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Brit's wit gets lost in translation

This busy fall season will be hard-pressed to top the sad irony inherent in tonight's sitcom premiere of Coupling, NBC's adaptation of a sex-obsessed British hit already seen stateside.

This all-too-Americanized new version borrows the original's tango theme song with the oft-repeated refrain "relax" - the last thing on the planet this painfully forced sitcom is able to do. Never before have so many people strived so teeth-grindingly hard to so little effect.

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Where the British Coupling takes a playfully uninhibited approach to single-adult sex and its Mars/Venus role in relationships, NBC's labored effort essentially drools all over itself like some 12-year-old who's pilfered daddy's copy of Playboy.

It's no help that the American producers have pilfered the original show's scripts, line for line, both this week and next in the two episodes NBC provided for preview. You're hard-pressed to recognize creator Steven Moffat's writing actually boasts Seinfeld-ian eccentricity of detail and sharp character delineation, not when only one of the six generic American regulars displays anything resembling a personality. (It's only thanks to Lindsay Price's piercing expressiveness as twisted libertine Jane that this knockoff isn't a total loss.) Coupling simply lengthens the parade of bland, artificial and smugly smutty singles-coms that NBC continues to inflict on "mature" viewers.

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It gives sex a bad name most excruciatingly among those of us who wouldn't mind seeing this natural human impulse fuel an adult-aimed comedy. There's certainly a sizable audience for humor playing out among the three single men and three single women who have more, uh, robust appetites than the singles of Friends.

These randy companions are forever pairing up in various permutations, scrambling for suddenly needed condoms, playing the "bisexual card" to keep a mate interested, coyly dangling the idea of "threesomes," and expounding on the bond between male "porn buddies."

It's disappointing to see the finely oiled machinery of Moffat's precision set-ups clattering and wheezing in such clumsy hands. The Brit's keen gender observations, brisk repartee and pinpoint timing are sabotaged by plodding performers whose notion of emotional reaction is confined to sitcom "takes" like whimpering and exaggeratedly raising eyebrows.

They sell what should be subtle dialogue like infomercial barkers, declaiming as if from cue cards. Worst of all, they don't seem very smart. And Coupling requires nimbleness to convey the amusingly convoluted reasoning through which these characters continually back themselves into comic corners while single-mindedly pursuing intimate action.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Premiere

What: Coupling

When: 9:30 tonight

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Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

In brief: Great American minds turn a saucy British sex-com into heavy-handed smut.


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