Neil Patrick Harris spent nine seasons playing charming womanizer Barney Stinson on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, and in his new Netflix comedy Uncoupled, his character Michael also wears nice suits and lives in New York City. But in other ways, Michael is the complete opposite of Barney: a mild-mannered gay man who has been happily coupled up with his boyfriend for the past 17 years. That happiness all comes crashing down, though, and Uncoupled — premiering this Friday; I’ve seen five of the eight episodes — is a mildly enjoyable, surprisingly dramatic look at Michael’s new life as a suddenly single gay man in his 40s.
To everyone else, Michael and his boyfriend Colin (Tuc Watkins) look like the picture-perfect couple, but pictures can be deceiving: Colin abruptly dumps him just as they’re walking into the lavish 50th birthday bash Michael threw for him. (Great timing.) Blindsided and devastated, Michael leans on his friends for support after the breakup: Suzanne (Tisha Campbell), his sassy colleague at a high-end real estate firm, and Billy (Emerson Brooks) and Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas), his quippy gay pals who love to sip wine and gossip. Plus, Michael strikes up an unlikely bond with his demanding client Claire (Marcia Gay Harden, having a lot of fun here) over their shared heartbreak.
Darren Star created the series along with Modern Family alum Jeffrey Richman, and he seems to be going for the light, bubbly rom-com vibe of his other shows Sex and the City and Emily in Paris. (It’s definitely nice to look at, with lots of beautiful expensive apartments and fabulous parties.) The trailer promises lots of wacky dating hijinks, but that’s actually a bit misleading: Uncoupled is more of a dramedy, with a deep emotional undercurrent as Michael tries to make sense of his pain and grief. Harris plays the devastation well, bringing unexpected depth to the role. The scene where a freshly dumped Michael has to put on a brave face and make a birthday toast to Colin is a remarkable balancing act, and Harris pulls it off with ease.
Uncoupled is at its best when Michael is dipping his toe in a very different and scary dating pool full of Grindr DMs, dick pics and carefree unprotected sex — a prospect that scares the hell out of him after growing up in the AIDS era. (“I can’t get turned on when all I can see is my name on that quilt,” he explains to his clueless millennial hookup, who replies: “What quilt?”) Michael wants old-fashioned dates and romance, but do those even exist anymore? It’s fertile ground for comedy, but the series prefers to stay focused on Michael’s heartbreak — maybe a little too much. (I get that he wouldn’t get over Colin overnight, but can’t we skip ahead to the fun stuff?)
Watching Uncoupled is a pleasant enough experience, but honestly, I didn’t find myself laughing very much. Outside of Michael and Claire, the characters don’t really stand out or grab our attention, and the punchlines are mostly stale and predictable. I’d love to see a modern-day gay rom-com with the shocking frankness of vintage Sex and the City, but Uncoupled pulls its punches too often; it’s more mild than spicy, even though it airs on a streaming service with zero content restrictions. It’s closer in tone to the later seasons of Sex and the City, when it ventured into dramedy territory, but that was earned by years of great writing and careful character building. Uncoupled could get there — and it’s a solid vehicle for Harris’ talents regardless — but it’s not quite there yet.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Neil Patrick Harris is great as a suddenly single gay man in Netflix’s Uncoupled, but the jokes could use a makeover.