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Case Number 04753

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Coupling: The Complete Third Season

BBC Video // 2002 // 210 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // July 12th, 2004

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees can really relate to this British hit comedy, because she suffers from a paranoid dread of using the word "nipple" in inappropriate contexts.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Coupling: The Complete First Season (published February 19th, 2003) and Coupling: The Complete Second Season (published April 1st, 2004) are also available.

The Charge

"It is not scientifically possible for a man to know what a woman wants."—Steve (Jack Davenport)

Opening Statement

One of the funniest, cleverest sitcoms to cross the pond in the distinguished history of British comedy returns for a third season. All of the familiar faces are back: reality-unencumbered Jane (Gina Bellman), self-confident Susan (Sarah Alexander), neurotic Sally (Kate Isitt), well-meaning Steve (Jack Davenport), self-satisfied Patrick (Ben Miles), and constantly unhinged Jeff (Richard Coyle). We finally find out the answers to the questions last season left us with: what happens to Steve and Susan after the cliffhanger ending of "The End of the Line"; whether Jeff has actually succeeded in forging a relationship with Julia (Lou Gish); and what is in store for Sally and Patrick after their failed attempt at a romance. We're also treated to Jeff in a gimp mask, Steve's manifesto on the bathroom as male sanctuary, and a unique dance interpretation of the Spider-man theme. Get ready for the best season yet of Coupling.

Facts of the Case

It is customary on these occasions to assign episodes a letter grade, but that would be moot because every one of this season's seven episodes is stellar. Why split hairs between A and A-plus? For now, I'll stick to basic plot summaries.

• "Split"
"It just seems like a really needy thing to do. I don't do needy."—Susan
"You're a woman. Needy is our golf."—Sally
Picking up where the season two finale left off, this episode begins with Steve chasing Susan down the street to determine whether they have really broken up. (The short answer: They have.) When they part, the screen splits, and we follow both as they gather with friends and try to determine how to cope without each other. After a nerve-wracking round of near-miss phone calls, Steve and Susan both take refuge in what each considers to be "the Temple of Woman": for the men, a strip club; for the women, a salon.

• "Faithless"
"I don't want to find myself competing with God. It wouldn't be fair on either of us."—Jane
Jane becomes infatuated with James (Lloyd Owen), a hunky new coworker. Although he's not oblivious to her (for how could anyone be oblivious to subtlety-impaired Jane?), he presents an unusual challenge: As a Christian, he doesn't believe in premarital sex. While Jane exerts all her wiles to defeat her new romantic rival, the Deity Himself, Jeff is caught in a dilemma when the comely Wilma (Emilia Fox) makes overtures that may or may not be romantic. Being Jeff, he can't figure it out on his own, so he takes his support network along via telephone on what may or may not be a date.

• "Unconditional Sex"
"How are you supposed to prove you have a girlfriend? Photographs? Hair samples? Swabs?You try convincing my mother."—Jeff
In a continuation of the previous episode, Jeff is still trapped at a bar with Wilma, who has determined that their attraction is mutual. Jeff wants to be faithful to Julia, but when the wily Wilma offers sex with no strings, Jeff's defenses are put to a very severe test. Will he come through with virtue intact? And how did Julia get to be a corpse, anyway?

• "Remember This"
"You look great."—Susan
"I don't want to look great. I want to look thin."—Sally
Patrick shows up at Sally's apartment to shoo away a spider, but it turns out to be a product of his subconscious—even though Patrick swears he doesn't have one. As he and Sally try to figure out if they have any future together, they reflect on their first meeting and that all-important first kiss.

• "The Freckle, the Key, and the Couple Who Weren't"
"You know what it's like when you've got your own actual real-life girlfriend. It's like you've got a woman with a nudity switch."—Jeff
Steve is irritated that Susan hasn't been monitoring his freckles properly. Susan is irritated to learn that she has freckles in places Jane doesn't. Jane is irritated that James finds Susan so beguiling. And Jeff is just plain frantic, since he has inadvertently swallowed a crucial piece of hardware just when a man from Julia's past has shown up unexpectedly.

• "The Girl with One Heart"
Jeff: "You protested, of course."
Steve: "In the only language she understands."
Jeff: "Which is?"
Steve: "Total agreement."
Susan takes the lock off the bathroom door, thus throwing Steve's universe out of balance. Sally attempts to be a good sport about Patrick's date but goes too far and "overnices" her, which is misinterpreted as a come-on. A whirlwind of misunderstandings culminates in the most disastrously memorable dinner party since season one's "Inferno"—and an unexpected declaration of love.

• "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps"
"I've always believed you can't get pregnant if you don't really know the person."—Jane
One of the women is pregnant. Susan's been trying—with little help from Steve, who dislikes the fertility clinic's selection of pornography. But it may be Sally or Jane (who "went a bit mad" and had a most unwise fling), which could spell disaster for their chances with the men they really want to be with. For whom does the blue line toll?

The Evidence

In Season Three the outrageous, irresistible comedy of Coupling is enriched with a more serious emotional resonance. The stakes are higher for many of the characters, and matters of the heart as well as of the flesh take center stage. Jeff, who for so long was a yearning onlooker in the game of love, finally has a girlfriend—but his new happiness keeps coming under attack. Sally and Patrick, who may have given up too quickly on couplehood, seem to be drifting apart instead of drawing closer together. By the end of the season, the pregnancy of one of the characters brings home the point that at least some of our self-absorbed crew are going to have to grow up and tackle the consequences of all their fooling around.

