Breeality Bites

Your New Friends?

Last October, Sue Vertue found herself in a Los Angeles soundstage watching the filming of a pilot for a would-be NBC sitcom. The storyline of this particular episode dealt, more or less, with the horrific (and, of course, capital-H hilarious!) fallout that comes when a man's girlfriend finds his porn stash--in this case, a bit of video self-help titled Lesbian Spank Inferno stupidly left in the VCR. Soon enough, the cast--six regulars, half men and half women, which already begins to smell more than a little well-done to anyone familiar with the names Ross, Chandler, Joey, Rachel, Phoebe and Monica--find themselves arguing about what's art and what's pornography. Add to this a bit of mistaken identity--a woman's therapist is taken to be (get this!) her lover--and all the ingredients for farcical hoo-hahaha are well in place. Add a splash of Thursday nights at 8, and, well, it's just all so very must-see to believe.

For Vertue, a longtime producer of episodic television who comes from a family of Britcom hitmakers, it all felt a bit like déjà vu, though the last time 'round her pockets weren't so heavy with American network coin. More than a year earlier, in her homeland of Mother England, she and writer Steven Moffat (her husband) and their cast of six regulars had already filmed the exact same show, titled "Inferno," for the British Broadcasting Corp. It aired last year as the third episode of the sitcom Coupling, where it garnered high ratings on British TV and attracted quick and significant interest from American network-TV suits looking to stock barren shelves with imported products. At this moment, Coupling is one of the most-watched shows on BBC America, the 6-year-old network available in the States on cable and satellite in some 40 million homes--which makes it that much easier for U.S. execs to steal Britcoms for their own networks, which lose more and more viewers each year to interlopers such as The Sopranos and The Shield. With BBC America in their bedrooms, the accountants who run networks don't even have to leave home to steal anymore.

"Now, they turn on the TV, see something they like on BBC America and say, 'Why don't I talk to somebody about that?'" says Burton Cromer, the New York-based vice president of BBC Video. "I think there's definitely much, much more interest in trying innovative things on the BBC. There is more risk-taking, because it's not ratings-driven or ad-driven. And BBC America has had a tremendous impact, because you no longer have to go to the U.K. to dig for something."

In less than a year's time, Coupling went from concept to franchise: Vertue, who began producing Rowan Atkinson's daffy Mr. Bean for British TV in 1989, asked Moffat to write a sitcom, and he cranked out an outline about a series that would deal with the early days of their relationship, which meant conjuring up those awkward moments when they would bump into each other's friends...and ex-lovers. The pair took the concept to the BBC, which said, "All right, then," and within a few months' time it got on the air and into the heads of Americans short on sitcoms and ideas.

Not hard to see why, really: Coupling is what Friends might be like if Monica wasn't so neurotic, Rachel wasn't so solipsistic, Phoebe wasn't so hetero, Chandler wasn't so glib, Joey wasn't so thick and Ross wasn't so gay. Oh, yeah--and if they hung out in a bar instead of a coffee shop and if they were all more obsessed with sex than they already are, by which I mean if entire episodes were built around pornography and smart women with big breasts and lesbians and pornography with lesbians.

It's really much better than it sounds, to be honest. Coupling isn't so wacky as Friends, since the series is populated by people you might actually know rather than people who would never actually exist. It's almost a bit more like Seinfeld, in that entire episodes aren't really about anything more than the trivial tidbits that become full-blown nightmares, which then spawn catchy phrases sure to be used in conversation by people you work with who're trying desperately to sound pop-culture cool. There's the "porn buddy," the guy who rids your house of smut the moment you've died so your parents don't find it. Or you might get stuck in "the giggle loop," in which you laugh uncontrollably at the wrong moments (a funeral, in this case, which conjures images of a particular Mary Tyler Moore Show episode, come to think of it).

Face it: Coupling was an American series from the very beginning. Even the BBC Video promotional material, sent to coincide with the U.S. release of the Season One DVD last week, touts the show as, "Imagine if Friends, Seinfeld and Sex and the City crossed paths."