I’d say that Divorce is Sarah Jessica Parker’s triumphant return to television, but “triumph” seems too celebratory a word to use in connection with the frequently grim, even depressing new HBO comedy, premiering Sunday. But it certainly does feature a performance by Parker that leaves Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw in the dust. In fact, if Carrie were going through the kind of divorce that Parker’s new character, Frances, is enduring, she’d probably run after that dirty bus in the opening credits of Sex and the City and inhale the fumes from its exhaust pipe to end it all.
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Frances believes that her marriage to Robert (Thomas Haden Church) has grown stale, and asks for a divorce. It’s at once easy and difficult to see why: Long-married and with two kids, they have settled into a tedious upper-middle-class suburban existence — but come on, isn’t that true of many couples? (The tedious repetition part, not the upper-middle-class part. One of the barriers some viewers will have with Divorce is that they’ll find it difficult to have much sympathy for Frances and Robert, living their luxe, 1-percenter lifestyle.)
It seems, from the opening episode, that Frances’s affair with a goofball arty guy (played for maximum laughs by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) has made her a little daffy with an unrealistic dream of a neo-bohemian lifestyle—you know, throwing away all responsibilities to have ceaseless passionate sex with your new lover, as long as that freedom comes with a fat bank-account credit card and a roomy hovel in which to sprawl.
But, as created by Sharon Horgan (co-creator of the marvelous Amazon sitcom Catastrophe), Divorce constantly undercuts the hope of a happier life with the reality of a bleak, often hostile, existence. Church plays Robert with a permanent deadpan expression, his unruly mustache both a running joke affixed to his lip and a symbol of bristling aggression. When Frances asks to split, he’s crestfallen; when he learns of her affair, he’s indignant — and he takes it all in with the same blank expression. As the series proceeds (HBO made the first six episodes available for review), we see that Robert is no prize — for one thing, he’s a terrible businessman, one of those dreadful guys who “flips” houses — but he’s not a heel, either.
Horgan and showrunner Paul Simms, clearly working closely with Parker, who’s one of the show’s executive producers, have constructed Divorce so that it feels at once inevitable and surprising. The title may insist that Frances and Robert are going to part — as do their amusingly dead-end marriage-counseling sessions. Yet the show has a nice way of subtly suggesting that, as much as these two are petty squabblers now, there’s something very strong — pure, even — pulling them back toward each other.
Divorce is nowhere near as charming as Catastrophe, and it’s interesting that Horgan has made Robert somewhat in the image of Rob Delaney’s hubby — another hairy deadpan joker — in that far more chipper comedy. The jokes in Divorce don’t bear repeating in print; they arise from small, specific situations and can be very amusing. And the cast, which includes Tracy Letts and Molly Shannon as another troubled twosome, is excellent.
Gee, the longer I write about Divorce, the more I think I like it. So why was watching it such a bummer, most of the time? I guess that means I admire the show more than I enjoy it. And you know what? I’m sure I’ll watch every episode of it too. As appalling as Frances and Robert can be, I want to see what happens to them.
Divorce airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.