Spot the Difference

While we tend to think of the United States, more specifically Los Angeles, as the center of the entertainment universe, American producers have a long history of taking British television series and adapting them for the American market (And I do mean a long history.  Check out THIS LIST.).  They have had some major successes with this technique.  All in the Family (Till Death Do Us Part in the UK), Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son in the UK), and The Office (Also called The Office in the UK, oddly enough) all enjoyed long runs on US television.  We also have the British to “thank” for many of our reality shows, such as American Idol (Pop Idol in the UK).

One of these British adaptations started on FOX this season.  Gracepoint sticks fairly close to its progenitor, Broadchurch, and Broadchurch star (and my favorite Doctor from Doctor Who) David Tennant came over to reprise his role as the lead detective investigating the murder of a young boy in a small coastal town. 

Tennant’s involvement is not a new phenomenon.  Past attempts to bring over UK series have also transported actors from the original as part of the deal.  The American versions of Red Dwarf (attempted twice) included Robert Llewellyn reprising his role as Kryten, and Richard Ayoade appeared as his UK character Moss in the US version The IT Crowd.  Neither of these shows made it past the pilot stage, which, based on the pilots, isn’t a bad thing.  Although, there have been recent reports that another try at The IT Crowd is in the offing.  If you’re curious about the first attempts, though, they can very likely be found on Youtube.

One of these adaptations has fascinated me for some time, mainly because I never got to see it and, despite the vast resources of the Internet, the filmed episodes were nowhere to be found.  In 2003, NBC aired their adaptation of the British series, Coupling.  Like the US versions of The Office and Broadchurch, the series would reuse several of the scripts from the UK series, with the more British jokes and references removed or replaced with ones that an American audience would understand.

In general, I don’t have a problem with this idea.  I’ve seen different casts perform the same play before.  Different productions can present the same script in wildly different ways.  Still, when the US version of Coupling started, fans of the original bristled.  BBC America aired the original UK episodes right after the NBC ones ended to show audiences how they were meant to be.  There was also the issue that the show felt a bit like a clone of friends.  The UK version began after Friends had been on the air for many years, and there are six main characters, three male and three female.  NBC decided to air their version of Coupling on the same night as Friends.  For the more cynical among us, it sounded a bit like they’d made a copy of a copy of Friends.

The series did not do well, and it was canceled after four episodes, leaving six unaired.  Unlike many series that suffer this fate, the fantastic Wonderfalls for example, the US Coupling never got a DVD set.  I didn’t discover and fall in love with the UK series until after all of this had happened.  I wanted to see the American attempt out of curiosity (By all accounts, it was awful), but it just seemed to be gone.  For years afterward, I would check Youtube and other such sources every so often hoping that some kind soul had uploaded it to no avail.  I always came up empty…

…until two weeks ago.  The series came up in a conversation between a friend and I, and she decided to check Youtube.  I expected another failure, but this time she hit the jackpot.  The US Coupling was there, all ten episodes of it.  It’s been subtitled in what might be Dutch, but that’s a minor distraction.  Finally, I would be able to see the abomination that was Coupling US.

It’s not bad.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not as good as the UK version either, but it’s certainly watchable.  Admittedly, the first episode took a bit of getting used to, but by the end of it, I was laughing as these new actors performed the lines and situations from the original script.  I enjoyed those ten episodes more than I’ve enjoyed any episode of Selfie (Sorry, Karen) or A to Z this season.  Of the ten, five episodes are adaptations of the UK episodes.  I felt these episodes did the most disservice to the US cast, since their portrayals are different.  Certain ones, like Patrick and Jane, came off fine.  The others, not as much.  The five episodes written for the US version feel like they play to the strengths of the US cast more.  If the show had continued, I'm sure it would have found its own voice, just as The Office did.  They certainly couldn't keep adapting UK episodes for long.  The entire four season run of the original is only 28 episodes.  At 22 episodes a season, the US version would have blown through that in no time.

