In 1998, Darren Star changed television by creating Sex and the City. Now, with Netflix’s new breakup comedy Uncoupled, he’s co-creating a show with a script that feels like it could be from 1998. The series, which is co-created by former Modern Family executive producer Jeffrey Richman, is billed as a bittersweet story about a middle-aged gay man finding himself after his 17-year relationship suddenly falls apart. Unfortunately, the series is exceedingly heavy on the bitter and fairly short on the sweet.
Neil Patrick Harris stars as Michael, a New York City real estate agent who is shaken to his core when his long-term partner, Colin (Tuc Watkins), walks out on him with no warning. The eight-episode first season follows Michael through the emotionally raw first months of single life post-breakup, exposing the highs and lows of topics like joining dating apps, divvying up friend groups, and moving on in big ways and small.
Unfortunately for us viewers, Michael seems to see the world as all lows, no highs. Harris is fascinatingly, thoroughly unlikeable in the lead role for much of the series. All signs indicate that Michael is meant to come across as a wounded but empathetic protagonist. Yet, Harris delivers lines so caustically that the freshly single man usually just seems like an asshole.
To his credit, the script does the character zero favors: we never get to learn much about what makes Michael happy, but we’re given front-row seats to the things that annoy and enrage him. “You’re the reason blue states turn red,” he tells a squealing gay man over the phone in the pilot episode, and I guess that’s supposed to be funny. Throughout the season, he meets potential lovers and friends with an air of judgment. He may not actually roll his eyes, but he always looks like he’s a second away from doing so.
Michael isn’t the only insufferable character: the show’s entire ensemble is full of catty, mean-spirited, often borderline-offensive characters. There’s Marcia Gay Harden as freshly divorced Claire, who won’t stop misgendering her kid and calling her ex fat. Then there’s Emerson Brooks’ Billy, who likes his boyfriends young and dumb and who, along with Michael, loves to poke fun at their third best pal, Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas, the series highlight) for reasons that are never entirely clear. Even the characters who are clearly supposed to be all-around likable, like Tisha Campbell’s Suzanne, make tired jokes about looking like a sex worker or going lesbian because they can’t get laid.
These jokes aren’t just impressively outdated but are also often excruciatingly unfunny. “He’s my BFF: boyfriend forever,” Michael says at one point, to which Suzanne answers as if this is a Nickelodeon show, “More like B-A-R-F.” The show is full of moments like that, lines so weak and cliched that it’s not always clear whether or not they’re meant as punchlines. Sometimes they’re just straight up weird, too: long after I’ve forgotten the rest of the show, I’m certain I’ll be cursed to remember the moment when one of Suzanne’s friends told her to “spend a romantic evening with a man that wants to get in your vagina instead of one who came out of it.”
Even at their campiest and least substantial, Star’s works always have frothy story elements and style choices that make them enjoyable. His frequently used playbook includes, among other things, wacky dating stories, impressively sexually naive characters, and luxurious details that remind you that all of these people are rich and unrelatable. Uncoupled has all of these things, too, but without a good script or a lead worth rooting for, they’re simply not enough to cling to.
If the series has a saving grace, it’s that it puts its worst foot forward right away. The back half of the season is more watchable than the first, as a few glimpses of emotional truth shine through the uneven script. As Michael relinquishes his grip on the bitterness that helped him survive the aftermath of the breakup, his story occasionally touches upon something believably sincere. Despite all its flaws, there are hints of a better series about gay men of a certain age finding community here, deep below its frustrating surface. Unfortunately, by the time they finally bubble up, these characters’ bad first (and second, and third) impressions are nearly impossible to shake.
Uncoupled debuts on Netflix on July 29th. Watch the show’s trailer here.
Related Topics: Netflix