Neil Patrick Harris’ character navigates the highs and lows, tops and bottoms of the gay dating scene when his long-term relationship implodes in Netflix’s Uncoupled.
In Uncoupled, Neil plays Michael, a gay man in his late 40s whose life is thrown into disarray when his boyfriend Colin (Tuc Watkins) walks out on him after 17 years together. Michael suddenly finds himself navigating single gay life for the first time in almost two decades.
In real life, Neil Patrick Harris is happily married to David Burtka – they’ve been together almost as long as Michael and Colin in Uncoupled. He was able to put himself in Michael’s shoes by imagining what it would be like to find himself in that situation.
“The emotion of it was the gig because you had to play the realistic gut wrench of a rug being pulled out from underneath you,” he tells PinkNews.
“I didn’t appreciate at the time how easy that emotion was to find within myself because I’ve been in a long-term, similar relationship, and even though we’re not breaking up – that would be awful – it was easy to do these scenes as if that had happened. Like, I’ve thought it out – ‘Wow, what would that be like?’ But I’ve never played it out. So to have actually played it out for more than a couple months was cathartic in its own way.”
Tuc Watkins brought his real-life break-up experience to Uncoupled
Tuc Watkins was also able to draw on his own experiences – in some ways, his life has mirrored Colin’s.
“Well, I’m middle-aged and I’ve experienced a break-up in middle age so I was able to bring real life experience to it,” Tuc tells PinkNews.
“I think it’s great that we’ve reached a point where not only can we tell a gay romantic comedy, we can now tell a gay break-up comedy. With gay marriage comes gay divorce so art is just imitating life and what’s going on in our culture.”
Tuc Watkins as Colin McKenna in Uncoupled. (Barbara Nitke/Netflix)
It might sound heavy, but Uncoupled is actually a comedy – it borrows heavily from the stylistic world of Emily in Paris, and there are tones of Sex and the City in there too.
It wasn’t a hard sell for Neil – he jumped at the opportunity to play a gay man teetering on the precipice of personal disaster.
“I hadn’t seen gay content on a streaming service that was sort of a rom-com that was intentionally light in content,” he says.
“I liked the dynamic of those two things – doing gay content that was fully relatable to everybody in a palatable way that didn’t feel heavy-handed.”
Uncoupled isn’t just a romantic comedy – it’s also a celebration of queer friendships and the bonds gay men form with women. At the centre of the show is the dynamic between Michael (Neil Patrick Harris), Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas) and Emerson Brooks (Billy), three gay men, and Suzanne (Tisha Campbell).
“I really believe that it starts out in a situational comedy bracket that you think, I know who this character is, and then it all starts to fracture a little bit without breaking the contract with the audience,” Brooks Ashmanskas tells PinkNews.
We were often depicted as the gay clown or the terribly troubled person or the psychopath.
“It’s just how people are. I love that about this show and also, it felt very easy to portray friends with this cast, of course with Neil and Emerson Brooks and Tisha Campbell, this foursome of New York pals who really get each other through it.”
Gilles Marini as Paolo, Neil Patrick Harris as Michael Lawson in Uncoupled. (Netflix)
“But let’s be honest,” Neil interjects, “a lot of content that is shown of gay men in their mid-40s is often that they’re no longer vital or sexy. The joke is that they’re has-beens and the butts of the jokes – even though we’re not all bottoms,” he laughs.
“I think being able to have these people be real people that are still kind of sexy in their own way is a bit unique.”
Queer television no longer has room for gay stereotypes
What’s also notable is that we’re now in an era where there can be multiple LGBTQ+ characters in one television show. Tuc Watkins makes the point that it wasn’t that long ago that there would be one “token” character.
“We were often depicted as the gay clown or the terribly troubled person or the psychopath, and as time has gone by more stories are being told about our community,” Watkins says.
“Now we’ve gotten to a point with Uncoupled where we don’t have one gay character representing all of us, the cast and the characters are from the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community, so we have several different colours, several different stripes on a tapestry as opposed to just one narrow two-dimensional representation by one person.”
Brooks Ashmanskas as Stanley James, Neil Patrick Harris as Michael Lawson in Uncoupled. (Sarah Shatz/Netflix)
Emerson Brooks echoes that – he’s glad gay characters are no longer relegated to being the “witty friend next door” or the “magical neighbour that has all the answers”.
“We’re just a collection of friends in a show, exes, lovers that are just human beings trying to just figure it out, starting out by putting our pants on in the morning and going out the door. I think it’s just done in such an honest and funny way that it’ll be relatable to everyone.”
Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman wanted to explore universality of break-ups
The idea for Uncoupled started when Darren Star approached Jeffrey Richman to talk about the idea of centring a TV show around a gay man in New York who finds himself navigating dating, hook-ups and queer life after 17 years in a monogamous relationship.
“We were very drawn to the specificity of that break-up,” Jeffrey says. “That it was so plotted and the idea that the person you trust most in the world is capable of doing that, I think that is the most relatable thing to anyone in a long term relationship that that can happen. That was a great launching point for us, for the character.”
It helps that break-ups are a near universal experience – everyone can relate to the situation Michael and Colin find themselves in.
Emerson Brooks as Billy Jackson, Neil Patrick Harris as Michael Lawson, Brooks Ashmanskas as Stanley James in Uncoupled. (Barbara Nitke/Netflix)
“Certainly by 50 everyone has been on either side of a break up so they understand what it’s like – it’s very relatable,” Darren says. “I think what’s surprising is even having shown this to the number of people who’ve seen it, how many of them have been left blindsided by a break-up and that’s what makes this a little more dramatic than the average break-up.”
Both Darren and Jeffrey were also excited at the prospect of bringing fully-fleshed, middle-aged gay characters to life. It wasn’t too hard to build that story – they were able to draw on their own experiences.
We took a little of this from somebody, we took a little of that from somebody.
“It wasn’t a stretch, it’s like writing characters that are extremely familiar to both of us and I think that’s part of the fun thing about writing the show, we didn’t have to go very far outside our wheelhouse to imagine who these people are,” Darren says.
Jeffrey echoes that. “It’s as Darren says, it’s writing really what you know. We took a little of this from somebody, we took a little of that from somebody. We knew that we wanted different perspectives on being single at that age so we were able to create characters that for us were easy to draw because we know people that have been single their whole lives, we know people that are serial daters of younger men, we know people that just want romance. And we know each other, so we were able to use all those tools to create these characters.”
Uncoupled is out on Netflix on Friday 29 July.