Sunday, December 16, 2007
In Praise Of...
Every Friday night, BBC America shows old episodes of a sitcom that at one time was Britain's most popular and most daring comedy, Coupling. Basically, the premise of the show centers around the sex lives of its six main characters (three men, three women; think of a raunchier and infinitely funnier version of Friends).
During the winter months especially, when hibernation sounds like the best of all possible options for an evening's entertainment, my wife and I are happy to spend at least the early part of the weekend camped in front of the TV laughing our asses off; we'll watch Coupling even if we've already seen a particular episode several times.
While all the characters are fantastic and each is given more than his or her fair share of great material to work with, none is as brilliantly conceived and brought to hysterical life as Jeff Murdock -- played by Richard Coyle.
For the uninitiated, Jeff is basically a naively sweet guy who's completely obsessed with sex but whose advances toward women are always hamstrung by his own hapless blunderings and bizarre insecurities. He has a million theories regarding relationships with women, all of which have been well thought out -- no doubt the result of all that time spent not actually putting them into practice -- and most of which make perfect (if not somewhat insane) sense. These concepts are usually manifestations of every possible paranoid fear and anxiety he has regarding social interactions.
Without meaning to insult my own country's culture, in the hands of a stateside writer and actor -- and an American version of the show was given a mercifully brief run on NBC a few years back -- Jeff would likely come off as either a leering, feckless frat boy or a pathetic nerd, but the British show's writers and Coyle's ingenious performance make him thoroughly likable and imbue him with more than a little pathos.*
Among Jeff's "social theories":
"The Giggle Loop" is the uncontrollable urge to laugh at an inappropriate time -- such as a funeral. In one episode, Jeff, while sitting at the bar frequented by the show's characters, begins stacking pint glasses one on top of another; each represents a new cycle of the loop. His belief is that the more you think about not laughing, the more you want to laugh -- the urge eventually compounded to the point where you feel like you're going to burst.
"The Sock Gap" is that brief window in which one's socks can and should be removed during the lead-up to sex. Jeff insists that socks need to come off before pants if any chance of sex is to be preserved. He claims (rightly) that the worst possible situation to find yourself in is suddenly being "a naked man in socks."
"Porn Buddies" are two guys who've made a gentleman's agreement that in the event of one's death, the other will immediately rush to the deceased's home and remove all his porn before it can be discovered by family, loved ones, etc. The upside is that the survivor gets to keep all the porn he confiscates.
"The Melty Man" is the enemy of all men. You can't even think his name without him arriving to ruin your sexual experience. He's essentially the sudden recognition of every single thing you're doing in bed, and the question or doubt as to whether you're doing it properly. The Melty Man is the killer of erections.
"Eye Slippage" is the constant danger that while masturbating to heterosexual porn, at the moment of your own climax, your eyes will slip and focus on the man rather than the woman. Jeff asserts that this can cause a painful "lower whiplash effect."
In addition to these concepts, Jeff obsesses over everything from the possibility of suddenly blurting out the word "nipple" during a job interview to whether or not people can tell when he's lying, as his mother claimed to be able to do with ease.
He's basically a lovable basket case, but as far as Coupling is concerned, he's given all the best lines.
My favorite comes during a tense dinner table discussion in which one of the other characters, Steve, is forced to defend the fact that despite having a gorgeous girlfriend, he still owns and regularly watches a movie called Lesbian Spank Inferno. Steve demands to know why sexually explicit material for women is called "erotica" while porn for men is, well, porn. The women at the table are asked what film they consider "erotic," and one of them, Sally, answers The Piano.
When the answer is met with a series of groans from most of the men, she says, "All men hate The Piano."
Jeff says, "I like it. Holly Hunter's naked through most of it."
"She's nude in one scene," Sally insists.
To which Jeff responds, matter-of-factly, "Depends on how you watch it."
Richard Coyle left Coupling just before its fourth and final season. To explain his sudden disappearance, the writers had Steve get a phone call during the first episode of season four.
It was from Jeff -- he was supposedly on a plane bound for the Greek isle of Lesbos.
Although he was sorely missed, I can't think of a better way to write him out.
(*Yes, the U.S. version of The Office is hilarious. It's also a rare exception.)