Why HBO's Sarah Jessica Parker Comedy 'Divorce' Will Be Lighter in Season 2

"This season is about: How do we go forward, separately but together?" says new showrunner Jenny Bicks of divorcing couple Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church).
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images (Bicks); Courtesy of Craig Blankenhorn/HBO (Still)
Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church in 'Divorce'; Inset: Jenny Bicks

Given its Divorce title, viewers of Sarah Jessica Parker's second HBO series shouldn't have been all too surprised when the first season ended on a sour note for the couple at its center. What is unexpected, however, is to hear that the second season of the tragicomedy, which premieres its eight episodes on Sunday, is going to have a lighter feel.

After documenting the explosive separation between married couple Frances (Parker) and Robert DuFresne (Thomas Haden Church), the first season ended with Robert calling the police on Frances for kidnapping their children in a low moment of retaliation against his soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer for blowing up his new business venture. When the second season opens, new showrunner Jenny Bicks wanted to slightly jump ahead to set a new tone.

"You had a season where they really went head to head, and now this season is about: How do we go forward, separately but together?" Bicks, who took over as showrunner and exec producer from Paul Simms, told The Hollywood Reporter when speaking by phone from her office at Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York, which also happens to be the former home to the Sex and the City team. Before producing TV series Men in Trees and The Big C, Bicks worked as a writer and executive producer on HBO's Sex and the City. "It's funny, I'm sitting in my office in Silvercup, which used to be [SATC exec producer] Michael Patrick King's old office. We were here for six years. Now I'm sitting at his desk, which he's very excited about — that it gets to continue."

Bicks' relationship with Parker helped when it came to taking over the show. Divorce, created by Sharon Horgan and produced by Parker and Alison Benson's Pretty Matches Productions, was renewed a month after its October 2016 debut and not long after, the series landed a Golden Globe comedy actress nomination for Parker. "Even though she is the only person I know who still has a BlackBerry, she and I are very good at texting and emailing back and forth. We have a very easy relationship," says Bicks of her fellow exec producer. Parker, who is called "S.J." by everyone on set — and by Bicks in the conversation below — is involved in everything from script revisions to editing and casting. "It was really important that we had a previous relationship because it's hard to jump into this kind of role unless you have a shorthand with each other."

Below in a chat with THR, Bicks explains how coming in as a fan informed the changes she made behind the scenes and teases what those touches will look like on screen. She also talks about what's ahead for Frances and Robert, speaks directly to viewers who are rooting for a reconciliation, and says she has a long-term plan "if we're lucky enough to get three seasons." 

Season one is about two people (Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church) going through a divorce. What is season two about?

I really considered the first season to be the explosion of a divorce. They were in the eye of the storm and were really being egged on by their attorneys. What a lot of people say who go through divorces is that things get exponentially worse when you are with lawyers, because you're just seeing the worst part of the other person. The first was, on purpose, kind of dark and intense. It took place in the winter and everything about it was tough for them. They were not seeing what they ever had together in the past. I wanted this season to be the aftermath of the explosion.

What will that look like?

It's spring — so literally, it's lighter out. It's so easy when you're in the midst of a fight with anybody to blame the other person for everything that's gone wrong in your life and now, once you take a step back, you're not allowed to blame that person anymore. Now it's like, "Ok, I have to take ownership of my life and figure out where I went wrong, and what I want to do better." It's about these two people trying to rebuild their lives. They share so much still, in terms of the kids, but also just in terms of the past. This season is about the two of them stepping away, re-getting to know each other, trying to co-parent and then trying to rebuild their own lives. We also are going to be using more of our supporting cast this year. Frances does have friends and Robert also has friends; how are they impacted by the divorce? It's not just about them.

What were some of the biggest challenges when coming in to run a show in its second year? 

I've never come in to run a show in the second season [before]. Either I've run my own show that I've created [ABC's Men in Trees] or I've been there from the beginning [Showtime's The Big C, Sex and the City], so it's definitely a challenge. But it's a fun challenge, because I watched the show the first season just as a fan. I wasn't aware of anything in terms of how they were building the show. I knew as a viewer coming in what I wanted to see more of, or less of, so in that way it made it easier. I had a cleaner vision of what I wanted. I've worked with S.J. obviously before, and actually, I've worked with Molly [Shannon] as well, so I already had a shorthand to communicate. It was fun to come in and play around with these characters and settings as someone who has watched the show and could see the possibilities of what they had done, because they laid a lot of great groundwork in the first season. 

What did you want to see more of that will translate on screen?

