'Uncoupled' - Neil Patrick Harris' gay series: comedy or dramedy?

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 2, 2022
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Brooks Ashmanskas, Neil Patrick Harris and Emerson Brooks in 'Uncoupled'
Brooks Ashmanskas, Neil Patrick Harris and Emerson Brooks in 'Uncoupled'

When the original "Sex and the City" HBO series reached its height in the late 1990s, many gay men imagining themselves as Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, or Charlotte, secretly daydreamed there might be a similar program for them one day. The good news is that day has arrived, but the resulting show reminds us of that old adage; be careful what you wish for.

Darren Star, the creator of "Sex and the City" (also "Emily in Paris") has joined forces with Jeffrey Richman, producer of "Modern Family" and "Frasier," to craft the new Netflix show "Uncoupled." The bad news is that it largely lacks "Sex's" droll panache, resembling more "Sex's" recent turgid deflated HBO update "And Just Like That," of which we will not speak.

On the surface, "Uncoupled" would seem fresh and relatable fodder for a contemporary gay comedy of manners with Michael Lawson (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems to have it all: a fabulous career as a successful high-end New York City real estate agent, a bevy of close friends, and a loving relationship with his partner of 17 years, affluent hedge fund manager Colin (Tuc Watkins).

However, Michael is completely blindsided when on the eve of throwing his spouse a surprise 50th birthday party, Colin abruptly leaves him, moving into his own apartment. Michael suddenly finds himself a single gay man in his late forties, leading to a predictable mid-life crisis.

A sad and grieving Michael is aided by his two catty best friends, the snobbish, clever, stocky, thriving art gallery owner/dealer Stanley James (stage actor Brooks Ashmanskas, an acquired taste), but less accomplished in the romance department and handsome, charming, celebrity Lothario TV weatherman Billy Burns (Emerson Brooks, adequate) who frequently hooks up with younger men.

Michael also gets support from his business partner and loyal confidante, Suzanne Prentiss (Tisha Campbell, sassy), the quick-witted randy single mom with an early 20s son. Then there's Claire Lewis (Marcia Gay Harden), an aggrieved prickly Upper East Side socialite in the midst of a contentious divorce from her husband, who ran off with his young Pilates instructor. She becomes the female kindred equivalent to Michael's unexpected breakup, as he negotiates selling her opulent penthouse.

Tuc Watkins and Neil Patrick Harris in 'Uncoupled'  (Source: Netflix)

Denial, anger & Grindr
The eight-episode series revolves around Michael coming to terms with the end of his relationship and the terrifying prospect of starting over in middle age, complete with denial, anger, navigating dating via Grindr (which unbelievably he'd never heard of), rebound affairs, and finally something approaching acceptance, with a curve ball thrown in the finale.

While Michael is having an identity crisis, so is the series, because it can't decide whether it's a comedy or dramedy. Despite a few wacky moments and the occasional witty riposte, it's not funny enough to be a comedy (especially with stale, predictable punch lines like "I put the mono back in monogamy," regurgitated gags about the word "hard," and snide jokes about men getting breast cancer), but the issues it's highlighting aren't really weighty enough for a drama, plus the infrequent serious interludes lack sincerity.

The series is awash in stereotypes: the horny, wisecracking Black woman, gay men only interested in casual trysts, sexting, bad dates, and trendy urban culture, all while sipping cocktails and adorning stylish garb.

We're supposed to empathize with a lead character who is supposedly mild-mannered but also self-obsessed, bitching about how much the world has changed ("I'm not supposed to know about Botoxed buttholes, PrEP, and no condoms. I'm supposed to be sitting on my couch, watching TV while my boyfriend is chewing way too loud beside me") and critical of younger queens, ignorant of the AIDS Quilt, unappreciative of how their elders paved the way for them.

Lavish and lacking
The other major flaw is the series pivots on a privileged, cis white (with one exception) axis. Similar to "Sex" and "Emily in Paris," we're treated to the sparkle and glittery ostentation of an upper-class contemporary Edith Wharton-like New York, with chic gorgeous multi-million dollar condos sporting breathtaking views of the city, while characters consume lavish dinners at exclusive Michelin-type eateries, and take weekend vacations at luxury ski resorts. Aren't middle-class, non-white, non-metropolitan gay relationships worth exploring?

Neil Patrick Harris and Tisha Campbell in 'Uncoupled'  (Source: Netflix)

"Uncoupled's" elitist tinge complicates empathizing with Michael, who supposedly represents the typical queer Joe, despite a tight bod with six-pack abs and his biggest dilemma being able to afford buying out Colin's half of their sumptuous Gramercy Park apartment.

While adroitly played by Harris with his boyish charm, we never discover why Michael's relationship with Colin ended. However, Michael will encounter at a party his ex-couples' therapist in drag persona ("Miss Communication") who will call him out on his whiny narcissism.

In past roles, Harris is known as a deft physical comedian (a la Lucille Ball) and he shines in a scene destined to be a YouTube fave where he's caught taking a dick pic by a gym bathroom attendant. Another highlight is his brave and poignant surprise birthday toast to Colin, minutes after being dumped by him. However, there's vacuous filler, like Michael falling off a mountain chasing after a hot guy or the gross after-effects of getting super drunk in a hot tub.

The other cast members mostly perform admirably, especially Harden, who camps up the bitter divorcee cliché and invents a novel use for a sledgehammer. But for most of the series they function primarily to showcase Michael, limiting the extent they can develop their own characters. Fortunately, by series end, they're given their own independent, quasi-juicy plot lines.

We've seen many of the same situations and dialog umpteen times in straight sitcoms, but is it any fresher given a gay spin? Viewers will have to decide for themselves.

"Uncoupled" improved with each 30-minute episode, moving along at a zippy pace interspersed with biting satire on dating mishaps and self-help seminars, so a firmer footing second season appears likely. Let's keep our fingers crossed that "Uncoupled" can rise above its superficiality and potentially say something meaningful about gay men's vulnerability at growing older solo in a youth-obsessed, body beautiful society.

'Uncoupled' on Netflix

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