Yes, before he was sending Daleks at Matt Smith and leaving us all wondering how on earth Holmes survived that fall, Moffat was telling the story of six young things trying to get a grip of love and life in the city. It's a formula that we've seen tons of times before and since, so what is it about Coupling that sets it apart from the rest of the pack?
Coupling: Originally broadcast from May 12, 2000 to June 14, 2004
Let's get this out of the way first of all. Yes, Coupling does sound exactly like Friends, Cold Feet, This Life, Seinfeld and all the rest. And that's probably the kind of thing viewers were expecting when it launched on BBC Two at the turn of the millennium. It looked and felt (and, well, was) a typical studio sitcom with four cameras, canned laughter and beautiful people.
It focused on lovers Steve (Jack Davenport of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) and Susan (Sarah Alexander), their respective exes Jane (Gina Bellman) and Patrick (Ben Miles) and their best mates Jeff (Richard Coyle) and Sally (Kate Isitt), who hang about in metropolitan nightspots discussing their dating issues, job crises and the woes of modern life.
So far, so Friends. But Coupling was much greater than the sum of its parts and in terms of content appeared to go out of its way to avoid preconceptions of its contemporaries, rather than coast along on their success.
For a start, there was always the sense that Coupling was 'real', unlike the aforementioned formats where it was occasionally a little too obvious that viewers were watching Hollywood actors doing an impression of an everyday person. This was due to the Moffat basing Steve and Susan's relationship on his own romance with Sue Vertue and all the niggles, both minor and major, they encountered
For instance, the episode 'Inferno' - in which a pornographic movie of Steve's is discovered and he is forced to defend himself at a dinner party - was written shortly after Vertue found a similar (but apparently less dirty) tape in Moffat's VCR. And while devoting a whole episode to something as mundane as the discovery of a freckle on someone's bottom or when to take your socks off during foreplay may not make for the most spectacular scenarios, it's all charmingly personal and becomes more relatable than simply pointing at a character and saying 'I'm that one'.
And what of the characters? What are they like? Steve is described by Moffat as a "politically correct weasel", who loves making theatrical speeches but also falls to pieces in uncomfortable situations. His relationship with Susan, the insecure and sensible one, is the driving force of the series. We join them on their first date in the pilot episode and follow them throughout their engagement, a brief break-up and their journey into parenthood. It's a very sweet and grounded romance that is refreshingly far from perfect and riddled with petty arguments. For instance, when Steve does propose, it's only because he feels pressured into it by a wedding invitation, and when Susan falls pregnant, he spends the whole time panicking and having dreams about being murdered by a foetus. Nothing about their journey - one that we pretty much all go through - is romanticised, and the show is better for it.
Sally and Patrick are also great additions. She's a paranoid wreck, so desperate to keep her looks and find a man that she often finds herself pushing people away. He's an occasionally dense womaniser, but luckily Moffat avoids allowing him to stray into Joey territory by making him misogynistic and perverted to the point where only his charm saves him from being completely repulsive. They do have one of those standard will they/won't they sitcom romances, but this cliché is forgiven because it never feels like it's been forced or clearly set up from the out. It starts with a rejected date in series one and a botched one night stand (well, one lunch break stand) in series two. Only at the end of the third series (after a wonderful episode where they rediscover a repressed earlier hook-up) do they finally get together, and by this point it feels like a natural progression. It's all very subtle and well handled.
But the stand-out characters were undoubtedly Jeff and Jane. The latter is admittedly quite Pheobe-esque on paper with her airhead ways and quirky nature, but she comes across as a far less whimsical individual. Her nonsense claims, such as saying she's a vegetarian even though she eats meat and reasoning that she's pregnant because "all women are pregnant" spiritually, frequently infuriate the group and even give her psychiatrist a breakdown. Such behaviour can often come across as self-obsessed and hurtful, but it's easy to sympathise with her because she's usually naive about the consequences of her actions.
Jeff, meanwhile, is a character who both loves women and is terrified by them, the type who can be reduced to a jibbering mess and has to be secretly instructed by friends on what to say to a date. He is without a doubt the funniest character in the show, channelling his sexual frustration into ridiculous fantasies about women, creating warped rules and codes in relation to intimate scenarios and dreaming up characters such as 'Captain Sub-text' and the legendary 'The Melty Man'. His series four replacement Oliver (Richard Mylan) - also nerdy, also with curly hair, also a bumbling trainwreck - is no competition, but he's likeable enough.
It's an eclectic gang, and what's great about Coupling is that the emphasis is not so much on friendship. While there's pre-existing relationships, the six only come together for the first time in the pilot and there's even a great scene in episode two where Jeff and Steve note how awkward it is to have Patrick with them trying to keep up with the conversation. Again, it's a much more realistic representation of a modern group of people. The characters are very much six individuals who just about manage to function as a unit, allowing for frenemies, fall-outs and long-standing rivalries.
Instead the focus is on the dating and relationships, which makes for a much raunchier and titillating take on the well-weathered "group genre". It often shows a gender split on issues of love and sex, with the men and women processing the same events in entirely different ways. As such, it's a programme that both male and female viewers can identify with and argue against - in good fun, of course.
Moffat's love of a good, intricate story that would later make Doctor Who and Sherlock such compelling television is also evident in Coupling too. Gone are the B-stories and linear plots of traditional sitcoms, replaced by a series of skewed narratives, fantasy sequences and intriguing concepts. Coupling loves a good farce and one of the great joys of the series is seeing the seeds of chaos being planted throughout an episode, only to be expertly pulled together for a cringeworthy finale.
For example, there's the series four opener '9 1/2 Minutes', which splits the characters into pairs and plonks them into separate but interweaving conversations, so that the full picture of the night only comes out when all the tales are told. Or there's the series three opener 'Split', in which we follow Susan and Steve through a split screen as they seek comfort from their respective friendship groups after breaking up.
I think it's fair to say that a great deal of Coupling's success is down to Moffat. In less-skilled hands, the premise admittedly does fall flat - as shown by the ill-fated American remake that was axed after just 11 episodes. The problem was that the yanks felt compelled to reduce the show down to its most basic elements, so that it became something like a Friends-lite, devoid of that innovative spark that Moffat brought to the UK version. If you're still not convinced that there isn't anything in Coupling you haven't seen before, check out the DVDs of all four series. You might admit you love it.