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Please Send “Uncoupled” Back to the 90s Where It Belongs
The Netflix series is outdated, mediocre, and not as ground-breaking as it thinks it is.
If you told me right now that the first draft of “Uncoupled” was written in 1995, I wouldn’t even bat an eye.
That’s because in many ways, the series, which premiered on Netflix late last month, feels like a relic from that time. The set-up is familiar, following the escapades and sexcapades of a bunch of wealthy New Yorkers. The dialogue, too, is awkwardly old-fashioned, and much of the humor has already been recycled to death in various other sitcoms over the past three decades. Even before filming, the series stirred controversy for featuring an outdated stereotype of a Latina housekeeper, which was subsequently cut.
The datedness (and aggressive mediocrity) of “Uncoupled” is less surprising once you find out the creator is Darren Star, famous for “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Sex and the City” and infamous for “Emily in Paris.” Three decades ago, his work was creative and interesting, but since then it hasn’t exactly changed with the times.
Perhaps most outdated about the series is its discussion of sex, dating, and relationships. There are, of course, modern references to things like dating apps, but relationships and love are both portrayed and explicitly talked-about in “Uncoupled” in ways that are so old-fashioned that even Carrie Bradshaw would be surprised. There’s also the fact that the characters and series itself fail to have any understanding of sex and romance that doesn’t sit squarely in heterosexual traditions. For lack of a better term, the show just feels really straight.
And that’s pretty weird considering its about gay men.
The main character is Michael, a man in his 40s whose boyfriend, Colin, suddenly leaves him after 17 years together. Michael is then forced to simultaneously navigate the breakup and a dating scene with which he is no longer familiar. Don’t worry, though, he’s not completely alone. He has a few other single, middle-aged gay friends, Stanley and Billy, as well as his real-estate partner, Suzanne, to help him through it.
To be sure, “Uncoupled” is gay — one episode centers on the ins and outs of Grindr hookups, another takes place at a gay ski weekend — but often these set-ups offer nothing more than a veneer of gayness. Strip away the buzzwords and surface-level thematic connections, and what you’re left with is a presentation of sex, dating, love, and marriage that is too generic and heteronormative to be accurate to the gay experience.
The most egregious example of this issue is Michael’s obsession, along with his friends, with long-term monogamy. He spends the vast majority of the series either complaining about being single or obsessing over how no one will want to date him now that he’s in his 40s (despite the fact that he seems to have a new attractive man to date every week). Michael operates under the assumption that he cannot be happy again until he finds a new long-term partner, and while he does eventually become more comfortable in his single-ness, he still treats finding a partner as the default end-goal for his life.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Michael seeking out long-term monogamy, but the series relegates any alternatives — many of which are highly prevalent in the gay community — to either an abnormality or a punchline.
What’s most odd about the series, though, is that it seems to think it is a lot more provocative than it actually is. The fact that Michael and Colin never got married (hence the title) is referenced repeatedly, and sex scenes are lingered on for an unnecessarily long time, as if to push an envelope that isn’t really in need of much pushing anymore.
That might explain why so many aspects of the series that could have been genuinely provocative or ground-breaking instead stick to what is “safe.” The main characters are mostly wealthy, mostly white, mostly fit, mostly straight-passing men. Meanwhile, the rest of the queer community is referenced sparingly and only in passing. It feels like careful choices were made to keep the majority of the show “acceptable” to wider audiences in order to blaze trails in other aspects. That might be a smart and commendable choice if the creators were more in touch with what is “acceptable” these days and what trails have already been blazed.
In all honesty, I actually went back-and-forth on writing this piece for a while. In many ways, “Uncoupled” isn’t effective enough in its most basic elements to justify talking about at all, and there is a part of me that believes every community deserves to have some guilty-pleasure mediocre entertainment. In fact, it might be that the existence of mediocre entertainment about gay men that isn’t groundbreaking in any significant way is a sign of acceptance.
But frankly, the stakes today are still too high for the bare minimum quality-level for queer stories — even wealthy white gay male stories — to be this low. Especially because we know that Netflix can do better.
That’s all for the week! As always, reach out with your questions, comments, and requests for validation.
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