Breaking up is hard to do in HBO's new sort-of comedy Divorce.
DivorceAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon, Talia Balsam, Charlie Kilgore
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "Pilot"
Air date: 2016-10-09
Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) have everything that modern American 50-year-olds are supposed to want. A modest but comfortable house in the New York suburbs, two healthy children, an active social life, a long marriage, and steady jobs. However, when a violent incident at a 50th birthday party forces Frances to question her role in her own life, she's strong-armed into admitting that she wants a divorce; a proclamation that sends shock-waves through the comfortable existence that she's established for herself.
The biggest challenge that Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker's return the HBO family, faces is right there in the title. Whilst it is undoubtedly fertile ground for drama, divorce is one of the universal experiences that touches us all in a multitude of ways and intensities, it doesn't necessarily make for compulsive viewing. The minute and major tears that occur during the demise of a relationship hardly offer many opportunities for cliff hangers or water-cooler discussions. It's sad and desperate, and perhaps sometimes funny, which is a fairly apt description of the Divorce pilot. It's a difficult show to recommend so far; it's tough and spiky and admirably willing to rub its characters raw, but there is something about it that's fundamentally isolating, which in turn, perhaps perversely, makes it fundamentally fascinating.
What Horan's script gets right is the idea that, at the very moment when a relationship ends, it becomes the beginning of a new one. To put it another way, the finish line is the start of a new race. There’s no such thing as a clean cut, and it's in that realisation that the show finds its most interesting anchor: when Frances announces that she wants a divorce, she's hoping for a new life. She imagines for herself an existence full of excitement and romance, one where the banality of her marriage becomes nothing but a memory. When that idea's closed off from her, the show sparks to life.
Declaring independence is very different from gaining it, and few television shows have dissected what it actually means to ask for, and then pursue, a new life; what’s required from a person, and from the people around them, when they turn their world upside down? Is there ever such as a thing as a villain, when people become a one after being a two for so long? If someone’s to blame, how long do they have to shoulder it for? What do you do when you wake up next to someone who feels more like a stranger than a partner?
To its credit, Divorce dives head first into these questions with gusto; it never suggests any easy answers, and is brave enough to let the audience make their own minds up whilst they are thrown into the battlefield. It feels vital and vibrant because it zooms in on two complex, unlikeable, idiosyncratic characters without suggesting that one is better than the other. There's no hand holding; both protagonists are competent but infuriating, doing their best whilst delving into their worst instincts. It's a breath of fresh air to see two adults on television, and Horan never lets the script favour one party over another. It's a delicate balancing act which it largely pulls off gracefully, even if the cumulative result of that even-handedness is a lack of a point-of-view character.
The show should be applauded for not sacrificing authenticity for likeability, but without a protagonist to root for, it's difficult to see why Frances and Robert loved each other in the first place; something which isn't helped by a distance between Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church. This distance makes the more confrontational scenes work, while simultaneously making them a difficult couple to zoom in on. There’s a moment, one of the only truly emotional ones in the episode, when Frances suggests that maybe she and her soon-to-be ex might "go back to just liking each other again". It's achingly sad, a weird call to arms for the characters to try and rewrite history, to wipe away the problems of the past and create a somewhat hopeful present, but the emotion gets torpedoed by the snark, which is, in its own way, a kind of sadness.
Both warring parties become cyphers, and there isn't a lot there on which to hang your hat; the defining feature of Frances is that she's lost, and for Robert, his immaturity. As a starting point, those are fine springboards for characterisation -- many great stories have been based on characters who are lost -- but they're not particularly elaborated on. By providing the viewers a little more shading, the pilot may have felt a little fuller. As it stands, it's difficult to understand the history of these two people as a unit, let alone them as individuals. It's somewhat like watching the drama from behind frosted glass; a fitting metaphor, as it's exactly what Robert does at the confrontation that sparks France's mid-life, mid-marriage crisis. The episode is as cold as the snow outside of their home in the New York suburbs: biting, bracing and a little uncomfortable.
Sarah Jessica Parker brings with her an enormous amount of baggage, especially with the HBO brand. As the face of, if not the most successful programme in history, then certainly one of the most culturally impactful, she is, inherently, a source of endless discussion. Her feminist credentials are boundlessly, exhaustively discussed. Academic interest in Carrie Bradshaw, and Sex and the City in general, is unceasing. Lovely, her debut fragrance, is one of the most popular of the last 50 years, with a yearly revenue of more than 200 million dollars. She has a shoe line stocked in almost every upmarket store in the US, and her new publishing imprint has just been announced.
