Your New Friends?

NBC hopes Coupling is its next hitcom, which bugs the show's biggest fans

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."

"Not bad, then, is it?" Sue Vertue says of the publicist's hype letter. At the moment, she's talking about how you "Americanize" a show that's already pretty damned American. For months, the Coupling discussion board on the BBC America Web site has been clogged with naysayers posting nasty, doom-saying missives. They're terrified their beloved series will be sanitized--you might even say castrated--for must-see TV; without having seen a single second of the pilot, already they insist NBC has ruined the show by casting American Breckin Meyer (star of NBC's deservedly short-lived Inside Schwartz) and by eliminating its essential "Englishness." They insist that if Friends can run in England as-is, why can't bloody Americans accept their Coupling without the redo. Of hundreds of posts, this one pretty much sums up the attitude of fans on both sides of the Atlantic: "I just know NBC is going to ruin it. I hope Mr. Moffat got a check up front and cashed it."

All of which makes Vertue laugh, as she often does by way of punctuating her sentences.

"If you're going to go to a mass market, I think you probably have to Americanize it," Vertue says. "However successful Friends is over there, Friends picks up only slightly more viewers than we get here, d'ya know what I mean? There's not much difference when you consider how big Friends is over there and how talked about it is over here. American shows still stay on the smaller channels here. They're still never watched by millions of people. 24 was never watched by millions of people--well, millions, but it didn't go on BBC1. I think maybe if the mass audience is going to watch it, to start they want it in their own accent, really. The sexual content isn't changing. That's going as-is."

And change is inevitable, really: The Brit Coupling runs eight minutes longer than American sitcoms, which means it would have to be trimmed regardless. And NBC couldn't pick up Coupling straight from the BBC because there aren't enough episodes to fill out an entire season. See, Britcoms only run for six to nine episodes a season, not two dozen as in the United States. This means one person can write the entire show and preserve his or her vision throughout--and it kind of limits what's available to the American networks when they pick up a show.

"I hate it when I have 12 episodes of something to sell," Cromer says, "but Fawlty Towers is the perfect series, and John Cleese only did two seasons of six episodes. And when you do it this way, the quality of the scripts doesn't suffer. If you're the only writer and wrote 12 episodes, you can say, 'I've said all I have to say and want to move on to a different set of characters.' Luckily, Steven likes these characters and wants to go on to a fourth season."

If anything, this is where Coupling fanatics have every right to worry: NBC will likely have to round up more writers, since Moffat can't do a whole season alone. And, as Universal Television chairman Michael Jackson recently told the London Guardian, American networks do want their imports "more of a gag fest" and less of a farce, which is what Coupling really is beneath its familiar guise.

"And I don't think it will work if you have eight people sitting around chucking in jokes, because it's not a gag show," Vertue says. "When we were shooting it over there, there was no point in having millions of writers on the floor trying to think of another funny line. You're gonna cut it later anyway. Quite often British series are taken over there and there's no involvement from the British side. They send over the format, and everybody carries on, and it's very hard to know what the nub of a show is if you're just given the show. Because we're so involved in it from this end and Steven's so involved in it, it's easier for us to explain who these people are and what makes them tick. I know this sounds obvious, because if you see the show, you know what makes it tick, but quite often what you have to tell them is all the stuff you tried earlier and we cut out." She laughs. "I think because we're so involved, that's why there's a good chance of it working. And if it doesn't, then this article will come back in my face, right?" Again, Vertue laughs.

This Brit-to-Yank transition isn't a new phenom; it's a trend now only because American network TV ran out of good ideas around the time Kelsey Grammer had a full head of hair. It dates back decades, to such shows as Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son, which would evolve into, respectively, All in the Family and Sanford and Son; only now history is starting to repeat itself--like a Swedish porn loop. Already CBS is working on adapting Manchild, a sort of male Sex and the City starring Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Giles), while being shopped around is the brilliant and biting mockumentary The Office, in which writer-director Ricky Gervais plays the boorish, racist, sexist, sleazo head of a stationery manufacturer. And depending on who you read, a handful of other shows are awaiting their immigration papers at the docks, from mock-talk shows to Sopranos-like dramas to game shows (do you still want to be a millionaire?) to talent shows, à la American Idol (itself an import known in the U.K. as Pop Idol).

In the words of Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment president and the man who flashed Vertue and Moffat the green light, the Brits "are a great farm team." Time to call them up to the majors.

"He said what?" Vertue asks over the crackles and hiss of a transatlantic cell phone call, when told of Zucker's comments in the Los Angeles Times last fall.

Zucker referred to the BBC as a farm team--the minor leagues, as it were.

"Oh, did he?" Vertue says with a laugh. "NBC is a major and very successful station, and it'll be great if it works out. Jeff is very bright. I really liked them at NBC. But they also let us be involved. Some people were trying to say, 'Oh, no, you can't come over,' in which case we wouldn't have been involved."

Small point: Vertue's mother, Beryl, produced Steptoe and Son, which did quite fine on these shores when Albert Steptoe turned a darker shade of Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford. She also executive produced the 1992 Britcom Men Behaving Badly, which landed on NBC in 1996 and wound up going the way of General Cornwallis. So she knows how to do this kind of thing right and how it can all go so very, very wrong. (First mistake: the hiring of Rob Schneider. Just a guess.)

"My mother said you can't just sell something to a studio," Sue says, by way of explaining what kind of advice Beryl passed along. Actually, the whole enterprise is something of a mom-and-pop business: Sue Vertue's parents are involved in the production company behind Coupling, and her husband writes every single BBC episode. "You have to go and sell the show to people that you think understand it. We've had quite a bit of interest in this from various people, but they have to be people you think know how to make it, and that's why we wanted to stay involved. That will give it the biggest chance at survival. And it's fun. And she started the whole format business here, really."

Whether Coupling will be the next Friends, as NBC intended when it approached Vertue and Moffat about acquiring the rights, or the next Amanda's By the Sea (the gawdawful Fawlty Towers redo starring Bea Arthur, which lasted longer than the one starring John Larroquette, since it never aired) will be something determined at the beginning of the 2003-'04 season. Or maybe later: When NBC bought the show, Friends was a non-issue; since then, of course, the cast has agreed to come back for a slightly shortened 10th season.

But the show could never literally replace Friends: NBC and Vertue figure it a tad too risqué for the 7 o'clock slot, what with its breast-flashing and lesbo tape-watching--and the fact that at one time or another, every woman on the show has slept with every man on the show, more or less. If Vertue holds fast to her promise to keep the show's sexual content intact, it will likely have to air a little later--say, after Will & Grace, since Good Morning, Miami ain't likely to see September, the good Lord willin'.

And there is this little hurdle to get past: NBC may have OK'd a pilot, but the network still hasn't picked up the show. Like that matters.

"When they say they want it to replace Friends, they mean they want it to be a successful comedy, not just someone to go in that slot," Vertue says. "Isn't that what their thinking was? I dunno. It will go in the fall if they pick it up. I think they will. They should, and if they don't, I'm sure somebody else will." As if you couldn't guess, Sue Vertue is chuckling again. Chuckling her arse off.

"How confident am I?" she says through the sheets of laughter. "We're not holding our breath."

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