral and wants him to pretend to still be her boyfriend. Susan demands to come along and somehow Patrick, Sally and Jeff end up joining them in one big communication snafu that's too ridiculous to be believed.

Truth in comedy is essential; that's why "Everybody Loves Raymond" is such a smash. It's based in the truth -- weird and dysfunctional as it can be -- of family life. Maybe "Coupling" is based in someone's reality, but not mine and not that of anyone I know.

"Coupling" is adapted from a British series of the same name, and the first two NBC episodes are based on almost identical scripts used for the Britcom, which was created by Steven Moffat.

"There's no level of cheap manipulation that will work," Steve says while trying to break up with Jane.

That sentiment doesn't stop the couple or NBC, a television network so desperate for success that it's willing to push the envelope, pulverize it, shred it and flush it down the toilet along with any sense of respectability or responsibility.


Admittedly, I stopped watching "ER" regularly a year ago, but the promos hinting at the death of a main character were enough to motivate me to watch the review tape provided by NBC. The first two episodes of the season are wildly different in tone.

Tonight's show (10 p.m.) is set in the ER, which is under construction. The revolving door of characters turns again and in walks new med student Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra, "Bend It Like Beckham"). This seems to happen every couple of years on "ER" -- the newbie enters to be the eyes of the audience.

Neela is immediately likable, and, in true soap opera fashion, the attention she attracts from the other men of the ER creates some jealousy. Tonight's show is her hour; she even takes the fateful phone call heard in previews that hints at a death.

Next week's episode is set in war-torn Congo as Carter (Noah Wyle) navigates the bureaucracy as he tries to reunite with Kovac (Goran Visnjic), whom he last saw when he left Congo in May's season finale. For anyone still engrossed by the show, it's probably a meaningful hour. For those who have already checked out, there's no compelling reason to scrub in again.

'Without a Trace'

This missing-persons drama became a hit with viewers over the summer and it returns in fine form tonight as Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) and his team try to find a school bus full of missing high school students.

As usual, it's a tense hour and all is not as it seems.

There are also some nice character moments as Sam Spade (Poppy Montgomery) recovers from the trauma of being shot in May's two-part season finale and the end of her relationship with Jack.

More engrossing than "ER," the newfound ratings success that greeted "Without a Trace" (10 tonight, CBS) this summer is unlikely to go missing even with increased competition from original "ER" episodes.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 .

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