Divorce, Insecure, and the Stagnant Relationship on TV

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L-R: Sarah Jessica Parker and Issa Rae Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO, Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Divorce and Insecure are, obviously, quite different shows. One ushers an established HBO star back to the network; the other introduces a fresh voice to the HBO audience. One is populated by wealthy, white people in Westchester County, New York, while the other focuses on African-Americans, including a protagonist who lives in a modest L.A. apartment paid for with a modest paycheck. The former is a half-hour series about cynical midlifers and the latter spends its time with often frustrated people in their late 20s. That age difference helps explain the contrast in tones: Divorce is much more acidic and world-weary, whereas Insecure brims with the kind of energy that naturally rises to the surface in those who still have more life ahead of them than behind.

There is one thing that these new HBO shows have in common, though: They both pivot around female characters who have either cheated or considered cheating in relationships with partners who may be holding them back. This is much more central to Divorce, where Sarah Jessica Parker’s Frances has an affair and decides to end her marriage because her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church), is preventing her from becoming her best self. Or, as she puts it: “I want to save my life while I still care about it.”

Insecure explores a similar dynamic between Issa, the nonprofit worker played by Issa Rae, and her longtime, cohabiting boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis). The two aren’t married and don’t seem to have any nuptial plans in their future. But in the first episode, the lack of forward momentum in the relationship — intensified by the fact that Lawrence can’t find a job and has therefore become a full-time sofa dweller — is already a drag on Issa’s system. “I don’t want to just sit on the couch with you for the rest of my life and wait for something to happen,” Issa says before kinda sorta breaking up with Lawrence and attempting to rekindle flames with her "what if" guy.

Our culture has often perpetuated the idea that, in traditional marriages and partnerships,  women are always the ones happy to stay committed, no matter how lame, lazy, or unengaged their other halves might be. Even though some sitcoms still mine that clichéd construct for comedy — Kevin Can Wait [cough] — Divorce, Insecure, and several other current half-hour series are affirming what real life has already proven: that women can and often do take charge of their own destinies and actively try to redefine themselves outside the parameters of their relationships.

In You’re the Worst, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) — no stranger to cheating — is so allergic to her dullsville husband Paul (Allan McLeod) that in last week’s episode, she flat-out tells him she can only remain happily married if she’s allowed to sleep around. (Some guys might be fine with that arrangement. Paul doesn’t seem like he’ll be one of those guys.) In the most recent season of Girls, Marnie — who had been the other woman before becoming a bride — has a brief dalliance with Charlie, then ends her short-lived marriage to Desi, who responds by bursting into tears that seem more indicative of his immaturity than genuine pain. In the pilot for the new CW series No Tomorrow, Evie (Tori Anderson) turns down a marriage proposal from her nerdy boyfriend and opts instead to embrace her impulsive side with a hot guy convinced that Earth is mere months away from asteroid annihilation.

Even in TV comedy narratives that don’t involve outright unfaithfulness, we still find women who have extricated themselves from relationships with men who seem incapable of evolving. On Younger, Liza didn’t commit adultery (she gets together with Josh post-divorce), but she did leave a husband whose gambling addiction put her in a difficult financial position and end a marriage that shoved her career to the back burner. Sam (Pamela Adlon), the single mom heroine of FX’s Better Things, is no longer with her husband because it’s clear he can’t be bothered to help raise their daughters, a fact that will be further emphasized when he finally surfaces in a soon-to-air episode.

Several of the guys in the relationships I’ve cited fit the classic man-child profile: They’re emotionally stunted dudes who make irresponsible decisions, lounge around the house all day, wallow in emotional immaturity, and show minimal consideration for their girlfriends/wives. Several of the men in the marriages and relationships I mentioned earlier — Robert on Divorce, Lawrence on Insecure, Desi on Girls — exhibit some of these qualities, at least initially. On Better Things, Jeff, the spouse of Sam’s best friend Sunny (Alysia Reiner) serves as the textbook example of a man-child, and in episode three Sam makes that abundantly clear to him. “Do you know what that’s like?” she asks him. “To watch your friend, someone you love, who’s like a goddess, with the power to fly to the moon and shine a light on the world, and she ends up using all of that power just to keep her fat, shit, useless, boring, stoner husband barely afloat? It’s just a shame, Jeff.”

So far, Sunny hasn’t broken free of that marriage, a reminder that even though some women conclusively hit the brakes on relationships that aren’t working, others still keep driving on fumes. Just as women aren’t adhering to traditional expectations, neither is TV comedy right now, which means that not every XX-chromosomed character is some bastion of righteous female empowerment.

Lindsay on You’re the Worst may be unafraid to announce her dissatisfaction with Paul, but she’s as much of a woman-child as any man-child on TV. (It’s worth noting that she still doesn’t have the courage to end the marriage, or the wherewithal to function on her own.)  On The Good Place — the most non-network sitcom to debut on a major network this fall — Eleanor (Kristen Bell) engages in a lot of stereotypically bro-ish behavior, punctuating sentences with “man” and “dude” and just generally behaving selfishly toward others, including her supposed heavenly soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper). “We just have different interests,” she says of her partner. “I like relaxing. He likes getting on my case about the dishes.” It’s a funny line made sharper by the fact that it’s a woman saying it.

Similarly, not every guy is necessarily the inconsiderate good-for-nothing he initially may appear to be. To go back to both Divorce and Insecure, future episodes slowly reveal that, while both Robert and Lawrence have their flaws, they’re also much more than lumps of man-baby inferiority. From Robert, we will continue to see some doltish behavior but also surprising flashes of generosity toward the woman he married. In future episodes of Insecure, Lawrence, especially, reveals himself to be a decent guy who wants to do right by Issa and is willing to make sacrifices to get his career back on track. He’s hardly, like Jeff on Better Things, useless; in fact, he’s just as flummoxed by figuring out what to do with his life as Issa is.

In other words, relationships and people: They’re complicated. By showing us that women are more emboldened to strike out on their own, television is broadening and deepening its portrayals of both genders and reflecting the truth: that it’s hard for anyone trying to make a relationship work, and harder still to figure out when it’s time to call it quits.