Let’s do a quick rundown of the US cast:

Steve (Jay Harrington): Some people just come across as cool.  Harrington is one of those guys, in my view.  It’s not in an obnoxious way, but he just projects a certain confidence.  He was fine in scenes interacting with Jeff and Patrick or enjoying his relationship with Susan, but he never seemed natural when dealing with Steve’s more awkward moments.  This was where UK actor Jack Davenport excelled.  I just could never believe that Harrington would ever be that uncool (The US pilot for The IT Crowd suffers from the same problem.  Joel McHale is a very cool guy, and he absolutely does not work as the oh-so-very awkward Roy).   Post­-Coupling, Harrington would go on to headline the sitcom, Better Off Ted, which was a very clever and often surreal take on corporate America.  His role in that show was a much better fit. 

Jeff (Christopher Moynihan): I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Moynihan as I watched Coupling US.  He was saddled with an almost impossible task.  Jeff, as played by Richard Coyle in the UK version, is just so deeply off, but it’s in an endearing way.  He’s a man whose brain works in a very different way than the rest of us.  Moynihan, meanwhile, comes across more as an affable guy who’s inept with the ladies, mostly because he tries too hard and speaks without thinking.  He has his own talents, though.  In one episode, Moynihan juggles bottles.  There are no camera tricks.  He juggles them effortlessly, puts them back down, then delivers a solid punchline.  He does well most of the time, but he is the one who come off the weakest compared to his British counterpart, since Coyle’s Jeff is so very unique.

Sally (Sonya Walger): I will admit a bit of bias here, since I really liked Walger as Penelope on Lost.  But even putting that aside, I felt that she did a great job with the character…most of the time.  She worked well as Susan’s friend and in her dealings with the cast and guest stars.  I just didn’t think she was as convincing in the scenes when she was supposed to be either worked up about or desperate to maintain her looks.  This was something that Kate Isitt on the original series was able to do fairly effortlessly (At least it seemed effortless from my perspective).  Walger’s Sally, however, just seemed way too together most of the time to worry about a wrinkle here or there.

Susan (Rena Sofer): Susan, as played by Sarah Alexander in the UK version, was never my favorite character.  I didn’t have anything against her, but she was usually the straight woman to all of the antics of the other characters and as close to “normal” as any of them got.  Sofer generally functions the same way, but I enjoyed her performance and found her to be more vibrant than Alexander’s Susan.  I think if the NBC series had continued, Sofer’s character would have been one of the ones to most benefit from the show going off in its own direction, much as the US version of The Office did (Jeff would have been the other beneficiary, since the writer’s would invariably start to play more to Moynihan’s strengths and take on the character). 

Jane (Lindsay Price): I consider this one to be a toss-up between Price and Gina Bellman, who played Jane in the UK.  Price comes across as a bit more ditzy than Bellman, but both portray Jane’s who live quite comfortably in their own little worlds.  Price also sings the version of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” used as theme for the US version and does a nice job with it.  As a fan of a good opening credits sequence, I actually liked the opening for Coupling US quite a bit.

Patrick (Colin Ferguson): I’m going to commit a bit of heresy here and state that I flat out enjoyed Ferguson’s Patrick more than Ben Miles’ original take on the character.  While Patrick is a womanizing cad in many ways, he still has to be likeable, which Ferguson manages with ease.  Also, in one of the show’s original scripts, “Holiday,” he manages to bring a bit of pathos to the over-confident lug.  He’s just fun to watch in a role that’s so different than his work as Sherriff Carter on Eureka

So, despite the massively negative reviews I’d heard from UK Coupling fans, Coupling US is not the worst thing to ever appear on US television.  For fans of the original, it’s worth a look as a curiosity, if nothing else. 

Now I just have to track down the short-lived Greek version.  It may very well be out there on Youtube, but if the subtitles are in Dutch again, I’m screwed.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter