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Neil Patrick Harris's 'Uncoupled' is a joyless look at starting over

Neil Patrick Harris as Michael Lawson in “Uncoupled”.

Neil Patrick Harris as Michael Lawson in “Uncoupled”.

Published Aug 3, 2022

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By Inkoo Kang

A middle-aged protagonist's expectations of growing old in comfort and style with his rich, handsome partner in a tastefully grand Manhattan apartment are unsparingly dashed when said partner makes an abrupt departure.

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Stunned and devastated, the childless protagonist looks to a pair of long-time pals for support, as well as a prickly new friend who comes attached to a major real estate deal.

A spirited but shambolic co-worker encourages the protagonist to figure out the next chapter of their life, while shots of a squeaky-clean, casually plutocratic New York, set to a jaunty, jazzy score, suggest that one's post-40 years can be so much more than fretting in front of a mirror.

That's the story of the quinquagenarian Carrie Bradshaw in "And Just Like That ...," the "Sex and the City" sequel series that premiered last year.

It's also the plight of Neil Patrick Harris's Michael Lawson in "Uncoupled", the charmless new Netflix comedy from Jeffrey Richman and Darren Star, the latter of whom created the iconic HBO show (and later ceded creative control to Michael Patrick King).

Like Carrie, Michael has to start over unexpectedly after years of feeling settled – though in his case, it's because his boyfriend, Colin (Tuc Watkins), moves out after 17 years together, with nary an explanation.

For most of the season's eight episodes, Colin remains a cipher (though it's not as if any of the other characters get much fleshing-out).

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Dating as a gay man in one's late forties is a nightmare, Michael complains, particularly when so much has changed about hook-up culture since the mid-2000s; an entire episode is dedicated to the norms and mores of Grindr.

Neil Patrick Harris’s character, Michael Lawson, is a man adrift after his longtime boyfriend moves out unexpectedly. Tisha Campbell plays his work colleague, Suzanne.

But the real estate agent doesn't get much sympathy from his richest client, Claire (Marcia Gay Harden, seemingly willing herself into camp diva status through over-the-top line deliveries).

Mid-divorce from a philandering husband, the loudly self-pitying Claire dares Michael to compare his situation to hers – and he's happy to oblige.

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Star's characters have tended to grow older with him. The former wunderkind behind "Beverly Hills, 90210" followed up "Sex and the City" with "Younger," the irrepressible romantic sitcom starring Sutton Foster as a 40-year-old woman who poses as a 20-something when no one will hire her for an entry-level job, and "Emily in Paris", the weightless but compulsively watchable girlboss fantasy in which Lily Collins's titular ingenue will never be as interesting or charismatic as her middle-aged French colleagues.

One might hope, then, that Star's latest show would offer some insight into the ageing process, especially given that it's the gay TV auteur's first series with a gay male protagonist.

But "Uncoupled" is flat, joyless and surprisingly cold-looking. Star's best shows, like "Sex and the City" and "Younger," tend to be triumphs of casting, but it's hard not to get the sense that Harris, so heartbreaking in his recent turn on HBO Max's Aids drama "It's a Sin", is substantially miscast, seemingly handcuffed by the demands of broad-appeal likeability.

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The actor is most inventive in roles that evince authority, like the smarmy, manic know-it-all Barney Stinson on "How I Met Your Mother".

As the perplexed and adrift Michael, who's not sure how he's supposed to feel about being the wreckage of someone else's midlife crisis, Harris seems less assured, more stuck in his head.

Though it takes a couple of episodes to get there, the actor does conjure a playful spark with Tisha Campbell, who plays his office partner, Suzanne.

But it's not until the final episode that Suzanne and Michael's friends – libertine weatherman Billy (Emerson Brooks) and hangdog art dealer Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas), analogues for Samantha and Charlotte, respectively - get any –significant character development.

What the show lacks most conspicuously, though, especially given its fatalistic air, is moments of emotional groundedness.

There are a few scattered about, most poignantly Claire's loss of her friends post-divorce, since they decide to side with her much-wealthier husband. "Uncoupled" tries to balance out its aspirational trappings with sexual frankness, but the perfectly trim and hairless bodies on display undercut that effort, too.

If "And Just Like That ..." made female middle age look like one long slog, "Uncoupled" doesn't have much to add from a gay man's perspective, despite the small representational milestone it achieves.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that it'll mostly just make you nostalgic for Star's earlier work.

"Uncoupled" is streaming on Netflix.

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