I definitely wanted to see more of the supporting characters [played by Shannon, Talia Balsam and Tracy Letts]. Here was this great ensemble of actors. Obviously, this is a story about Frances and Robert and I didn't want to get away from that, but I also wanted to populate that world more. There's only so long you can watch two people spinning on each other, which is what was starting to happen, and I really wanted to expand their universe. They had kids [played by Sterling Jerins and Charlie Kilgore], but we hardly saw them in the first season, and a divorce is going to affect not just the adults but also the kids and their relationships with these two kids. So you will see what that looks like. Writing for and watching Molly Shannon, she's like little raindrops of joy. She's such a good actress. People really haven't had a chance to see her act beyond the comedy, like she does in Other People. We've given her a chance to have some really emotional moments — we threw a lot at her — and she does an amazing job. I also wanted to see where I could infuse some comedy into what had been a really darkly comedic and great first season. To have some feeling of possibility while having fun with the Frances and Robert characters, because they're both such good actors.

Given Robert's massive betrayal in the finale — where he called the police on Frances for taking the kids — how will you open the season?

That was probably the biggest challenge for me coming into the second season as showrunner. It's like when you do a relay race and someone hands you the baton and it's covered in grease and you're like, "Oh my god!" (Laughs.) What we decided to do is that we move forward a bit from there. Frances and Robert have dealt with what happened and have come to an understanding of why that happened, so they're at a calmer place when we meet them. That was obviously an awful thing that he did, but they were both so ratcheted up by their attorneys that, looking back, you can understand a little more about why he did. We are definitely taking them a little bit into the future, so they have had discussions and have come to an understanding. It's a slight time jump and then we play it out in real time in the spring. The last episode takes place around Memorial Day.

Despite that betrayal, you have viewers rooting for Frances and Robert to get back together. Parker herself even went on the record saying she hopes it happens. How long can you stretch out their impending divorce, and what are the chances of a reconciliation?

(Laughs.) Did she say that?

She spoke about how much she loves working with Church. Of course, she has a say in what happens, but did you also take into account feedback from fans when you started plotting the season?

It's funny. When you talk about the show, fan-wise, everyone has a very distinct point of view. I think the reason the show was successful is that, oddly, they do have good chemistry. Meaning, S.J. and Thomas work well together. When you watch the first season, you are thinking, "OK, this guy is at a real low point." And that's what we wanted to get into. We didn't really understand as viewers who Robert was and why these characters were ever together. We wanted to delve into that in the second season to understand a bit more about their past and what connected them. My intention is not necessarily to get them back together, but I wanted everyone to understand why they were together to begin with. It's not surprising that people want them back together, because as actors they play well together. But, it is a show called Divorce. If we get them back together, it's not going to be an immediate thing. That would be so false to what the premise of the series is.

How did you take advantage of their working chemistry in season two?

It's funny because as a viewer I saw some of it, but it wasn't until we started shooting them being in a slightly calmer place that I really saw the chemistry there. You start to see this couple and why they were together. Like many modern couples, he made some choices business-wise that were really stupid and that put her financially at risk. Then she stopped responding to him because of that and felt put upon and suddenly, you're pulled apart and you forget the good stuff. But this season, I've been able to see a real chemistry. S.J. and Thomas really like each other and they play well off each other. They're not that far from their characters, meaning that we like to lean in to who they really are. Thomas has this great off-hand delivery and he's this laid-back, funny guy, and that's kind of who Robert is; and S.J. brings a lot of who she is to Frances. 

This season, we do put them with other people — because that's the thing that happens, you start to explore relationships with other people. Becki Newton, who is delightful, is going to play a love interest for Robert, named Jackie, and they have great chemistry, too. It's like in real life, where you can have chemistry with more than one person. Frances is going to get a love interest as well. So, things get tangled. We also tackle the entanglements of introducing your friends to these new people. We have these friends and we wanted to make sure that we had this back and forth between Frances and Diane (Shannon), and Dallas (Balsam), whether they were supporting each other or fighting. Jackie is this fiery, funny girl and it's hard to not like her. There's a funny moment that I won't reveal that will come out of all of that.

How do you handle the conceit of this show being about a divorce and finding a way to stretch that for multiple seasons? Is the longevity of the show something you talked about before coming on board?

Absolutely. Before I came on, I had a bunch of discussions, especially with S.J., because I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page. I had a vision of what I wanted the season to be, in terms of the arc. I talked it through with everybody to make sure we were all on the same page, and thankfully we were. Everybody was looking to expand out from where we were. And if we're lucky enough to get three seasons, I know what the possibility there could be. The truth of it is that divorce is not just about the fighting you are having before you sign documents; it's about everything after you sign a document. It's about how it ripples out to all the people around you. So it's not like the show is limited by two people fighting about their divorce. It's really about the modern story of relationships going through transitions.

The second season of Divorce premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO. What do you hope to see? Sound off in the comments, below.