No queer subtext in the first gay-centered Darren Star show, just gay all day
Uncoupled is entertaining and highly watchable – as most Darren Star productions are – but it doesn’t quite measure up…even by guilty pleasure/camp standards. Maybe the problem is that it’s actually about gay men and the openly gay Darren Star is best at coded queerness. Uncoupled isn’t subtexturally queer, it’s just gay.
In fact, this show is so gay, Marc Shaiman appears in a cameo AS HIMSELF and no one needs to explain who he is. This show is so gay, there’s a one-off character loosely based on Tom of Finland. This show is so gay, Marcia GAY Harden is in it….and her character (an overbearing bitter rich woman with no boundaries) seems to be based on Patti Lupone’s character in Company. You know how everyone cackled over the fact that the sexually voracious Samantha from Sex and the City was basically a gay man? There is no Samantha here…just plenty of legitimately slutty gay men.
Uncoupled is the first series that Darren Star has centered around a gay man. But it’s not his first “queer” show. Every Star project is basically the Wizard of Oz. It begins with a protagonist being airdropped— for seemingly random reasons—into a new unfamiliar environment where they must navigate and fit into a culture that is both horrifying and aspirational. Brenda and Brandon, the two protagonists of Beverly Hills 90210, must move from their own Kansas (aka Minnesota) to the toxic but glamorous world of West Beverly Hills High School. Alison Parker moves from Wisconsin to LA to pursue a career in advertising, takes up residence at Melrose Place, the apartment complex of young hot wannabes in LA. In Emily in Paris, a millennial marketing executive who doesn’t speak French moves from midwestern corporate America to Paris.
And although Carrie in Sex and the City isn’t new to New York City, she’s a writer so she’s an outsider making sense of it. Maybe it’s the viewers watching from our couches in less glamorous locations, who are the “Dorothy” noticing we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Notice that Star doesn’t name many of these series (with the exception of Emily in Paris) after the main characters, but rather the environments in which they end up. Just like The Wizard of Oz isn’t named “Dorothy.” Even the show Younger – about Liza Miller (Sutton Foster), a woman in her forties who breaks into the publishing industry by pretending to be a millennial–isn’t named “Liza” but instead the state of being she must marinate in to keep her job.
Wizard of Oz was the original queer subtext. Don’t ask me why. As comedian Matteo Lane points out “it is impossible to explain to a straight person why Maleficent, Miss Piggy and the Barefoot Contessa are gay icons. They just are.” Why has the term “Friend of Dorothy” been code for “gay man” since the early twentieth century? It just is. Thus, every Darren Star project is queer…even the ones that don’t have regular queer characters.
In Uncoupled, Michael Lawson (Neil Patrick Harris) hasn’t moved to a new town. He left behind the Kansas of a monogamous 17-year relationship. (Or rather, it left him.) While in this relationship, he was blissfully unaware of all sorts of things that single gay men both enjoy or put up with like hook up apps, PrEP, threeways, dick pics, gay ski weekends, and barebacking. One of the conceits that Uncoupled wants us to swallow is that Michael, an openly gay man who has lived in NYC for his entire adult life, has NO IDEA how to use Grindr because he was in a monogamous relationship for 17 years. That’s like saying “I’m Jewish, but it’s been a long time since my bar mitzvah, so I don’t know how to eat a bagel.”
Perhaps gay code is no longer possible or necessary these days and that’s fine. But there’s a throwaway line Michael delivers about not barebacking because he doesn’t want to end up “a name on the quilt” that feels like something that a gay man in his forties would have said in a Broadway play 10 years ago back when PrEP was new and controversial.
Another disappointing aspect of Uncoupled, as opposed to an often cringeworthy but highly successful series like Sex And The City, is the lack of a cohesive ensemble of supporting characters. While all the ladies in SATC had storylines that interwove nicely and gave everyone a chance to identify with at least one of the main characters, Michael has appendages. His main business associate is Suzanne, a woman of color (Tisha Campbell aka “Damn, Gina!” from Martin). It feels as though Star, who is sensitive to previous criticisms leveled against his shows for their lack of diversity, is determined to add heft to her storyline and not just make her a sidekick/vital statistic.
But her overall story arc – can’t find a man, her son located his real father – isn’t very compelling and doesn’t integrate with the rest of series. The two other characters in Michael’s inner circle are – I guess – Uncoupled’s answer to Samantha and Miranda. Billy (Emerson Brooks), is a TV weatherman of a certain age who dates/hooks up with a bevy of younger men. Predictably, he must reckon with his loneliness when a hot twink calls him out on his promiscuous and selfish behavior. And Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas) is a gallery owner and our token “not hot” gay who is critical of gay culture because he isn’t getting any. They bicker a lot.
There is also very little to aspire to in Uncoupled. Neil Patrick Harris is attractive and well-dressed but he’s a realtor and his ex-partner runs a hedge fund. No one wants to move to NYC and be a realtor when they grow up. Suzanne gets her friends in to a “very exclusive club” and it’s not clear from the interior and the people they encounter why this place is so exclusive.
In Darren Star shows, none of the dialogue sounds like anything that anyone says in real life. It’s a mixture of expository dialogue, quips, puns, brand names, wistful philosophical questions, pop culture namechecks and pronouncements. Uncoupled is no exception. Examples:
“Say hello to Grindr’s new grindee!”
“You’ve got to play hard to get if you want to get him hard again.”
“They should rename that app UN-Hinged!”
“Alex has a big podcast about climate change from an LGBTQ angle. It’s called Emissions Control. How funny is that?”
“I put the mono in monogamy!”
The central mystery of the season is that Colin won’t explain why he left Michael. Yet the series makes it clear why Colin left. Michael is a self-centered pain in the ass. (Another hallmark of a Darren Star production? Self-centered, selfish main characters that you inexplicably root for and yet hate.)
It’s possible that there’s another reason that Colin left Michael, but we don’t learn what that is. But usually when you’re watching a Darren Star series like Sex and the City you’re sitting around with your friends over drinks saying things like “I’m Carrie? Am I Samantha? You’re Charlotte!” Here’s who I am in Uncoupled: I am Colin (Tuc Watkins), the guy who left Neil Patrick Harris because he threw me a surprise birthday party even though I asked him not to and he wouldn’t fucking stop talking about himself or controlling my behavior for three seconds.