Northern Exposure

Coupling on NBC, Two and a Half Men on CBS

The trouble, of course, with the recent burst of gay and lesbian characters on American TV is that they become the immediate targets of self-appointed cultural critics. Everyone from the New York Times to GLAAD has an opinion: They’re too gay (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) or not gay enough (Will & Grace). They’re offensive stereotypes (Queer as Folk) or laughable fakes (Boy Meets Boy). Whatever the show, whomever the character, there’s always going to be someone telling us what’s wrong with it.

There’s a reason for that. Most TV shows do a wretched job at creating believable characters, gay or straight. Two new sitcoms — CBS’s Two and a Half Men and NBC’s Coupling — do an especially fantastic job at getting it wrong. Yes, the number counters will point happily to lesbian Judith (Two and a Half Men) and bisexual Jane (Coupling) as further evidence of social progress in primetime. But like most of what’s new on TV this fall, the networks over-promise and under-whelm.

For those who believe the sitcom is a dying art form, Two and a Half Men signals it’s moved to the I.C.U. Charlie Sheen plays a carefree playboy who spends his days writing ad jingles and his nights getting drunk and chasing women. That glorious life is interrupted when his brother, Alan, and 10-year-old nephew move into his Malibu bungalow. Alan’s wife, Judith, has left him after realizing she’s a lesbian.

Sitcoms, if anything, are predictable — so you can pretty much guess what happens next. Charlie introduces his nephew to his bachelor ways: poker with the boys, Corona for breakfast, cruising the ladies. And Alan responds with an appropriate amount of shock and horror: “You did what with a 10-year old? ”



Not much underneath:
Cast of NBC’s Coupling

I’m not exactly sure what constitutes a successful sitcom these days (can it only live on HBO?), but the fact that I didn’t laugh once — not even a giggle — is a safe bet something’s amiss. Whoever focus-grouped this thing needs to be fired. Now that I think of it, that’d be a great show — watching real Americans tell CBS why this show sucks.

Coupling, despite its reliance on trite jokes and crude sex talk, has more promise. NBC execs are hoping for a smash hit from this BBC import, praying that it will take the place of the all-dominant Friends, which ends its run this May.

The first two episodes are as unsatisfying as they are unfunny. The pedestrian scripts do little more with bisexual Jane than include a spate of bad three-way jokes. “It’s too bad you didn’t mention this lesbian [fantasy] of yours when we were going out, ” Jane tells her horny ex, Steve. “We could have had a threesome. ”

Steve, of course, gets all hot and bothered by this comment and sports that dumb look sitcom producers mistake for, what, desire? The “hilarity ” continues as Steve and his dopey friends get boners at a funeral while imagining the girls getting it on.

In spite of this, there’s hope for Coupling. The cast seems genuinely bored with the material (that’s a good thing), and there’s room for the plot to grow. More important is that NBC appears committed to the program and might give it the time to finds its legs. I suspect fans may one day look back on the first few episodes as quaint, dated accidents.

Two and a Half Men faces a more uncertain future, and deservedly so. I’m loathe to imagine a whole season of 10-year-old Jake slowly breaking down Charlie’s thick exterior in a string of dull storylines: Jake’s first soccer game, Jake’s first nightmare, Jake’s first cigar. Not to mention the predictable lesbian jokes: “You’re wife’s out meeting chicks, why shouldn’t you? ” Charlie ribs his brother.

Some will herald these shows as important breakthroughs in the history of gay and lesbian TV, but I can’t jump on that bandwagon. Yes, more gay representation in media is wonderful, but bad TV is still bad TV, folks. Don’t waste your time.