What gets lost in all of that is the fact that Parker is a limited but never less than authentic presence; she can't do very much -- her range runs from hopeful woman to slightly less likeable hopeful woman -- but when she hits her personal sweet spot, she's instantly ingratiating. As Frances, she's immediately accessible; it's hard not to feel a pang when she announces that she "just wants to save my life while I still cares about it". At that moment, the viewer understands her as a person who's drowning, whilst still aware enough to know that her air supply has been cut off. Parker is always somewhat of a raw nerve encased in a stylish exterior; a woman who understands that the world isn’t exactly attuned to her personal qualities; this quality is ramped up to the max in Divorce. It's a remarkably vulnerable performance from someone who has such a beloved public image, but it's ultimately what keeps the show together.
As Frances, Parker has the kind of wild-eyed, worn out energy of a person looking for an escape route that she knows doesn't really exist. Mostly this is because, as with so many real-life divorces, she’s trying to escape herself as much as she is her marriage. Running away from yourself is a race in which nobody gets to claim victory, a nuance that comes through is Parker's taut, wired physicality. She’s astute and precise; bringing with her years of good-will that makes the character's more questionable decisions slightly more palatable. It's a sad performance, but also a witty one; particularly at the end of the episode when Frances is forced to beg for something that she's convinced herself she didn't want. Parker's voice breaks in that oh-so-Carrie way and suddenly, unexpectedly, she wrestles a beating heart out of screenplay of stone.
Thomas Haden Church is a very specific kind of actor, one whose deadpan delivery can either read as revealing or inhuman, and the script doesn't serve him as well as it does Parker. Trying to understand who Robert is, what he wants, what he imagines his life could look like, is next to impossible -- perhaps purposely -- but it makes the character curiously impenetrable. At the beginning of the episode, he's shown throwing up because he's eaten too much cheese and cake; it's an illuminating moment, because it establishes the relationship between Frances and Robert as that of a caregiver and child rather than equal partners, and is a characterisation that Church runs with. He comes across as an overgrown, emotionally cut-off child who's both blindsided and deeply unaffected; a combination that can be quite difficult to assimilate.
The character is cold in a way that's startling; when he announces that he has been to a strip club to upset Frances after she announces her desire to split, Church does so in a way that comes across as borderline psychotic. There’s something fundamentally interesting about the pairing up of a woman who's too complex and introspective to be happy, and a man who's never stopped to question his happiness, but Church makes it difficult to see what the interior life of the hapless but hopeful Robert is. Church is too good an actor for this to not play out in interesting ways throughout the course of the season; unpacking what Robert actually thinks and feels promises to be one of the delights of Divorce, but it can make the pilot feel lethargic whenever he's around.
Ultimately, there's a lot of things happening in the Divorce pilot; it's a laser sharp examination of what happens when people try to separate their lives when there’s no concrete reason to other than the fact that the life no longer feels like their own. The ties that bind people can also be the ties that shackle people to lives that aren't working, and the show is brave in its attempts to hack at them. The script is tight if somehow shallow, and the direction doesn't make an impact other than for its competency.
Dramedy's always a difficult high-wire to walk, because whilst funny and sad almost always exist together in real life, the two extremes can make for a tonal imbalance in narrative entertainment. On second viewing, the jokes land a little harder because it’s easier to feel less invested in the general sadness that hangs over the proceedings, but still it's a push to sell this as a comedy. It's hardly a laugh riot, and the central comedic set piece that begins the episode is the show's most surreal, but there are enough one-liners to raise a few muted chuckles.
The end sets up the narrative thrust for the rest of the show, a kind of The War of The Roses for the less wealthy and the less athletic. It's a smart direction to go in, bringing a story to what can feel a little aimless, just like its characters. Ultimately, when you become someone's ex you are still someone to them; you never get the privilege or the pain of being a stranger. The trailers for the show have been set to Gotye's hit "Somebody That I Used To Know", and that's fitting, because if the show succeeds at anything -- and it succeeds at quite a lot – it's at examining the feeling of being a person that you used to think you knew, and doing things that challenge the character you've played in your own life. So far, it's challenging, exhausting, well-acted, complex, annoying, sad and intriguing. I'm not exactly ready to get married to it yet, but I'm not desperate for a divorce either.
Jay has a BA in English Literature and Film Studies from Roehampton University and an MA in Film and Screen Cultures from the same institution. His debut novel Until There Was You was released last year and the follow-up, The Restart Project, is forthcoming, both with Less Than Three Press. You can read his television rants on Twitter or his website.