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Who is Netflix's Uncoupled Even For?

A conversation about Darren Star's tone-deaf new gay comedy.
  • Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) hits the slopes in a $1,700 luxury ski jacket, because of course he does. (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Netflix)
    Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) hits the slopes in a $1,700 luxury ski jacket, because of course he does. (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Netflix)

    If this spring was a great time for new TV shows about gay teens, then this summer is upping the game with tales about gay adults. From Peacock's Queer as Folk reboot to the reportedly quite sapphic upcoming series adaptation of A League of Their Own, TV viewers have a wealth of opportunities to see grown folks who are long past coming out and well into the work of living their gay lives.

    Arguably the most high profile entry among this crop is Uncoupled, the new Netflix series premiering July 29. It stars Neil Patrick Harris as Michael, a high-powered real estate broker who’s dumped by his partner of 17 years and suddenly finds himself single again. This being a a sitcom, Michael's new circumstances lead to zany misadventures as he tries to understand dating apps, PrEP, and other realities of modern gay singledom.

    The series was created by Darren Star (Sex and the City, Emily in Paris) and Jeffrey Richman (Modern Family), and alongside Harris, it co-stars Tisha Campbell (Martin) and Broadway fave Brooks Ashmanskis as part of Michael’s friend group. Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden is also on hand as a wealthy divorcee who wants Michael to sell her apartment.

    Lots of bona fides, for sure. But after previewing the series, we couldn't help but wonder: who exactly is this show's target audience? Mark Blankenship and Joe Reid — two fully grown gay men who happen to be Primetimer’s Reviews Editor and Managing Editor, respectively — sat down to discuss.

    Mark: Joe, I watched five episodes of Uncoupled in a single sitting, but I don’t know if I actually liked it.

    Let me start with some positives, though. First, I’m impressed by NPH’s performance, which is the best thing I’ve seen him do on screen or on stage, give or take his hosting of the Tony Awards. In this show’s fizzy comic world, he’s grounded and vulnerable, particularly in scenes where he’s trying not to talk about his ex. You can see the hurt on his face, even when he wants to keep it light. He also makes some specific physical choices, like the way he glances at a cocktail after sipping it, that convince me Michael is a real person.

    Second, the show has a zippy, quippy energy that helps the half-hour episodes fly by. But all that said: Does the world need another series about wealthy New Yorkers in million-dollar apartments who are obsessed with themselves above all others? Despite its depiction of Michael’s genuine hurt, I was shocked by the show’s narcissistic ugliness.

    We spend several episodes, for instance, watching Michael gin up a “relationship” with Marcia Gay Harden’s character Claire so that he can earn the commission from selling her place. Meanwhile, she just talks past him, venting her anger over her ex-husband without acknowledging anything Michael says about himself. They’re using each other, and every time it seems like they might make an actual connection, we’re reminded that Michael is really only interested in making money off her. There’s a similar emptiness to all of the show's relationships, with everyone manipulating each other for status or sex or the most odious forms of personal growth. It’s passed off as a larky good time, but it reads to me like yet another depiction of gay men and their sassy female friends as preening, materialistic caricatures. Do you agree, or should I lighten up?

    Joe: Unfortunately, Mark, yours is about to be revealed as the sunnier take, because I straight-up loathed this show, and I ended up spending a good portion of my time watching it trying to unpack why exactly it hit such a sour spot with me. A lot of it is obvious: I've always found Neil Patrick Harris to have a sincerity problem, and while he's aguably at his most unguarded in Uncoupled, I still struggle to jibe with his performance. And, like you said, that was actually a highlight!

    Meanwhile, the casual basking in obscene wealth in Uncoupled is where I felt actively antagonized. Michael's breakup with Colin is constantly being contextualized in terms of bougie consumerism, from the Hermés towels and Williams Sonoma pasta bowls that Colin took with him to the High Line apartment he's now renting.

