A single mother learns that her son has unearthed the identity of his father, something she doesn’t know herself. This life-altering news is a bombshell under any circumstances, yet Suzanne, the mother, tells her friend Michael all this only after he has ranted about his catastrophic lovelife. He’s shocked by her news—and by the fact that she waited. He accuses her of “burying the headline”, the way weak news stories hide the truly sensational fact later in the story, instead of smacking the reader right between the eyes from the get-go. “It’s not so much ‘bury’,” she sighs, “as wait for Michael to unravel and then you can have a turn.”
We all have friends—and have been friends—who force the rest to bury the headline, friends who believe their problems deserve precedence, friends who, quite simply, whine louder. The Netflix comedy Uncoupled features a man left behind by his longtime boyfriend after 17 years of couple-y bliss, and now he doesn’t know how to be single any more. He doesn’t know the apps, the jargon, the contraceptives. He’s gay, he’s clueless and he’s trying to navigate the New York scene.
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Uncoupled is a show by Darren Star—who also created Sex And The City (Disney+Hotstar)—and while it shares some of the DNA from that pathbreaking series, the real headline is that this gay sad-sack is being played by Neil Patrick Harris. Harris, an Emmy and Tony winning actor, is known best for playing Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, the most iconic Lothario in recent television, a misogynist who somehow sneaked past the collective consciousness before we began cancelling fictional characters.
A man with a playbook on bedding women containing hundreds of elaborately deceitful schemes, Barney Stinson should be put down—except that Harris played him like a put-down to begin with. One of the most openly gay actors in television, Harris —who also played an obnoxiously horny (and straight) version of himself in the Harold & Kumar movies—played Barney as a broad caricature, an obvious critique of dude-bro masculinity performed by someone who was the exact opposite.
Actually, one of the (many) reasons How I Met Your Mother eventually failed was that Neil Patrick Harris was too damned good for the Barney stereotype. Clearly meant to be comic relief, we cared about Barney, about Barney’s marriage, about Barney’s future—evidently more than the storytellers intended us to.
There is no such subversion required for Harris this time around as he plays this vulnerable part, a raw and hurting and clueless man searching for love in a city which has the knack of making you feel like everyone else is in on the answer. A gifted comic actor—particularly when it comes to physical comedy—Harris plays wounded very well indeed.
You cheer for his Michael Lawson, and any show that makes you root for a realtor is itself a triumph. It gives us a peek into the unsurprisingly buoyant New York gay scene but does so casually—as if there is no new ground to break. It’s not too exoticised, too new, too revelatory or too camp. It’s merely open, and that feels comfortingly chill. Of course it would never be another Sex And The City, but then what is? Even that series, on its recent return, couldn’t bottle the magic again. And Just Like That (Amazon Prime Video) came across like a relic in nice-ish shoes, trying too hard to speak the language of those much younger (and much less interested) in their characters.
The characters in Uncoupled, on the other hand, appear to know who they are. The lines may not be as edgy or quotable but the ensemble is excellent—and affecting. Tisha Campbell is superbly brassy as Michael’s straight best friend and real estate colleague Suzanne, Brooks Ashmanskas is self-deprecating and supportive as art dealer Stanley, and Emerson Brooks cuts a sharp figure as Billy, a narcissistic weatherman who’s also always there for Michael. (None of them is a Miranda but that’s okay.)
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The always great Marcia Gay Harden shines as a hard client, theatre legend André De Shields is a delight as Michael’s sophisticated neighbour Jack, while Tuc Watkins—as the villain of the piece, the man who left Michael—does unquestionably evoke Mr Big from SATC, the proper, buttoned-up businessman who is more grown-up than the protagonist. Speaking of which, Uncoupled has a line about “$400 dollar SJP shoes” which is not just an obvious nod to Sarah Jessica Parker, who played shoe-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw but also—as The Wife informed me—to a similarly priced pair of Manolo Blahniks that Carrie wore (and lost) at a baby shower.
At one point, Harris accurately describes a glitzy apartment as the setting for “one of those 1930s movies where The Depression is happening outside”, and Uncoupled itself is that sort of escapist entertainment—and it knows it. Yet for all its affluence, there is heart in this story of a man who has forgotten how to make the moves who is now being compelled to move on. In Michael we find someone trying his darnedest. He might flail a lot but he takes it on the chin and gets back on his feet. He knows what he has to do. Suit up.
Streaming tip of the week
In the mood for more escape? Every single Mission: Impossible movie—from the Brian De Palma firecracker in 1996 to the 2018 film—is now available on Netflix. Turn up the volume and watch Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.