‘Divorce’ EP Paul Simms Explains Why SJP’s New HBO Series Is No ‘Sex and the City’

Sarah Jessica Parker (Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Sarah Jessica Parker (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Twelve years after Sex and the City ended its run on HBO, Sarah Jessica Parker is back with a new series. But this time, it’s more about marriage — or the demise of one — than Manolos. If it’s hard to imagine Parker playing anyone other than Carrie Bradshaw, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise with Divorce, her new entry on HBO.

Parker plays Frances in the new dramedy, an unhappy mom of two who has decided to end her marriage of nearly 20 years. In the exclusive sneak peek below, we see the moment that she tells her husband that she no longer loves him, and his reaction is not pretty. (It’s also not what you’d expect.)

Victoria Leigh Miller: First of all, there is no chance anyone will confuse this for a Sex and the City sequel. Sarah Jessica Parker is so great as Frances that I can’t even remember who Carrie Bradshaw is.
Paul Simms: That’s part of what SJ set out to do. It’s interesting because Sarah Jessica is still Sarah Jessica, and I still love her the way I did in Sex and the City, but she’s definitely making very different choices and not being worried about being too effervescent and bubbly, the way Sex and the City was.

Did you feel like you had extra pressure because her SATC character was so iconic and because we’ve been waiting for her to return to TV for so long?
Yes, it did feel like a lot of pressure. … Me, being a big fan of hers, you know she hasn’t been on TV in 10 years, and we wanted to make sure that this was something that was really special and funny, and at the same time different than what she’d done before. So yeah, of course, it’s a lot of pressure, and I think no one feels the pressure more than Sarah Jessica. But that was also what to me was great about working with her, that she, like I said, wasn’t focused on trying to go back to what she’d done before. She really wanted to make it a brand-new thing and make it a new and different character. So that was what was fun. I think a less confident actress would’ve made it like, “Let’s do what I used to do.” But she was happy to dive in and do some stuff that she [maybe didn’t know] she would even want to do.

Related: Sex and the City Producers and Real-Life Best Friends Talk Toughest Writers’ Room Debate

Did the writers have Thomas Haden Church in mind when the character was created or did you tailor Robert to fit his personality?
Once we started talking about who the husband could be, he was definitely our first choice. Sarah was the one who mentioned the name and we all thought, “That would be fantastic, but can we get him?” Because he seems to like to sit on his ranch in Texas these days and not really work. [Laughs.] But once he got interested, we had a lot of talks with him, and the part has a lot of Thomas’s own DNA in it. He’s a very funny guy, and there’s just a really great give and take. I think in the pilot script, the Frances character, because it was written for Sarah, it sounded more like Sarah does, it was fleshed out, and the husband character was a little bit more, I would say not fleshed out, until we got Thomas. And so much of who Thomas is got brought to that.

Thomas Haden Church (Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Thomas Haden Church (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

You said at the Television Critics Association panel that even though it’s called Divorce, it is, in a bigger way, really about marriage. Is it fun to write for these characters, who say things they wouldn’t have said to one another when they were married?
Yes, absolutely. I had a long talk with my wife after I got back from the TCAs, and she read that quote somewhere. But no, it is fun, and what seemed so appealing to me about this project originally is that so many shows that want to tackle marriage or something, there’s just sort of built into it is, you know, if you have a show about marriage these people are always going to be together. So no matter what problems happen, it’s never going to go beyond a certain point.

And what I loved about this idea is that it’s it starts right away with, OK, the marriage is all over and now the floodgates open, the last 10 or 15 years of stored-up slights and anger and accusations all come out, but at the same time, still you know they’re not a couple who are both 100 percent sure that they want to get divorced. Even Frances, I would say, is probably 51 percent sure she wants to get divorced. And then also it’s a matter of just following them as they get swept up in the machinery of the divorce industry.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church (Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

So many people I’ve talked to have been through this. When they finally come out of the other end and they are divorced, they all feel like, “Boy it didn’t have to get that crazy.” But it does get crazy. You know, you want to have someone looking out for your interests, but then you have a lawyer who’s saying, “Oh, we could really get more from him and you could really hurt him. She could really hurt you.” So that was the fun part. And I do think, like I said before, it’s about divorce but it’s also really about marriage. There’s a way that two people who know each other better than anyone else in the world knows either of them can fight and argue and sometimes even have softer, more reconciliatory moments, that you just can’t do on a standard show about marriage.

Related: Ken Tucker Reviews Divorce: A Sarah Jessica Parker Comedy With a Lot of Drama

We’re obviously meeting Robert and Frances many years into their relationship, but they seem like such opposites. Will there be a moment where we can look back and see what attracted them to one another?
There will be, as you get more to the second half of the first season you start to see more of what the basic initial attraction was. I mean, it’s such a heightened sense in the first episode of two people who are not getting along and not right for each other, and as the season progresses, particularly in terms of them wanting to do this in a way that doesn’t hurt the children, wanting to maintain some sense of normalcy in their own life, you can see what Frances loves about Robert is not that he’s just a great dad, for instance. He’s not just an OK dad; he’s really involved in his kids’ lives, and you can see in the same way as it progresses what Robert loves about Frances and that maybe in the last few years he had forgotten to pay enough attention to.

And then we have some secret plans for Season 2 about getting further into the backstory, but that was another thing that I really liked about the initial idea — that it didn’t start with a bunch of backstory and how they met, and what went wrong. It started from the moment of the explosion, the split, and then slowly the pieces gets filled in as we go along.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church (Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO)
Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church (Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

Is it true that originally you had a younger actor in mind for Julian, Frances’s lover?
No, but before we cast the part and just talking about it in general, we did have a lot of conversations about it, and we thought if it’s her having a fling with a younger guy, No. 1, it’s a little bit of a cliché; and No. 2 is … I forgot what No. 2 was. There was a No. 2. But we wanted to make sure that you could see her even though it may have been a wrong decision to have her affair with Julian; we wanted to see that he is in a way a lot of things that Robert isn’t. He’s more intellectual, he’s a professor, but at the same time the first time you visually see Jemaine [Clement], as though this is the guy she’s having an affair with, I think the whole audience goes, “Well, this was a bad idea that was never going to last for a long time.” This is obviously the fling that you get caught up in, but then when you meet the person you’re like, this is not going to last.

Sarah Jessica Parker (Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Sarah Jessica Parker (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Sarah Jessica said Frances’s wardrobe is not another character, as it was in SATC. Did she have any involvement in picking out Frances’s clothing?
Yes, she did. She worked with [Arjun Bhasin], our costume designer, and she worked a lot on just concept and what it would be, wanting it to be realistic to who that character is: a woman with a sense of style but definitely also a budget, and the woman who’s a mother and has a sort of semi-corporate job now. My wife watches the rough cut with me and loves all the clothes and also loves that it feels more like what a real woman with a strong sense of style would be doing rather than Sex and the City, which to its credit a lot of it was sort of wish fulfillment and aspirational, like showcasing all sorts of new designers and new things. But I find it very stylish. Then again, I don’t know anything about nice clothes. That was definitely one of those areas where I said to Sarah, like, do what you want because I’m not going to be the guy who’s like, “Oh I don’t think that dress looks right.”

Divorce premieres Sunday, Oct. 9, at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. You can stream the premiere now on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and HBO On Demand.