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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'Uncoupled' Offers a Sideways Glimpse Into Gay Middle Age

The Neil Patrick Harris-starring Netflix series is cringe TV that's impossible to stop watching.

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Screenshot: Netflix

Darren Star wields some kind of sorcery, and I’m really not sure if it’s good or evil. Increasingly, the television producer’s brand is can’t-miss-must-dis shows that are equally captivating and loathsome—programming that would be repellant if, in fact, people couldn’t stop watching. Star’s line of eye-roll triggers includes Emily in Paris and now, Uncoupled, which Star created alongside Modern Family alum Jeffrey Richman for Netflix. Uncoupled is a froth about an affluent white gay in his 40s who finds himself single for the first time in 17 years and has to navigate the intimidating but engorged world of New York gay dating. It goes down as easy as finely blended glass.

A certain paralysis set in for me during Uncoupled’s first episode. I wanted to turn away but couldn’t. It had the pull of a car crash, but none of the chaos; it seemed actually meticulously tailored. It was happy to make you laugh or groan—either way it won. It wasn’t camp, per se, but it didn’t mind if you thought it was, benefitting from oglers who are hooked to the so-bad-it’s-goodness of the entire affair. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this show was an elaborate invitation for people to congregate around bad TV and bond through complaining. Could Star actually be setting out to make bad things because, in a streaming world, nothing matters more than the ability to keep people watching, and people have proven themselves eager to watch and discuss Star’s bad things? Had I fallen into a trap by inhaling the entirety of Uncoupled’s first season in just a few nights?

Maybe! I admit I came away impressed that a dumb show made me think as much as Uncoupled did—and here we are. On some level, Uncoupled is predicated on dazzling viewers, much like Sex and the City did, with the fabulousness of a city that is, in 2022, far less accessible to the middle class than it was 25 years ago. No matter, Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) and his ex Colin (Tuc Watkins) are rich gays with rich friends. Their big problems concern not having every single thing that they want, when they can figure out what, exactly, that is. Colin dumps Michael during the first episode, sending Michael on an odyssey of casual sex and pratfalls. He literally runs into two guys he ends up making out with, and when a third compliments him on his developing shoulders on a ski slope (these shoulders are, apparently, detected under a jacket), it sends Michael tumbling down a mountain. What a card!

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Harris’ character, come to think of it, is complimented on his looks so frequently that it starts to feel like a contractual obligation by the end of the season. Here are examples:

Clips: Netflix

Until now, I thought Harris’ brand was a sort of nebbish anti-hunk, but apparently, according to a recent New York Times profile, during an interview, he called his “good looks a crutch and then corrected himself: ‘a weird albatross.’” So what do I know!

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The profile also states that Harris was specifically cast in Uncoupled for his moderate appeal: “They wanted him for his talent and his looks but also for his popularity, which they hoped would keep the comedy from feeling overly niche. (Is there still anxiety about the appeal of a gay romantic comedy in a post Fire Island and Love, Simon world? Apparently there is.)” This much would have been obvious without such explicit signaling. Newly single Michael is just as naive to the gay world as any straight person in Middle America of a certain generation would be, and as such can function as a hetero avatar. He is, in this respect, very much like Looking’s perpetually wide-eyed Patrick. Foreskin sent Patrick into a tizzy; a big dick does it for Michael. As if he couldn’t be more explicitly a tight-ass, he also dumps a guy for farting in front of him.

That particular scene is one example of the show going for wisdom but landing in absurdity—Michael reasons, “Once you fart around each other you can see the end of the relationship around the corner.” To work as a joke, there should be a kernel of truth there, but what we’re being actually treated to is someone who appears to not just be new to gay culture, but humanity in general. When Michael whines about PrEP leading to condom abandonment (“You can forget about barebacking. I can’t get turned on when all I can see is my name on that quilt.”), he’s upholding a condom code that was about as useful to public health as abstinence-only education. At that point, I wondered why we were even still listening to what this guy had to say.

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The over-articulating of culture is rampant on Uncoupled. Michael’s realtor co-worker Suzanne (Tisha Campbell) at one point explains, “It’s cool to be sexually fluid right now.” So I hear! To be fair, I realize that these kinds of cultural bridges from the queer to straight worlds are necessary, especially given the contentious political climate. As much as I appreciate something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’s steadfastness in its gayness and refusal to over-explain certain elements of the culture to straight audiences, I realize that something more basic can be useful. The problem is that there isn’t much good observation in Uncoupled. The bridges are, actually, to nowhere. Early on, Michael and his friends talk about dating as gay men in their 40s, with TV weatherman Billy (Emerson Brooks), yet another character who receives compliments about his devastatingly good looks with such frequency as to be propaganda, saying that he feels like it just gets better and better, as the well of younger guys looking for older partners is ever-replenishing. Their art-dealer friend, Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas), notes that Billy just feels this way because he’s on TV. The truth is, Stanley suggests, much lonelier. But then Uncoupled undermines its own observation with an unending stream of guys throwing themselves at Michael. He has no time to be lonely when he’s never alone. The show can’t even be bothered to sit in discomfort for more than a few seconds at a time.

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Perhaps this is what is so intoxicating about Uncoupled—it moves at such a fast clip that it doesn’t even matter what’s happening as long as it keeps happening. The character of Claire, played by Marcia Gay Harden, is a great example of something that just keeps happening. Claire is a wealthy recent divorcee who enlists real estate agent Michael’s help in selling her apartment. She whines about her fears, but there she is, episode after episode, getting what she wants and having a great time. Harden plays her with the subtlety of a crudely drawn rich-lady cartoon character. She speaks like she’s imitating the kind of over-enunciated imitation of wealth you’d see in ‘80s Grey Poupon commercials (“Downtown is for restaurants—not for living!” she trills). It’s camp camp, layers of the synthetic that are at such a remove not just from reality, but also any kind of humorous distortion of it, that it amounts to a patchwork of bad creative choices.

So goes the highly consumable, packed-with-empty-calories Uncoupled. It’s a show that aims to both teach and send up, but in its jumble of reality and fantasy manages to be neither here nor there.

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Correction: A previous version of this post listed And Just Like That as one of Darren Star’s shows. He created Sex and the City, but did not participate in the making of its reboot.