There’s an oddity to some of these Pop Between Realities entries. Once again, we’re on a show that we’d never have talked about if we didn’t know that Steven Moffat was going to be one of the central architects of Doctor Who’s revival. But he is, and we do, and so here we are.
Coupling is, of course, sex comedy. It’s more to the point sex comedy about gender essentialism. Precedent suggests I should be infuriated. I mean, let’s be honest: a substantial number of the jokes in Coupling trade on stereotypical depictions of women. And yet somehow Coupling escapes that. There are two aspects of this worth extrapolating a bit. The first is a bit theoretical, but still worth discussing given some of the reactions recent blog posts have gotten. Simply put, just because there are a lot of horrifically imbalanced and oppressive power relations surrounding gender doesn’t mean it can’t be good fodder for humor. Indeed, humor is almost necessary here.
Put another way, as socially constructed, oppressive, and artificial as contemporary gender stereotypes are, they also exist and influence people’s lives. The socially constructed is still real. Put a third way, just today a bemused conversation about why our sofa was functionally reupholstered in blankets led to my showing my fiancee the pillow bit from “The Melty Man Cometh.” Because it applies. It’s solid observational comedy about a real part of contemporary society.
But what’s the difference between it and outright sexist comedy? The main one is something we’ve previously noticed in Moffat’s work. Coupling skewers stereotypes of both men and women, but, crucially, in the grand scheme of things, women win. Or, more to the point, Moffat is far more willing to stick it to the people in his stories who are authorial stand-ins for him than he is to other people, and particularly to women. Coupling makes gestures at the absurd foibles of modern femininity, but it’s nothing like the depiction of men as essentially helpless buffoons.
This is perhaps most obvious in comparing Jane and Jeff, the representatives of each gender who are treated the most absurdly. Both of them are fundamentally absurd and profoundly misunderstand the entire world. But their treatment within the narrative is starkly different. Jeff is all but designed to be a fan favorite character, but he’s the eternal fool. When a plot line happens such that Jeff actually gets a girlfriend, it is in and of itself surprising, and he still manages to bungle everything. Jane, on the other hand, is the oddly charmed fool. No matter how incompetent she’s shown to be, and she’s shown to be at least as incompetent as Jeff, she’s also always given a strange power over the narrative. This pays off in spades in the final episode, where Moffat suggests that she’s actually entirely self-aware and is not actually the fool in the narrative but the character who best understands everything that’s going on.
So men are essentially helpless prats, while women hold both all the power and, as the overall plot regarding Steve shows, the ability to redeem men. It’s overstating it by a little to suggest that this puts Moffat in the same tradition as William Moulton Marston: an outright female supremacist. But on the other hand, Moffat increasingly writes openly kinky dominatrix-types and talks in interviews about how he has a fetish for powerful women who cheat people. So, you know. Emphasis on “by a little.”
Is this perfect? God no. For one thing, it’s basically the formula of every Judd Apatow film. Though Moffat does deserve some credit for working out the formula independently and years before The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and while it’s difficult to call the formula played out in 2001, it’s not exactly a plus either. Moffat’s approach ends up putting women on a pedestal, which is still a form of objectification. His attitude ends up with a strange denial of responsibility for men, who are helpless prats waiting for a woman to redeem them with her feminine wiles, which still perpetuates the dramatically harmful idea that women have magic powers that men can’t resist, which is, in turn, inevitably a justification for why women must be repressed.
But since I’m on the subject of Wonder Woman, let me port over one of the maxims of that book: progress is usually making new mistakes. By balancing a mercurial power over narrative with the sort of dominatrix-esque “women helpfully control men into being better” he ends up with a new one: what we might call the manic pixie dream dominatrix. Yes, it’s a combination of two forms of “put women on pedestals and worship them through objectification” ideas, but it’s a relatively new one. And perhaps more importantly, it’s one where the worst instincts of each of the tropes cancel each other out.
This sounds like damning with faint praise: not bad for a heterosexual bloke’s treatment of women in mainstream television. But I don’t mean it that way. Because it is real progress. Moffat writes better women than his peers do. He represents real progress in straight dudes writing television. He’s imperfect, yes. So is the status of feminism in contemporary society. Flawed isn’t equivalent to “not progress.” At the end of the day, there’s more to celebrate here than there is to condemn.
If nothing else, the narrative of straight blokes being redeemed by strong women with their own distinct desires and both the will and capability to achieve them is, in fact, exactly what most sane models of feminism want to happen. The line between the story Moffat writes in Coupling and the story of men learning to check their privilege from feminists is a thin one at best.
Which is perhaps to say that Coupling is more interesting in terms of Steven Moffat’s development than it is in terms of Doctor Who’s. Fair enough.
