Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor
Many are calling this the summer of the gay rom-com. First, there was Hulu’s Fire Island, a modern gay take on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Then, Netflix premiered Heartstopper, an adorable love story between blazered British boys in high school. In September, Billy Eichner’s Bros, the first gay romantic comedy ever released by a major studio, will hit theatres. But first, Netflix has released a new comedy in eight half-hour episodes, called Uncoupled.
I watched the entirety of Uncoupled‘s first season over the course of three days. Created by Darren Star (Sex & the City) and Jeffrey Richman (Modern Family), it tells the story of Michael (Neil Patrick Harris), a gay New Yorker in his late forties who was just unceremoniously dumped by his partner of 17 years. As the show progresses, so do Michael’s stages of grief, including classics like denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, with a few curveballs thrown in, including dating apps, hookup apps, how to take a good naughty selfie, bad places for Botox, and the gay generational divide.
My bad breakup was a decade ago, so the wounds are healed and scarred over at this point, but watching this show was incredibly validating in many respects. I remember the dizzying and sick feeling when the person you thought you knew so well became completely unrecognizable. And the internal struggle that happens when you’ve assured your friends they don’t have to choose between you and your ex, but you really, really want them to choose you and only you. A bad breakup can make you feel untethered from reality and watching someone go through it—even 10 years later—is comforting.
That being said, I’m happy to report that Uncoupled is also very entertaining. The people are gorgeous and glamorous, the New York locales are ritzy and glittery, and the dialogue sparkles like the copious amounts of champagne that people drink on this show. Unfortunately, what I call entertaining is what a lot of the critics who watch television for a living are calling “out of touch.”
NPR’s Glen Weldon writes about Michael’s heartbreak this way: “He’s crestfallen, yes, but the chief hurdles the series struggles to clear is how difficult it becomes to root for the embittered Michael as he whines to his friends in those [amazing] apartments and clubs and galleries and bars with $25 Negronis.”
Meanwhile, Angie Han of The Hollywood Reporter notes that “Uncoupled demonstrates little curiosity…about the world outside Michael’s bubble—wealthy, mostly white cis gay men in their 40s.” That’s a fair criticism, but not entirely accurate. Unlike other New York-centric shows like Sex & the City or Friends where people of color were almost never to be found (and it was practically “Very Special Episode” territory when one finally appeared), Uncoupled features fantastic performances by many actors of color, including Tisha Campbell and Emerson Brooks in recurring roles as part of Michael’s inner circle, and Jai Rodriguez and the brilliantly droll Andre DeShields as a friend and neighbor, respectively.
I’m guessing that what Han means is that the show feels awfully white (even if it’s not). This is probably due to what Time magazine, in its review of the show, called “affluenza,” a fictional disease carried by one-percenters that makes them oblivious to anyone’s struggles but their own. No, there aren’t any stories here that dwell on the pain of oppression, based on race or anything else—including, by the way, sexual orientation. The gay men who people this series carry not an ounce of internalized homophobia in their psyches. After all, why should they? They’re rich and gorgeous.
And…am I, a practitioner of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the past two decades, to say that’s okay? Yes, there are issues out here in the real world that desperately need our focus. Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court, marriage equality may very well be next, and Black women have to work 19 months to get paid what the average white man takes home in 12. These are pressing problems, and—as I often write about here—the stories we watch and hear and read have a big impact on how we see the world and all its troubles. But sometimes these same stories, provided they do no harm, can also serve as a joyous and necessary escape.
So yes, Michael is a 49-year-old with a fabulous Gramercy apartment complete with private terrace, a dazzling smile, a quick wit, and killer abs. He and his friends are fun to watch. And yet, if this show is about anything, it’s about heartbreak and how people move through it—and how it can happen to anyone, even pretty people with zillion dollar condos. ▼
Eric Peterson is a Diversity & Inclusion practitioner. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online at Rehoboth’s Browseabout Books. The Rewind Project is available wherever you listen to podcasts.