'Divorce': TV Review

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
Sarah Jessica Parker stars in 'Divorce.'
It ain't 'Sex and the City.'
10/9/2016

Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church star in HBO's admirably dark but hard-to-watch new series about a flailing marriage.

What HBO's new series Divorce has going for it is pretty clear: Sarah Jessica Parker helped cement the channel's reputation as a go-to destination with Sex and the City, and no doubt she'll bring a lot of those fans back to see how, many years later, she's doing as Frances, a woman in upstate New York with a husband, two kids and a failing marriage.

But Frances isn't an older Carrie, obviously. And when fans of Sex and the City tune in to Divorce on Sunday, that will become all too clear in a hurry.

What they find may turn them off, despite the show's positive qualities — mostly because, well, divorce is kind of a downer of a topic for a comedy (or a drama, for that matter).

But how and why Divorce's other assets don't add up is perhaps the more damning thing. Although it's fantastic that Divorce was created and is mostly written by Sharon Horgan, who already has Amazon's excellent Catastrophe to her credit (as co-creator, co-writer and co-star), a few episodes of Divorce make pretty clear that the new show is not nearly as good as Catastrophe — and could, with territorial pissing, contractual obligations and such, possible damage that show (which only does six episodes a season and needs many more because it's so good). If Divorce takes off, Horgan will be hard-pressed to continue making Catastrophe a priority. But maybe that's me just being overly worried. And yet, that still leaves the issue of Catastrophe being the better show.

That the wonderful Thomas Haden Church co-stars in Divorce is also a lucky bit of casting, since his highly individualistic brand of comedy performance always stands out. However, it can often seem like Church is in a different show than Parker, which is not his fault but also not a good thing.

Church plays Robert, husband to Parker's Frances, and a man evidently complicit in the fact that the love has vanished from his marriage even though, when his wife gives him the bad news, he's completely blindsided. But Church plays the entirety of Divorce in his familiar, emotionally detached, deadpan, mocking and snarking at most turns while Parker plays it anguished, sad and frustrated.

This approach by the actors leaves Divorce either unsure of its tone or simply content to let Church be the goofball while Parker is more emotional. It's an odd choice, because Church is having most of the fun and getting most of the best lines while Parker seems to be paying an endless penance for the fact that her dalliance with a local professor (played by Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) helped give her the confidence to ask for the divorce; when Robert finds out about the affair, she allows him to be deliciously mean in blaming her.

Through the first four episodes reviewed here (HBO provided six of the 10 from the first season), Frances meekly backpedals because of her transgressions, when — based on her actions in the pilot — the affair was a byproduct of her overall unhappiness. In that first half hour, she defiantly tells Robert that she wants a divorce because, "I want to save my life while I still care about it."

It's more painful than funny, which is true of most of Divorce, even though Horgan gives the audience an accessible in: The pilot revolves around the tragi-comedy of Frances' good friend Diane (Molly Shannon) fighting with her husband Nick (Tracy Letts) at her 50th birthday party in such a spectacular way that the end result is Frances realizing she can't let her own life (and marriage) become as awful as Diane's.

The pilot's outrageous turn of events probably played better on the page than on the screen, but the one thing it does with precision is anchor Divorce as a show that's difficult to watch if you've been through a divorce — and maybe even harder to watch if (like so many people) you're in an unhappy or crumbling marriage.

Make no mistake about it — Horgan and director Jesse Peretz have a keen sense of how terrible it is to be unhappy, trapped and hopeless, and Divorce works best mining those difficult areas. "I could do banal shit all day long if there was a little love there, or happiness, but there isn't," Frances confides to a friend about being more than just bored with her marriage.

And maybe the problem with Divorce is that it needs to be funnier and more withering than it is whenever Church isn't there to do his thing. But mostly it's just spot-on about what happens when people grow (or break) apart and there's no good fix for them; the end is hard on almost everyone, including the kids and, to a lesser extent, the various friends; after that the extraction is tedious and financially brutal and everyone is taking sides as the carnage drags on.

That's not exactly a joyride for a comedy — unless the decision is made to make it overly bitter and hateful from both sides, ramping up the comedy with viciousness. But Divorce is a smarter and more ambitious show than that, and it wants to soak in the emotions, which is more admirable than watchable (especially because Parker is the one marinating in the sadness, not getting many of the funny or withering lines). Maybe that's what she, Horgan and perhaps SJP fans really want. If so, fine, then Divorce (at least in the early going) is what happens when all the big dreams of Sex and the City move to the 'burbs and are crushed by reality.

Yay?

A better show might be Parker embracing life's changes and taking back her happiness — and Divorce might eventually get around to that.

Not helping things in the meantime is the fact that Divorce is very much a rich-white-people-problems kind of show. Then again, it does help that HBO is pairing it with Insecure, a new show where the experience is younger, blacker, with more financial stakes and struggles, so HBO gets some cover by proving it can tell all kinds of stories. But even here, that's not an ideal situation for Divorce because there's more vibrancy and humor in Insecure.

Maybe, in the end, it's the topic that hurts this series the most, despite great actors and writers. If Divorce were more of a farce, or if it were angrier and more searingly detailed about the audacity of wanting it all — perfect partner, kids, a big fancy house and all the other calling cards of happiness — and still not being satisfied, maybe it could get more traction than being, at this point, merely good but not great.

But Horgan and especially Parker seem intent on exploring the pain and hurt of a failed marriage, using Church's staccato outbursts of humor to offset the bleakness when it all gets to be too much. It will have to work on that balance to make watching the rest of the episodes at least bearable while we wait for more Catastrophe.

Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon, Tracy Letts, Talia Balsam, Jemaine Clement
Creator: Sharon Horgan
Premieres
: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)

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