Bouncily bingeable, 'Uncoupled' delivers exactly what you'd expect from Darren Star
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new comedy series "Uncoupled" stars Neil Patrick Harris as a gay New Yorker whose long-term relationship abruptly ends. The series was created by Darren Star, known for such shows as "Melrose Place" and "Sex And The City." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that "Uncoupled," which drops today on Netflix, delivers exactly what you'd expect from a show by Darren Star.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A while back, I became obsessed by the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz, the great Polish writer who viewed the world through eyes that cut like scalpels. Human life, he said, is a constant war between maturity and immaturity, a war that immaturity ultimately wins. No matter how old and wise we are or think we are, we remain, at bottom, adolescence. If anyone in pop culture seems to confirm this idea, it's Darren Star, the hitmaking TV producer who began his career with teenagers. He created "Beverly Hills, 90210," then "Melrose Place." And in a sense, he never left them behind. Whether it's "Sex And The City," "Younger" or the fatuous "Emily In Paris," Star creates fizzy, crowd-pleasing series whose characters never seem to act remotely as old as they're supposed to be.
This is even true of his bouncily bingeable new Netflix comedy "Uncoupled," which centers on gay men nearing 50. Neil Patrick Harris stars as Michael, a high-end Manhattan real estate agent whose cozy domestic life is shipwrecked when, out of the blue, he's dumped by his partner of 17 years, Colin. That's Tuc Watkins. Suddenly and unhappily single, this somewhat prim, wisecracking, middle-aged man finds himself thrown into today's youth-centric gay culture, in which one takes below-the-belt selfies to put on Grindr. Of course, like Carrie Bradshaw, Michael doesn't face sex and the city alone. He's got an energetic business partner, Suzanne, vividly played by Tisha Campbell, and two great friends whose sex lives could hardly be more different, whereas Billy - that's Emerson Brooks - is a cool, narcissistic TV weatherman who plows through younger men. The less buff, more vulnerable Stanley, wonderfully played by Brooks Ashmanskas, is a witty gallery owner who trades in romantic futility.
This posse helps Michael as he indulges difficult clients - Marcia Gay Harden turns up as a rich, recently abandoned wife - and explores the new romantic possibilities that pop up in seemingly every episode. Here, Michael goes to a club with Stanley and Billy, who's instantly on the phone, trawling the room for a conquest.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNCOUPLED")
EMERSON BROOKS: (As Billy) Oh, 20-something-else, less than 50 feet away, very cute.
BROOKS ASHMANSKAS: (As Stanley) Billy, we are here to support our friend, not abandon him for a hookup.
BROOKS: (As Billy) I'm just showing him how easy it is. Oh, he's so into me.
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Michael) I am not interested in getting back in the game looking at naked selfies on my phone.
BROOKS: (As Billy) What are you looking for - dinner and a movie? Come on. You must have fooled around with other guys during your relationship.
HARRIS: (As Michael) Not really. I put the mono in monogamy.
BROOKS: (As Billy) Or monotony. Up top.
HARRIS: (As Michael) If and when I'm ready to have - to put myself out there - oh, Jesus. I can't believe I'm even saying this. I want it to be a little special.
ASHMANSKAS: (As Stanley) Good luck with that, sweetie. Nowadays, special is when they still want to have sex with you after you show up.
BROOKS: (As Billy) I think they're all special, like snowflakes - no two alike. You just got to get them before they melt. Don't wait up, boys.
ASHMANSKAS: (As Stanley) She can torture a metaphor, but she always gets her man-child.
POWERS: Now, "Uncoupled" is a bit raunchier than Star's earlier work. And if seeing Neil Patrick Harris' bare bottom is on your bucket list, I've got good news. Your dream has come true. That said, the show displays all the somewhat passe Star hallmarks from its glamorizing of upscale urban life to its dialogue laced with carefully tailored quips. There's a killer line here about Charlie Rose. No psychological realist, Star likes to dream up characters who are, essentially types, then figure out amusing ways of giving their adolescent antics and attitudes a bit of emotional shading. This approach is tailor-made for Harris, who exudes the poised charm of one who always wants us to think that he's just sauntered in from a Fred Astaire movie.
If he sometimes comes off a tad smug, that works well here. Michael starts off smug, too. And it's fun to watch Harris go for a somewhat deeper emotional register than usual. It's not the deepest I've seen him. He had a lovely, touching turn on HBO Max's terrific series "It's A Sin." But I enjoyed watching his customary savoir faire lose some of its lamination. Although "Uncoupled" probably feels unusually personal to Star and Harris - both openly gay men of a certain age - the show is too busy being lively to deal seriously with the loss a man would feel on losing a relationship of 17 years. It's tempting to criticize "Uncoupled" for being superficial. "Melrose Place" is Tolstoyan by comparison. Yet to fault the show for its lack of depth is almost to miss the point. You see; Star's approach is not to cannonball into life's deep end. Instead, he gestures at the hard things you would find there - aging, loneliness, selfishness, betrayal - then leads us back to the shallow end of the pool, where we can splash around, having fun.
BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new Netflix series "Uncoupled," starring Neil Patrick Harris. On Monday's show, writer Kirk Wallace Johnson tells the story of a bitter conflict that arose along the Texas coast in the '70s when Vietnam War refugees settled in the area and began trawling for shrimp. White fishermen and the Ku Klux Klan targeted the newcomers, leading to assaults, arsons, a shooting death and a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the attacks. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN AND MAX ROACH'S "JOY SPRING")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Tina Kalakay. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN AND MAX ROACH'S "JOY SPRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.