The poignancy of these more sober plot developments is also enhanced by our knowledge that this is the last season to feature Richard Coyle; in season four, his character has been replaced. Coupling just won't be the same without Jeff's panicked antics and creative logorrhea. In some circles Jeff is considered the Kramer of the group: the one whose thought processes are, shall we say, least burdened by linearity; the most jittery, inventive, and downright odd—but also in a way the most lovable. Since we must lose Jeff, however, at least our last glimpses show him in some of his finest (or at least, as in the case of the gimp mask episode, most characteristically Jeffish) moments.

Steven Moffat's writing, always notable for smart, witty dialogue and ingenious plot structure, reaches a new high in this season. His use of techniques such as split screen, flash-forwards, and alternate-viewpoint flashbacks creates new realms of comedy and insight. In the episode "Split," the clever visual concept acknowledges the way the show has made us care about both Steve and Susan, whether apart or (preferably) together, and emphasizes the often hilarious contrast between the male and female methods of coping with a breakup. "Remember This" also plays on such contrasts, showing us how Patrick and Sally remember their first meeting very differently, so that even the same dialogue can have an entirely different meaning depending on who is recollecting it (and how drunk he or she was at the time). Moffat takes some real risks in this episode, since this structure means setting up jokes five minutes or more beforehand—but the experiment pays off dazzlingly. One of Coupling's most substantial assets (of many, including its brilliant cast) is its spot-on observations about the different ways men and women think and behave, and this season delves into these differences at some crucial moments—breaking up, looking back, confessing love. These moments are mined for humor, but they're based in truths we recognize about ourselves and our own relationships, and perhaps as a consequence I felt closer to the characters this season than ever before. They seem more vulnerable because they all come closer to heartbreak, and I love them for it. Even narcissistic Jane experiences a moment of humility and self-awareness, for what may be the first time—but, being Jane, she gets over it.

I also enjoyed the way this season explores the weirdly contradictory nature of attraction and love. Anyone, male or female, who has ever wondered why the opposite sex continues to exert an irresistible allure despite all its strange hangups and bizarre thought processes will enjoy this season's exploration of this paradox. Susan sums up this confusion when she blurts out (speaking of men), "Who needs them? And why are they so difficult to keep hold of?" Moffat has a gift for uncovering such contradictions of human nature—and for making us laugh at them, and at ourselves.

Fans who have the previous two seasons on DVD will be pleased to learn that audio and video remain excellent in this release. Menu design stays the same, which I consider a mixed blessing; I'm all for consistency across a series, but I heartily dislike the use of episode clips in the menus. I get tired of hearing the same lines, and the repetition dulls their impact when I hear them in their proper context. (I should point out, however, that not everyone shares my dislike of this format; my esteemed colleague Appellate Judge Michael Stailey has singled it out as an asset. Hmm, maybe this is another instance of that male-female divide.) A new feature on this season's DVD release is the inclusion of outtakes, a welcome goody. We get a generous eight and a half minutes of these goofups, many of which are made funnier by the reactions of the studio audience, crew members, or other actors. These are leisurely edited and prove that timing is crucial to even unintentional humor: Had these scenes been cut down into a sixty-second flub reel, they would not be nearly as funny as these long, patient takes in which everyone waits (in vain) for an actor to get himself together.

Besides the outtakes, the main extra is the set of episode commentaries by Jack Davenport and Steven Moffat. Davenport was absent from the season two commentaries, perhaps busy filming Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and his presence is welcome; he demonstrates a drier, more assured sense of humor in his own persona than he does in character as Steve. He and Moffat provide relaxed, irreverent commentaries on "Split," "Remember This," "The Freckle, the Key, and the Couple Who Weren't," and "The Girl with One Heart." These tracks are more entertaining than illuminating, although Moffat does share some interesting tidbits about some episodes and the season in general, such as the fact that audience members didn't seem to cotton to Susan's jabs at Jane (I certainly didn't; I was glad to hear that audience response had caused Moffat to cut some of these digs). I was also intrigued by the more technical information regarding the filming of some of the complex episodes, such as "Split," and by the revelation that "The Girl with One Heart" was deliberately crafted to parallel season one's standout "Inferno" episode, right down to the big speech from Steve and the impulsive declaration of love.

The remaining extras consist of cast biographies, which have been updated and expanded to include recurring guest actors Lloyd Owen, Lou Gish, and Emilia Fox, and a gallery of black-and-white photographs taken during rehearsals. The photographs are actually captioned and identify the unfamiliar faces—an unusual courtesy. There are also trailers for the first two seasons of Coupling and other British television series.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

My season and episode synopses have probably made it clear that readers unfamiliar with the premise and characters of Coupling will have a hard time if they try to come on board this season. So much of Season Three's emotional and comic impact relies on familiarity with the characters and their history together that I really can't recommend that new viewers start here. Go back to Season One and get hooked at the very beginning. You'll be glad you did.

I should probably also make the token disclaimer that this series is Not For Everyone. If you're uncomfortable hearing people talk about sex and other bodily functions, you should probably stick with Keeping Up Appearances. But if you like comedy that gets a bit frisky, you can't do better than Coupling.

Closing Statement

I readily admit that I came to the third season of Coupling with high expectations, having adored the first two seasons. So I'm not an impartial observer—but neither was I let down, even though I expected so much. It looks to me like the show is just getting better and better. Even without the irreplaceable Richard Coyle, I can't wait to see what season four has in store. In the meantime, fans of the first two seasons of Coupling should run out to buy this set without delay: It contains some of the best comic writing and acting I have seen in a television series, whether British or American. And I am still reeling from the brilliant craziness of the Spider-man dance.

The Verdict

Not guilty! The court will reconvene when season four makes it to American shores, but until then, we're adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 93
Extras: 90
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile

Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 210 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Comedy
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentaries by Writer Steven Moffat and Actor Jeff Davenport
• Cast Bios
• Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
• Outtakes








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