TV hitmaker Darren Star, who followed up long-running shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Sex and the City, and Younger with the Netflix favourite Emily In Paris in 2020, delivers another enjoyable and highly bingeable series for the streamer with the eight-episode first season of Uncoupled, co-created with Modern Family executive producer Jeffrey Richman. As you might have gathered from the title, rather like Life Begins and Divorce, Uncoupled focuses on the aftermath of a sudden and unexpected uncoupling.
Handsome, highly strung, and hung (yes, we get to see the photographic evidence) forty-something luxury Manhattan residential real estate agent Michael (Emmy and Tony-winner Neil Patrick Harris) is left by his partner of seventeen years; the mild-mannered, suave and successful financier Colin (Boys In The Band star Tuc Watkins). Colin has chosen the night of his fiftieth birthday to break the news that he’s already moved out of their shared Gramercy Park apartment. Not wanting to broadcast his milestone birthday, he’s expecting a quiet dinner for two. Michael, however, has other plans and has arranged a lavish surprise Limelight-themed party—as a tribute to the Chelsea nightclub where the couple first met—and invited everyone they know. He’s even got Broadway duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (playing themselves) to perform a new song for the occasion; a reworking of Welcome To the 60s from their hit musical Hairspray. It’s a deliciously awkward situation that Star and Richman, who co-wrote the series opener, and director Andrew Fleming (The Craft, Emily In Paris, Younger), mine for all its uncomfortable comic potential as we get to know Michael and his inner circle.
Completely blindsided by Colin’s decision, by the end of the night Michael is left standing alone on the sidewalk with a head full of questions about how he’s suddenly single again. In a nice conceit, over the next few episodes we get to see exactly what he’s thinking and wants to say to Colin as he drafts and then deletes in-the-heat-of-the-moment text messages. As the season continues there’s a satisfying progression for the character as he moves from denial, to anger, to putting himself on to Grindr for the first time. Gradually, we also get some insight into Colin’s side of the story and Watkins manages to pull off the balance of imbuing his rather buttoned-up character with enough light and shade to make him intriguing without giving too much away about what Colin’s thinking, so we only know as much as Michael does.
The series is richly populated by other “uncoupled” characters, including Michael’s oldest gay friends. Perpetually single art gallery owner with some self-esteem issues, Stanley (Tony-nominee Brooks Ashmanskas), spends solo date nights out posting photos of his “lonely Negroni”, while the hyper-confident twink-chasing TV weatherman Billy (NAACP Image Award-winner Emerson Brooks), is proud to have been named one of the city’s most eligible bachelors and is embracing his gay scene appeal as a daddy.
Then there’s Michael’s real estate agent partner—as well as a pal and a confidant—Suzanne (NAACP Image and BET Comedy Award-winner Tisha Campbell) who has brought up her now teenage son alone, without knowing the father’s identity following a few flings one summer while travelling across Europe. Together, Suzanne and Michael are hoping to land a potentially highly profitable client—Manhattan socialite Claire (Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden on hilarious form)—who is being forced to sell her penthouse after being left by her husband for a younger woman. While one of Michael’s neighbours, Jack (Emmy, Tony, and Grammy-winning Broadway icon André De Shields), is living alone following the death of his partner. With Michael and his fresh breakup at the core, these supporting characters and their narrative strands are developed as the season progresses, with Suzanne’s storyline becoming particularly engaging.
NPH brings emotional depth and perfect comic timing to Michael, who’s often self-absorbed and oblivious to anyone’s else perspective, but lovable despite his foibles. There’s great chemistry between him and the entire lead cast and Michael’s relationships with his gay bffs feel believable and lived in. Ashmanskas is charming, touching, and funny as Stanley, while Brooks oozes in charisma and gay bro energy, with glints of a vulnerability underneath, as Billy. Harris and Campbell are especially fun to watch, and their scenes together really sizzle, with Campbell—who gives Suzanne a captivating vibrancy—making the most of every second she’s on screen. With her straight-talking, fun-loving, larger-than-life qualities, she’s the Samantha to Michael’s Carrie, if you will. (Though Claire and Billy give off some Samantha vibes too). Given the sex, and the city that the show’s set in, along with Darren Star’s involvement, and composer Gabriel Mann’s alluringly upbeat and catchy jazzy theme, it’s hard not to make comparisons to the era-defining SATC, and Michael has several speeches that one can easily imagine a spiraling Carrie delivering. In fact, there’s even a nod to SJP and her shoe line at one point. Given the ages of these characters though, Uncoupled is more closely aligned to the world of And Just Like That…, but thankfully the comedy in this series flows a lot more naturally, the city itself feels more tangible, the character development and storylines are more grounded in reality and it approaches aging and identity with more nuance.
Notwithstanding the wealth and lifestyles of these characters though—with their ski weekends, charity dinners, and private members clubs—they’re nevertheless relatable because of the emotional truth, albeit heightened, of what they experience, and the performances of the excellent ensemble cast who embody them. Uncoupled is worth watching for Marcia Gay Harden alone, who is magnificent in a perfectly-pitched performance as the hard-drinking, occasionally sledgehammer-wielding Claire. Then there’s De Shield’s beautifully warm, wise and witty Jack; and Nic Rouleau is a delight as Suzanne and Michael’s love-to-hate work nemesis, Tyler. One stand out guest star turn comes from Tony-nominated Halston actor David Pittu, who is terrific as an unassuming couples’ therapist by day who moonlights as a fierce drag performer by night. In one of my favourite scenes of the season, he tells Michael exactly what he thought went wrong with his relationship with Colin and his approach to their therapy session, all while in his drag persona, Miss Communication. Look out for French heartthrob Gilles Marini too, who played Samantha’s California beach front alfresco-shower-taking neighbour in the first SATC movie, as a dashing Italian businessman in search of a New York apartment and some no-strings fun.
Star and Richman have assembled a team of writers that includes Q-Force’s Ira Madison III, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion‘s Robin Schiff, and The Opposite of Sex’s Don Roos, which give the dialogue a peppy energy. Director of photography Seamus Tierney brings an appealingly warm glow to the look of the season and the sweeping aerial Manhattan establishing shots add a shiny, glamorous, aspirational romcom vibe. While thanks to Michael’s profession, there’s high-end New York real estate porn aplenty.
Despite being about life after a breakup, Uncoupled generally makes for fun, feel-good viewing, largely because we see Michael so well supported and comforted by his chosen family. Fortunately for him, Michael doesn’t have to contend with the current Moneypox outbreak, but he is faced with the challenge of navigating hookup app culture and discovers a more liberated era of gay sex in the time of PrEP, having been monogamous for nearly two decades. There’s a playful, lightness of touch to the handling of these topics that feels authentic, and while more explicitly queer, will likely be as inviting to non-LGBTQ+ viewers as Will & Grace was when it first aired in the late 90s. With the proliferation and evolution of LGBTQ+ characters and stories on television—from Pose to Veneno, Hacks to Heartstopper, The Other Two to the new Queer As Folk, Special to Sort of, and beyond—a series like Uncoupled doesn’t have the same weight of responsibility to represent the entire queer experience that something like Will & Grace did nearly 25 years ago. There’s a place for a mainstream comedy series with broad appeal on a major global platform like Netflix, and with the alarming increase in right-wing politicians legislating against us, while weaponizing and stoking anti-LGBTQ+ hate, and indications of the fragility of our rights from SCOTUS, it’s visibility that feels important too. With potential for another long-running series, I’m looking forward to seeing these characters again.
By James Kleinmann
Uncoupled launches globally on Netflix on Friday, July 29th 2022.