Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor
Netflix’s UNCOUPLED is a fun new show. Are we still allowed to have fun?
Many are calling this the summer of the gay rom-com. First, there was Hulu’s Fire Island, a modern gay take on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Then, Netflix premiered Heartstopper, an adorable love story between blazered British boys in high school. In September, Billy Eichner’s Bros, the first gay romantic comedy ever released by a major studio, will hit theatres. But first, Netflix has released a new comedy in eight half-hour episodes, called Uncoupled.
I watched the entirety of Uncoupled‘s first season over the course of three days. Created by Darren Star (Sex & the City) and Jeffrey Richman (Modern Family), it tells the story of Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) a gay New Yorker in his late forties that was just unceremoniously dumped by his partner of 17 years. As the show progresses, so do Michael’s stages of grief, including classics like denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, with a few curveballs thrown in, including dating apps, hookup apps, how to take a good naughty selfie, bad places for Botox, and the gay generational divide.
My bad breakup was a decade ago, so the wounds are healed and scarred over at this point, but watching this show was incredibly validating in many respects. I remember the dizzying and sick feeling when the person you thought you knew so well became completely unrecognizable, and the internal struggle that happens when you’ve assured your friends they don’t have to choose between you and your ex but you really really want them to choose you and only you. A bad breakup can make you feel untethered from reality, and watching someone go through it — even ten years later — is oddly comforting.
That being said, I’m happy to report that Uncoupled is also very entertaining. The people are gorgeous and glamorous, the New York locales are ritzy and glittery, and the dialogue sparkles just like the copious amounts of champagne that people drink on this show. Unfortunately, what I call entertaining is what a lot of the critics who watch television for a living are calling “out of touch.”
NPR’s Glen Weldon writes about Michael’s heartbreak this way: “His’s crestfallen, yes, but the chief hurdles the series struggles to clear is how difficult it becomes to root for the embittered Michael as he whines to his friends in those [amazing] apartments and clubs and galleries and bars with $25 Negronis.”
Meanwhile, Angie Han of The Hollywood Reporter notes that “Uncoupled demonstrates little curiosity … about the world outside Michael’s bubble: wealthy, mostly white cis gay men in their 40s.” That’s a fair criticism, but not entirely accurate. Unlike other New York-centric shows like Sex & the City or Friends where people of color were almost never to be found (and it was practically “Very Special Episode” territory when one finally appeared), Uncoupled features fantastic performances by many actors of color, including Tisha Campbell and Emerson Brooks in recurring roles as part of Michael’s inner circle, and Jai Rodriguez (of off-Broadway’s Zanna, Don’t! and the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and the brilliantly droll Andre DeShields as a friend and neighbor.
I’m guessing that what Han means is that the show feels awfully white (even if it’s not). This is probably due what Time Magazine, in its review of the show, called “affluenza,” a fictional disease carried by one-percenters that makes them oblivious to anyone else’s struggles but their own. No, there aren’t any stories here that dwell on the pain of oppression, based on race or anything else — including, by the way, sexual orientation. The gay men who people this series carry not an ounce of internalized homophobia in their psyches. After all, why should they? They’re rich and gorgeous. But it’s also not what this show is about.
And … am I, an advocate for social justice and a practitioner of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the past two decades, allowed to say that’s okay? Yes, of course, there are issues out here in the real world that desperately need our focus. Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court, marriage equality may very well be next, and Black women have to work 19 months to get paid what the average white man takes home in 12. These are pressing problems, and — as I often write about here — the stories we watch and hear and read have a big impact on how we see the world and all its troubles. But sometimes these same stories, provided they do no harm, can also serve as a joyous and necessary escape.
So, the protagonist of a new half-hour comedy-drama on a streaming service is a 49-year old with a fabulous Gramercy apartment complete with private terrace, a dazzling smile, a quick wit, and abs. He and his friends are funny and fun to watch. The show has its critics, and that’s fair. But I wonder if most of them are missing the crux of the program. Because if it’s about anything, Uncoupled is about heartbreak and how people move through it — and how it can happen to anyone, even pretty people with zillion dollar condos.