When HBO’s original “Sex and the City” reached its peak in the late 1990s, many gay men imagining themselves as Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or Charlotte secretly dreamed that there might one day be a similar program for them. The good news is that day has arrived, but the resulting spectacle reminds us of that old adage; be careful what you wish for.
“Sex and the City” (also “Emily in Paris”) creator Darren Star has teamed up with “Modern Family” and “Frasier” producer Jeffrey Richman to create the new Netflix show “Uncoupled.” The bad news is that it’s largely missing the funny panache of “Sex,” looking more like HBO’s recent turgid, deflated “Sex” update “And Just Like That,” which we won’t discuss.
At first glance, “Uncoupled” would seem like fresh, relatable fodder for a contemporary gay comedy about mores starring Michael Lawson (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems to have it all: a fabulous career as a successful high-end realtor in New York. agent, a host of close friends, and a romantic relationship with her partner of 17 years, wealthy hedge fund manager Colin (Tuc Watkins).
However, Michael is completely caught off guard when, on the eve of throwing a surprise party for his wife’s 50th birthday, Colin abruptly leaves him, moving into his own apartment. Michael suddenly finds himself gay single in his late 40s, resulting in a predictable midlife crisis.
A sad and grieving Michael is aided by his two feline best friends, the snobbish, smart, stocky, and successful gallerist/art dealer Stanley James (theatrical actor Brooks Ashmanskas, an acquired taste), but less accomplished in the romance department and handsome, charming and famous Lothario TV meteorologist Billy Burns (Emerson Brooks, enough) who often dates younger men.
Michael also receives support from his business partner and staunch confidante, Suzanne Prentiss (Sassy Tisha Campbell), the quick-witted, horny single mother with a son in her early 20s. Then there’s Claire Lewis (Marcia Gay Harden), a grieving Upper East Side socialite in the midst of a contentious divorce from her husband, who ran away with his young Pilates instructor. She becomes the female equivalent of Michael’s unexpected breakup as he negotiates the sale of his lavish penthouse.
Denial, Anger and 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, browsing via Grindr (which incredibly he had never heard of), bouncing business, and finally something approaching acceptance, with a curveball thrown in the endgame.
While Michael has an identity crisis, so does the show, as it can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a dramedy. Despite a few goofy moments and the occasional witty riposte, it’s not funny enough to be a comedy (especially with stale, predictable punchlines like “I’m putting mono back into monogamy,” regurgitated gags over the word ” tough” and sarcastic jokes about men with breast cancer), but the issues it highlights aren’t really big enough for drama, and the infrequent serious interludes lack sincerity.
The series is awash with stereotypes: the horny, demure black woman, gay men only interested in casual dates, sexting, bad dates, and hip urban culture, all while sipping cocktails and adorning elegant clothes.
We’re meant to sympathize with a main character who’s supposedly sweet but also self-obsessed, bitching about how the world has changed (“I’m not supposed to know about botoxed assholes, PrEP, and the lack of of condoms. I’m supposed to be sitting on my couch watching TV while my boyfriend chews way too hard next to me”) and criticizes young queens, ignorant of the AIDS quilt, unappreciative of how their elders paved the way for them.
Sumptuous and lacking
The other major flaw is that the series pivots on a privileged axis, cis white (with one exception). Similar to “Sex” and “Emily in Paris,” we’re treated to the glitz and glittering ostentation of a contemporary, upper-class New York, Edith Wharton-style, with gorgeous, chic condos from multimillion-dollar offering sweeping views of the city, while the characters consume lavish dinners at exclusive Michelin-like restaurants and take weekend vacations at luxury ski resorts. Aren’t middle-class, non-white, non-metropolitan gay relationships worth exploring?
The elitist hue of “Uncoupled” complicates empathy with Michael, who supposedly represents the typical queer Joe, despite a tight body with six-pack abs and his biggest dilemma being being able to afford to buy half of Colin from their lavish Gramercy Park apartment.
Although deftly played by Harris with his boyish charm, we never find out why Michael’s relationship with Colin ended. However, Michael will meet during an evening the therapist of his ex-couple in drag persona (“Miss Communication”) who will challenge him on his whining narcissism.
In past roles, Harris is known as a skilled physical comedian (a la Lucille Ball) and he shines in a scene destined to be a YouTube favorite where he is caught taking a dick shot by a restroom attendant at the gymnasium. Another highlight is his brave and poignant surprise birthday toast to Colin, minutes after he was dumped by him. However, there are meaningless fillers, like Michael falling off a mountain in pursuit of a hot guy or the gross sequels of getting drunk in a hot tub.
The other cast members mostly play admirably, especially Harden, who plays the bitter divorcee cliché and invents a new use for a hammer. But for most shows, they primarily function to introduce Michael, limiting the extent to which they can develop their own characters. Fortunately, at the end of the series, they receive their own independent and quasi-juicy plots.
We’ve seen a lot of the same situations and dialogue in straight sitcoms, but is it fresher with a gay twist? Viewers will have to decide for themselves.
“Decoupled” got better with each 30-minute episode, moving along at a brisk pace interspersed with biting satire on dating misadventures and self-help seminars, so a more solid second season seems likely. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that “Uncoupled” can rise above its superficiality and potentially say something meaningful about gay men’s vulnerability to aging solo in a society obsessed with youth and bodily beauty.
“Decoupled” on Netflix
Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going during these difficult times. To support local, independent, and LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.