Newly single, forgot how to mingle: Thoughts on Uncoupled

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Falling in love is quite possibly one of the most wondrously beautiful things to ever happen to a person.

Falling out of love not much …

But what if, like Michael Lawson (Neil Patrick Harris), the brokenhearted protagonist of Uncoupled, you didn’t fall out of love so much as had it ripped from your palpably unwilling hands? What might that feel like?

Surprise, surprise, also not very good and much of Uncoupled‘s nicely-judged eight episode romantic comedy-esque mix of humour and drama makes it abundantly clear that finding out, at your boyfriend-of-17-years-standing Colin McKenna (Tuc Watkins) 50th birthday party, that he’s moved out is quite possibly one of the worst things that can happen to you.

For a start, not only is Michael being unceremoniously dumped in a stealth move worthy of the most elite of commandos – Colin, in a wholly cowardly move, shifts his stuff out after Michael, a high-powered real estate agent in New York City, has left for work thinking nothing is awry – but he’s being dumped kicked to the 40-plus gay curb without one word of explanation.

Yes, indeed, after 17 years of shared jokes and special moments and forged links with close friends like Michael’s work partner and bestie Suzanne Prentiss (Tisha Campbell in fine, FINE form) and Michael’s parents Lisa (Stephanie Faracy) and Ben (Byron Jennings), Colin has just walked away, lips sealed The Go-Gos style, leaving his onetime beloved a shocked and shattered mess.

It would do anyone’s head, and heart, in and much of the first six or so episodes is Michael struggling, and how could you not with an emotional bombshell like that dropped on you, with the helps of player friend and glamour weatherman Billy Burns (Emerson Brooks) and art dealer Stanley James (Brooks Ashmanskas), to figure out what’s just gone down.

There is one abortive attempt at therapy but by and large, Colin just disappears, leaving Michael wondering how something so sure and solid could just vanish in an instant and without any reasoning given.

The only upside to this whole romantic hellmouth of events is that it helps Michael to connect with uber-rich socialite Claire Lewis (Marcia Gay Harden) who’s just been left by her husband for a woman half his age and is similarly figuring out what life looks with all the old certainties suddenly gone.

On the surface Uncoupled might seem like a whole of froth and bubble, glitz and glam, with no one in this idealised version of New York City not looking resplendently rich and cool as hell.

This is very much fairytale NYC with sumptuous apartments, lavish parties, designer clothes and high-profile careers and Uncoupled makes sure we drink in every last bit of the rarefied societal air.

It is, if you want pretty TV with a side order of fantasy living, just what the streaming doctor ordered.

The good news is that Uncoupled is also far more emotional substantial than you might initially expect.

Much of that comes down to the fact that, in-between Michael discovering what sex and love looks like in gay NYC 17 years down the track – Botox for the anus anyone? And forget condoms! They’re so 2005 – Michael’s heart break is given the time and authenticity it needs to express itself.

That’s a rare thing in a show like this which is just as apt to devote half of the opening episodes to Michael’s massively sudden heartbreak and then send him on an hilarious journey into being a single gay man at the backend of his 40s.

Uncoupled does not do that, choosing instead to let Michael actually grieve like a real person, one minute up and sure he get through the pain, the next broken and despairing that this is his life now and he has no way to get through it.

It makes sense if you have ever been through grief of any kind, romantic or otherwise, and while Uncoupled definitely has fun with Michael the single man – in episode six, handsome teacher Luke (Dan Amboyer) goes from meet-cute to unnervingly obsessed boyfriend in seven very short days generating many laughs and some legitimate angst for Michael – it is always happy to pivot from hilarity to profundity, balancing the two disparate elements rather appealingly and, at times, affectingly.

It neatly captures in just about every episode what it is like to have your heart betrayed, your world turned upside down and your expectations smashed, and it does so in a way that doesn’t simply plump for melodramatic moments or cheap laughs.

A French existential drama it is not, but Uncoupled still manages to be both giddily silly and comedically sharp, skewering many of the romantic assumptions, habits and ideals that litter the gay and straight worlds and which no one really questions much of the time, while wearing its heart very much on its storytelling sleeve.

Much of its emotional impact can be sheeted home to Harris who is a masterclass in nuanced emotional expression, managing to express the grief of pain and loss in such a way that cuts to your heart and in the next scene, finding himself so drunk that something quite unfortunate, and hilariously discomforting, happens in a hot tub at a gay ski weekend (episode 7).

He is the heart and soul of this show, all bewilderment, vulnerability, charm and short-lived tenacity and able to reflect the many moods of a show that captures the humanity of an emotionally horrific situation superbly well.

Uncoupled is a lot of glitzy, glam-heavy fun, rich in lux visuals and aspirational beauty, full to the brim with sharp, comedic observations about human foibles and societal blindspots but it’s also very real and very human, happy to let the awfulness of being dumped without reason sink in and sit there, all too aware that while we all want a magic wand at such times to make all the pain go away, that’s not going to happen, and we have to journey out of it, weird silliness and heart-searing moments and get to the other side which is likely going to look like we imagined it to be …

Uncoupled ends on a fabulous cliffhanger so here’s hoping there’s a second season coming up fast.

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