From a technical perspective, there’s something Coupling does that’s terribly clever and interesting. Actually, there are a lot of them: Coupling has at least an episode per season that is aggressively and self-consciously eccentric in its structure. Starting in the first season with an episode in which a large swath of the dialogue is in Hebrew, and where the episode rewinds at one point and reshows a section with the dialogue switched (that, is, with the person who spoke Hebrew now speaking English and the main cast speaking Hebrew), Moffat began flexing his structure muscles.
It wasn’t the first time he did things like this. Press Gang had a bunch of unusually structured episodes too, and Joking Apart was full of it. But those, for the most part, were simply matters of telling a story with flashbacks. It’s a tricky structure, and it involves keeping a very good handle on what’s being revealed to the audience instead of merely what’s happening. On top of that, you usually have to make sure the plots of two separate events mirror each other in a non-obvious way. So stuff like the Press Gang episodes “Monday-Tuesday” or “The Last Word” is complex because the events of one time period need to reflect the other. The order of events at the funeral has the added and artificial constraint that people have to show up within the funeral in an order that maximizes the tension back in the hostage situation. You can’t have Lynda at the funeral too early, or even have the funeral guests talk about her too directly, because that would muck up the main plot. But there’s no inherent reason the funeral has to be structured that way beyond the plot constraints. And balancing that is genuinely, properly tricky.
But that sort of thing is nothing compared to what Moffat starts to do with Coupling. Sure, it makes it less of a surprise that he does it, but it’s still very different. What’s key about what he does in Coupling is that he’s not simply telling a story along a non-chronological order. It’s closer to what he did in “The Last Word,” where events at the funeral or in the hostage situation obliquely affected one another in non-literal ways. But it’s more complex than that, because in Coupling Moffat starts playing not with chronology but with point of view. He doesn’t generally tell a story out of order so much as he tells it more than once, according to different characters’ experiences of what happened.
There are several things to point out here. The first is that this positions Coupling as a meaningful point in Moffat’s development as a writer. There’s a shift towards a philosophical approach that is consistent in his Doctor Who material. The decision to make storytelling less about what happens and more about what people experience and remember. There’s a tacit link between stories and human experience involved in this: a key step on the road to “we’re all stories in the end.” Coupling starts to discard the question of what really happened in favor of the question of what everyone’s story is. The truth isn’t subjective so much as it’s irrelevant. What matters is the intersection of our individual subjectivities.
The second thing is that if non-linear storytelling is hard, this is absolutely jaw-dropping. And It’s especially difficult to do it in comedy. Comedy, after all, relies on a gap between what is expected and what happens. On the one hand, the sorts of structures Moffat plays with would seem useful to that end. After all, nothing builds expectations as straightforwardly as rewatching something you’ve already seen. Equally, however, it’s terribly difficult to find any space in this to subvert expectations, and astonishingly so to successfully do setup and resolution like this. The first episode to play with this, “The Woman With Two Breasts,” is breathtaking in this regard. It does a conversation with Jeff and the Israeli woman, in which there are frequent moments of proper comedy. Then it goes back and does the conversation again from perspective. And that’s funny too. More to the point, much of the humor relies on the assumption that the audience is going to remember what Jeff really said and what was going on in the conversation from his perspective. The joke, frequently, is how badly Jeff misread the conversation, with a side of how badly the Israeli woman is misreading Jeff. But all of this has to take place in the gaps of a conversation that was already saturated with jokes the first time. So almost every line has to pull double duty as a genuinely funny line in its own right and as an expectation-setter for another funny line. Plus Moffat has to keep the conversation varied and mobile enough that the audience has enough visual cues to remember which bit they’re in. It can’t just be two people at a table talking; it has to involve movement around the bar and actions so that the audience can keep their place.
What we have, in other words, is the point where Moffat becomes ready. Up to this point he’s been a somewhat compelling figure – a fan who made it into the halls of power, and who has done some interesting and quality bits and bobs of Doctor Who. But we also know that at the end of Coupling Moffat is a year away from a revelatory script that single-handedly pushes him to a new level as a television writer. He’s not ready to run Doctor Who yet. But he’s ready to write for it, and ready to be a great writer for it. And if nothing else, that’s part of the story of the Wilderness Years too. Doctor Who’s return was in part the shifting of large, cultural forces. But it was also in part the personal development of a couple of particularly skilled writers who happened to be fans of it and of the right age to take it over in 2005. That story is part of the Wilderness Years too. The first writer we saw hit that point was Paul Cornell with Human Nature. And for all the flaws of League of Gentlemen, we saw Mark Gatiss hit that point there. But now we get one of the two biggest players. Creatively, only one person remains. Although he is the most important one.
But we’ll come back to that in two months or so.