‘Uncoupled’ Review: Darren Star’s New Netflix Series Is a Fizzy Take on Gay Dating Scene

Midway through the first season of Uncoupled, Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) explodes with frustration after yet another promising hookup turns disastrous. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he yells at his perplexed date. “I’m not supposed to know about Botoxed buttholes, and PrEP, and no condoms. I am supposed to be sitting on my couch, watching TV while my boyfriend is chewing way too loud beside me. That is the world I want.”

In part, Michael’s reaction stems from personal heartache, having recently been dumped by his partner of 17 years. But he’s equally struggling with re-entering a scene he simply doesn’t get anymore — one in which even meeting guys at clubs, like he and Colin (Tuc Watkins) once did, involves connecting with them first on Grindr. Uncoupled, from creators Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman, is aimed squarely at the Michaels of the world. As such, it can be a bit insufferable, in the way that middle-aged people complaining about how much the world has changed invariably are. But like its protagonist, it’s blessed with enough wry humor and self-awareness to land just on the right side of likable.

The Bottom Line

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A cozy, cushy throwback, for better or worse.

Airdate: Friday, July 29 (Netflix)
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Tisha Campbell, Brooks Ashmanskas, Emerson Brooks, Marcia Gay Harden
Creators: Darren Star, Jeffrey Richman

The breakup, which occurs in the premiere, is a real gut punch — albeit not exactly a surprise, seeing as Michael’s newly single status is the entire premise of the series. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Colin announces he’s leaving Michael just as Michael is ushering him into the extravagant surprise party he’s planned for him. Harris plays Michael’s initial shock and devastation with affecting restraint, and it’s hard not to ache for him as he ends the half-hour installment alone in his apartment, weeping over a photo of happier times as Sam Smith croons on the soundtrack.

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But it’s also hard not to think that — to borrow a line from a certain Oscar-winning AMC pitchwoman — heartbreak must feel kinda good in a place like this. The photo he’s looking at is inside a Tiffany frame. He’s moping on an ecru suede sofa in a chic Gramercy apartment with massive windows overlooking a private terrace, and without a single cushion out of place. The tableau gives off its own aura of romance; it’s the sort of glamorously photogenic sorrow familiar from Nancy Meyers movies, or for that matter from Star’s own Sex and the City.

In the throes of misery, Michael’s life is still one packed with one posh party after another, attended by cool friends like playboy weatherman Billy (Emerson Brooks) and unlucky-in-love gallerist Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas). The sets are wall-to-wall real estate porn, as Michael’s job is selling the sort of apartments you’d see on Succession or Billions. “I feel like I’m in one of those 1930s movies where the Depression is happening outside, but up here, it’s just Fred Astaire and cocktails and soirées,” Michael gushes to Claire (Marcia Gay Harden), an especially rich client, about her 5,000-square-foot penthouse. But the rest of the series is hardly any grittier. 

Depending on your perspective, that may be a salve or an irritant. Uncoupled demonstrates little curiosity over its eight episodes about the world outside Michael’s bubble of wealthy, mostly white cis gay men in their 40s, although the characters do occasionally express bafflement or mild contempt about those who exist outside of it. Michael, a Gen Xer, grumbles about Millennials under his breath and at one point lectures a younger man who’s never heard of the AIDS quilt about the sacrifices “we” made for future generations — though he, and the series, are self-deprecating enough to add a bit of clarification: “Well, not me. A little bit older. But I’ve seen Angels!” 

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At a time when Freeform’s Everything’s Trash is putting a more down-to-earth spin on Sex and the City, or Peacock’s Queer as Folk is trying to build upon its predecessors (which would have been airing at the height of Michael’s pre-Colin single years) by tackling difficult conversations around inclusivity or trauma, Uncoupled retreats into the fantasy of a cushy, impeccably tidy New York where nobody talks politics, everybody has money and Michael’s lowest moment unfolds at a luxury ski resort filled with similarly attractive, well-heeled men. It feels like a throwback, for better or for worse.

Thankfully, and crucially, Uncoupled does offer enough genuine sweetness to keep its slight mustiness from curdling into bitterness. Its tone is mostly light, with most episodes sending Michael on breezy, low-stakes misadventures through self-help seminars or disappointing dates. Its comedy can run a little broad, and its wordplay rather cheesy. In one of the very first scenes, Harris delivers a “finishing” joke with such a satisfied smirk I half-expected him to put his hand up for a high five, Barney-Stinson-style. But all of it is grounded in Michael’s sincere, affectionate relationships with friends willing to call him out when he’s being petty or self-absorbed; the series mercifully avoids the Emily in Paris misstep of being too enamored of its central figure to reckon with their considerable flaws.

This is still unmistakably the Michael show, and a finale cliffhanger suggests that won’t be changing anytime soon. But it’s a testament to the cast’s sparkling performances and effortless chemistry that I found myself hoping characters like Suzanne (Tisha Campbell), Michael’s lovably brash business partner, might take center stage as the series continues.

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Uncoupled is comfort food first and foremost, intended for people old enough that they no longer feel as cute and hip as they once did, but not yet old enough that they’ve stopped minding. In one episode, Michael is relieved to be able to bond with a date his age about how “crazy” dating has become since they were young’uns learning about sex from Dr. Ruth. “I miss clock radios,” Michael declares wistfully. Not everyone will be able to relate. But if you can, Uncoupled should go down almost as smoothly as an ice-cold glass of Grey Goose. 

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