“One’s ears are not garbage cans,” Marcia Gay Harden says to Neil Patrick Harris in the first episode of Uncoupled, her voice an exquisitely velvety purr. If you couldn’t tell Harden’s character Claire was wealthy from her outfit – head-to-toe winter white – or her front door – a keyed elevator that leads straight to her Manhattan penthouse, you’d know it from the way she talks to her estate agent Michael, played by Harris with signature boyish pluck. Claire is chastising Michael for making a tiny ruckus in her lobby, but soon she’ll be chewing his ear off about her impending divorce from her philandering husband – a screed that’s littered with profanity. The joke, I guess, is that rich people get to break their own rules, but it’s the deliciously uttered sentence that stayed with me.
The new Netflix sitcom from Darren Star – the prolific writer/producer behind the American soaps Beverly Hills, 90210 and Sex and the City – and Modern Family producer Jeffrey Richman picks up on the day Michael learns his partner of 17 years is leaving him, seemingly out of the blue. Throughout the eight-episode season, the luxury broker confronts the realities of being an “uncoupled” gay man in his forties in New York City, a lonely relationship status that bonds him with his newly single client, Claire, and his single business partner Suzanne, played by My Wife and Kids star Tisha Campbell.
It’s tempting to compare Michael and the last besuited single-guy-in-the-city Harris played – How I Met Your Mother’s devilish lothario, Barney – but sadly the similarities end at the slim-fit tailoring. Michael is cursed with just enough conscience that he spends as much of the season coming to grips with his own shortcomings as a partner as he does romping his way through the Wild West of online dating. It’s a more nuanced character than we’re used to seeing Harris play – an early scene in which Michael crumbles into tears, publicly declaring himself to the man who left him, is especially affecting – but he’s also considerably less fun to hang out with.
Which is a shame. Star’s last two hits – Younger, about a single mom pretending to be twenty-something to break into book publishing, and Emily in Paris, a show about a midwestern marketing exec who disappears into the glamour of Le Marais – were escapist fantasies. Confections instead of real meals. Uncoupled doesn’t scale those frothy heights. Its glittering OTT New York sets, starting with Claire’s depressingly beige apartment, aren’t that glittering, and the cut-throat world of high-end real estate seems like a grind, brimming with nepotism and bad snacks. “At $4,000 a square foot, you think they’d serve something better than pigs-in-a-blanket,” Suzanne quips as the characters walk through yet another drab white box on the Manhattan skyline.
Mostly, though, the jokes feel like stabs at relevance that have already started going stale. “Come on, dots!” Michael shouts at his iPhone, willing his ex to text him back. The first episode alone contains a wisecrack about being relegated to the singles table, some word play featuring the word “hard”, and a groaner of a real estate joke (you’ll know it when you hear it). My ears are not garbage cans, you know?
The series that made Darren Star a brand were odes to outlandish adult daydreams: a single writer in New York with a delectable wardrobe, a 40-year-old woman passing for a post-grad to pursue her passion, a tacky American reinventing herself in Paris without knowing any French. His heroines were such fantastical creatures that you could watch the shows whether you loved to watch them or loved to hate them. But Michael’s big ambition in this series is just to be a couple again, like in the life he used to have before his world came crashing down. He may be the producer’s most relatable protagonist to-date, but, to the disappointment of this Star fan, his dream is no laughing matter.