    Doubling down on this wealth porn is the fact that Michael is not only a real estate broker but a real estate broker in Midtown Manhattan, where the tackiest, most soulless high rises in Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea have spent the last 20 years sprouting out of the ground, waiting for white gays with money to populate them. It feels darkly appropriate that this show is debuting amid news that average Manhattan rental prices have now reached $5,000/month — not that the people in Uncoupled are renting, but by the time this show got to its third or fourth rooftop soiree overlooking Hudson Yards, I felt less like "this show is not speaking to me" and more like "this show wants to actively harm me."

    I kept waiting for the moment when the sheltered and shallow balloon of Michael and Colin's now-defunct relationship was going to get punctured, but by mid-season I gave up all hope and began to actively wonder what kind of growth our main character was meant to be undergoing over the course of these eight episodes. I guess that's my question to you, Mark, as I volley back and try to get my blood pressure back under control: What kind of journey is Michael meant to be on? Why should we be invested in him?

    And while you're at it, at some point we should get into the Sex and City of it all and why a show written by gay men about straight women for an audience of gay men and straight women was so much more palatable than a show written about gay men about gay men for an audience of… Darren Star's rich gay friends?

    Mark: So many good questions! To start at the end, I think the primary reason Sex and the City worked better is that unlike Uncoupled, it didn’t focus entirely on a single character’s point of view. Even though Carrie Bradshaw was our narrator and protagonist, SATC still gave Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha storylines without her. That made them more than just tools to put the attention back on Carrie. There are some gestures to that here in episode five, when Michael’s work friend Suzanne (Campbell) gets a few scenes alone with her son, but we spend the vast majority of the series with Michael. Considering that all he’s got to do is be sad about his breakup in a loud, me-me-me sort of way, it would be a relief to spend more time away from him.

    But of course it’s also true that Sex and the City and, frankly, Modern Family featured characters who were constantly flaunting their money in both overt and subtle ways. I’m not sure I have the sociological wisdom to say why that was less irritating back in the day, but I think you’re getting at it when you talk about the exorbitant cost of Manhattan rent today. Also, cultural attitudes have shifted. We spend a lot more time thinking publicly about the income gap, and in that context the crass consumption on display in Uncoupled is neither charming nor enviable. The fact that the show never addresses this is gross. The second Sex and the City movie got dinged for this, too. Maybe Darren Star’s particular brand of luxury fantasy is a relic now.

    With that in mind, do you see any shows out there that feature gay adults who aren’t defined by their opulence? I’m thinking about HBO’s Somebody Somewhere, which is a particular relief from Star’s worldview.

    Joe: Somebody Somewhere is a great example of a show that depicts a gay adult man outside of the familiar yuppie white Gothamite environs and makes him universally appealing by tapping into his specific character beats. Another show I was thinking of when I watched Uncoupled was HBO Max's The Other Two, which does such a great job of expressing bemusement about a lot of gay culture while still feeling engaged with it (and incredibly funny about it). The moments when Uncoupled ventures into generational territory, it all feels so defensive. Which honestly is a valid and realistic POV coming from a newly single character in his 40s. But one can only stomach so many imprecise jabs at Millennials (they don't know who Cher is, they don't like condoms, they… won't let you say "homo"?) before you start wishing the show had a more novel take.

    In the interest of closing on a more postive note, the scenes later on in the series featuring Andre DeShields as Michael's older and wiser gay neighbor have some real gravity to them, and Marcia Gay Harden and Tisha Campbell end up having fun chemistry together when their characters are allowed to exist outside of Michael's orbit.

    Unfortunately I really didn't like being inside Michael's orbit very much. His episodic dating adventures ultimately feel like the petty whining of a guy who seems to want to have sex with everybody he encounters. His friends are either too sad-sack (I root for Brooks Ashmanskas's success, but his Stanley is a drip) or sociopathically self-assured (at one point his friend Billy, played by Emerson Brooks, thanks someone for the "compliment" that he doesn't come across gay in his job as a TV weatherman). I'm not sure who the audience is for a show about these people, their material wealth, and their cloistered take on sex and relationships, but I know enough to know it's not me.

    All eight episodes of Uncoupled premiere on Netflix Friday, July 29th.

    TOPICS: Uncoupled, Netflix, Brooks Ashmanskas, Darren Star, Marcia Gay Harden, Neil Patrick Harris, Tisha Campbell-Martin