Pop Culture

With Netflix’s Uncoupled, Darren Star Continues Pushing TV’s Boundaries

From Beverly Hills, 90210 to Sex and the City and his new Neil Patrick Harris series, Star is always in the cultural conversation.

Gilles Marini and Neil Patrick Harris in Uncoupled.

Gilles Marini and Neil Patrick Harris in Uncoupled.Courtesy of Netflix.

In the fall of 1990, Darren Star was not yet 30 and had only a couple of previous screenwriting credits when he launched his first series as a creator: Beverly Hills, 90210. That show, of course, became one of the earliest hits of the still-nascent Fox network, and changed the game for teen-targeted television. Less than two years later, 90210 spawned a spinoff — Melrose Place — that became an even bigger sensation.

Since then, Star has never really been out of the cultural conversation: he was responsible for Sex & The City, one of HBO’s biggest-ever sitcom hits; his show Younger kept its devoted audience despite multiple changes of network and platform; and remakes and spinoffs of his various projects have turned them into pop culture franchises. Star kicked off a partnership with Netflix in 2020 with Emily In Paris; this week, he extends it with the premiere of Uncoupled, in which Neil Patrick Harris plays Michael, a 40-something New York realtor who is blindsided when Colin (Tuc Watkins), his boyfriend of 17 years, suddenly breaks up with him. Though Melrose made headlines in its day for featuring an openly gay character — Doug Savant’s Matt Fielding — among its series regulars, this is the first time Star, who is also gay, has launched a series with a queer protagonist.

GQ spoke to Darren Star about how the TV landscape has changed in his decades as a creator; the thrills of writing a middle-aged gay lead character; and his take on the state of teen television.

GQ: You and your co-creator, [former Modern Family producer] Jeffrey Richman, both have long résumés in TV, but you have not worked together before. How did this collaboration happen?

Darren Star: It was like an arranged marriage through our mutual agent Jay Sures, but I knew Jeffrey for years as a friend. I was a big fan of his work. And I had this idea about a romantic comedy about a gay man going through a breakup, and Jeffrey really sparked to it. We both had experienced situations like this, knew people who have been in situations like this, and we just started imagining what this show would be, and how we really had a lot of facility to write this in terms of our own experiences, and just the world that we lived in. For the first time, we really had an opportunity to write a big, broad, mainstream romantic comedy from a gay male perspective.

This is in part a story about a middle-aged character learning about the contemporary landscape of queer dating. How much time was spent in the writers’ room on people from different generations just describing their own experiences in this arena?

I mean, we definitely had that. And at the same time, I can tell you that I’ve been single in my forties and fifties, and had a lot of experiences. So nothing came out of thin air. It was all lived experiences, from all the writers on the show. But this is a show from a middle-aged man’s point of view. So, we can lean on our younger writers to give us their experiences, but it’s about men who are approaching 50, at a time when you think that your crazy dating years are behind you.

Your shows have tended to portray characters in circumstances that are described as “aspirational,” but dating apps are kind of a class leveler. Were there conversations about having Michael meet people in his new dating life who were less well-off?

We weren’t really talking about the show in a classist way. And anyway, I think we make a point of the fact that Michael was living with a wealthier man. His financial circumstances are changing. And he’s struggling to afford the apartment that he’s living in. Maybe in future seasons, we could sort of delve into that, but it wasn’t about meeting people from different economic worlds as much as it’s the fact that you’re going to meet anybody.

A big part of the series, while it focuses on him dating, is also the fact that he’s dealing with the pain of a breakup, and still carrying that with him, and is not really ready to whole-heartedly enter the dating world. He’s dipping his toe in this first season. This is not a show where it’s like, “Hey, I’m single. Broke up. Single, single man, running around town.” It’s a show about carrying a lot of pain and weight of a long-term relationship, and how meaningful and significant that relationship is to him. And for anyone that’s been in a relationship for 15 years or longer, you know that you’re not going to suddenly, the next day, wake up and run out and be single again. Even at the best of times, you’re going to be carrying a lot of the pain of that breakup around. This show deals with that through the first season.

It’s also about what he learns about himself through this process: there were things about Michael that frustrated Colin but that he never talked about, and now Michael’s having to realize, “Oh, other people in my life think these things about me too, sometimes.”

Jeffrey and I talked about this: we constructed the show out of the mystery of why Colin left. Because Colin was not the most communicative person. And I think, for Michael, it’s a bit of a journey of discovery, also, about himself. Because it’s very easy to villainize the person who left, especially when he did it in a way that seemed almost cruel. But I do feel like he starts to learn about himself and how he might have contributed to the breakup.

This is the first time that you’ve made a show where queer characters are centered. Did you have a backlog of stories that you weren’t able to tell, dating back to when Matt Fielding was the only gay character on TV?

Look, I’m really proud of creating that character, and we were very hamstrung in terms of the stories we could tell about Matt. But no, I don’t think there’s a backlog of stories that I had in a file, waiting to tell stories about gay characters. To me, this show is about characters who happen to be gay, who are living a very universal experience. You didn’t have to be a single woman in New York to relate to the characters of Sex And The City and what they were going through. You could be a gay man and relate to those characters. By the same token, anybody can find himself in the life of Michael and what he’s going through. It happens to be told through the point of view of a gay man who breaks up. But it doesn’t mean that straight people aren’t going to find the same emotional resonance for them and their lives. Sometimes, the more specific you can make a story, the more universal it becomes.

And we see that in the parallels between Michael and [his newly separated client] Claire.

Absolutely. That’s a big reason why we wanted a character like Claire in there, but also just to widen out the world — I mean, not to make it just solely about gay men. And I love writing female characters, so I couldn’t do a show like this and not have Claire — played by Marcia Gay Harden, who is just a gift and a national treasure, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted to draw that parallel, but also be able to tell somebody else’s story because breakups are just— they’re universal.

Right. But at the same time, I’m old enough to remember when it was a reported news story that a kiss between Matt and a friend of Billy’s had been cut from the Season 2 finale of Melrose Place. And now today, we’re seeing Michael fool around with different men, he’s talking about Grindr, and there’s a scene with a dermatologist that is going to be very memorable. When you were starting out at Fox, did you ever think these were aspects of queer life that would ever be portrayed on TV at all, never mind in a project that you made?

From that point in time, 30 years ago to now, 100%, absolutely. The world has moved on. And even at the time when Matt Fielding was on Melrose Place, there was a relatively, I would say, hypocritical stance in Hollywood, where gay people were living their lives in a very open way, but when it came to advertisers and talking about it to middle America, a corporate iron curtain came down in terms of saying, “We’re not really going to dramatize the truth of your lives right now because we’re afraid of the advertisers.”

That was 30 years ago. After gay marriage and everything, I think the world is more than ready to embrace a show like this.

One of the buzziest shows of this summer so far has been The Bear, set at a restaurant. You got to that setting first with Kitchen Confidential. [Star’s Bradley Cooper-starring adaptation of Anthony Bourdain’s classic memoir was canceled midway through its first season.]Were there stories you had especially hoped to tell if you’d had more time with Kitchen Confidential?

Well, I think the problem with Kitchen Confidential is ultimately that it was just on the wrong network. It was on a broadcast network. All the things we couldn’t say are exactly the things we would want to say in a show like Kitchen Confidential. So, as much as Fox, at the time, was eager to put it on the air, they were also quickly eager to cancel it the minute the ratings weren’t there. Network TV is a ratings-dependent business. And that’s despite the fact that the show starred Bradley Cooper — who I had a tremendous amount of belief and faith in, and I felt so lucky to be working with him because I knew he was going to be a big star. It was disappointing not to have the chance to tell the stories in the way we really wanted to tell them. It might have been a different story had that show been on HBO or Showtime. But I’m looking forward to seeing The Bear, because it sounds like they really got it right.

You created Beverly Hills, 90210, one of the most enduring teen dramas in TV history. Do you keep an eye on what’s going on in that genre, either as a TV creator or as the dad to a tween?

No. I’m afraid to watch. Being a dad to a tween, I’m a little nervous about watching the HBO show. Now I’m just blanking on the name of it.

Oh: Euphoria.

Euphoria. Everybody talks about it, but it just makes me nervous to even look at it. I don’t really follow the genre. I mean, except for the fact that I will be watching Euphoria, just to see how scary things really are.

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