It’s entirely possible that HBO didn’t need to give us another sadcom. Maybe television already has enough tragicomic 30-minute laffers about the existential crises of the upper-middle class. But let me ask you this: Have you ever seen Thomas Haden Church cosplay William H. Macy in Boogie Nights? Or heard Sarah Jessica Parker utter the words “weepy butthole?” Perhaps these things are of interest to you. If so, welcome home.
Divorce is created by Sharon Horgan, who also helms and stars in the fantastic British series Catastrophe. Judging by this pilot, both shows center on the realities of married (or in this case, soon-to-be-unmarried life), people who don’t especially care about being likeable, and absolute smut. But where Catastrophe is warm and shambling, Divorce is chilly and staccato.
We begin in Westchester at wintertime, which is very nice, but everyone is too miserable to notice. Frances (Parker), engrossed in her skincare regimen, doesn’t hear Robert (Church) knocking on the door, so he winds up stuck in the garage for 20 minutes. He’s irritated enough to try to get a rise out of her, but can’t even engage her enough to bicker with him. In the car, they happily let Coldplay drown out their silence. Big houses equal big problems!
They are en route to the home of another couple, Nick (Tracy Letts) and Diane (national treasure Molly Shannon), the latter clad in a plum-and-rhinestone freakum dress befitting a Real Housewife, the former deeply disapproving of her tipsy behavior. You see, it’s Diane’s 50th birthday (!!!), and on the eve of a woman’s 50th birthday, her vagina becomes a musty Longchamp tote bag and she is expected to behave accordingly. Also, Nick and Diane live in an even bigger house than Frances and Robert’s, and we know what that means.
Diane and Frances’s third friend Dallas (Talia Balsam) has already crossed over the divorce bridge. Both women live vicariously through Dallas, or try to, but things also look pretty bleak on her end. They tease her about a guy she was just talking to. Her reply: “Oh. That human loaf of bread?” Diane explains that the guy is a hedge-fund friend of Nick’s who lost his wife the previous year. “Gee, I didn’t know,” Dallas says. “He only told me 50 fuckin’ times.”
Frances looks over at her husband. He is saying something inane and bro-y and burning his fingers in the fondue. So far, so broad!
Diane slams Nick: “Did you see how much weight he put on? It was 100 percent to revolt me.” Then she looks at Robert with equal disgust. “Ugh, he’s such a … wet pussy.” Frances looks taken aback, but doesn’t defend him. Nick is no prize either. During his toast to Diane, he makes a crack at her aging looks, then he says he was just kidding. He thinks she looks beautiful — probably one of the benefits of not having children. “Which, of course, is your biological function.”
As the evening proceeds, Diane and Nick have one of those subtext-free fights that tertiary characters sometimes get in order to inspire an epiphany in our protagonist. Eventually, Diane reaches into a desk drawer and pulls a gun on Nick. (This strains credibility for a bunch of reasons, one of which being that Westchester is very much what they call “limousine liberal” and I don’t buy that a guy like Nick keeps a loaded gun by his bedside, but whatever.) Diane gets jumpy and fires, shattering a lamp and narrowly missing Robert. Nick grimaces, clutching his heart, and collapses. He’s rushed to the hospital and a dazed Diane is escorted away by the police.
Frances and Robert have a postmortem on the fucked-up events. She shares a remarkably detailed, kidding-not-kidding fantasy about a time she wanted to harm him, and confesses she’s glad when he’s not around. “Sometimes when I get home from work, I feel happy. I actually feel happy. Then I see your car parked outside and I realize you’re home, and my heart … sinks.”
“I don’t love you anymore,” she says finally. “I want a divorce.”
In response, he throws up.
The next morning, Frances wakes up to find Robert across the room staring at her. He went to a strip club, he says in a flat monotone, trying to make her care and knowing she won’t. Jeeeesus, this shit is depressing! “I’m not sure you meant what you said last night,” he says, “About not loving me before.” But Frances won’t budge. She’s committed to splitting up. Robert then decides it would be good for both of them if he makes her come. “I want to lick your vagina and tongue-dart your anus,” he says, very stiffly. She does not want that, which confuses him, because the concept of not wanting your taint insistently chafed by the Brillo pad attached to Thomas Haden Church’s face is confusing, I guess.
Frances deposits her ungrateful kids, Lila and Tom, at the bus stop. On the commuter train to the city, Dallas gives her a divorcée reality check: Her kids will hate her even more, and her dating prospects will be slim. Which is not an issue, she says, because — dum-dum-DUUUUM! — she has been having an affair! And she thinks she loves him! Dallas opines, in slightly nicer terms, that she is a moron: “Anyone who makes you come, when you haven’t even wanted to come in years, you’re gonna think you’re in love with him.” This is 100 percent correct. Frances rebuts that he is kind, and creative, and “he makes his own granola.”
And so, Frances calls in late to work in order to rendezvous with this Sex Granola, whose name is actually Julian. (He’s played by Jemaine Clement, an excellent bit of casting. His Warby Parker–ass is exactly who you’d cheat with if you were married to a Robert.) They order a post-coital pizza and everything is great until she says, “I told Robert I wanted a divorce,” and he’s like, “Wait, what?” She reminds him they’ve discussed the chances of divorce before, but he replies: “I thought that was role playing. I mean, you had kids.” Her: “… I’ll still have kids.” Now on the defensive, Frances explains how trapped she feels in her long-dead marriage: “I can do banal shit all day long if there was a little love there, or happiness, but there isn’t!” Unfortunately, Julian makes it clear that further commitment is much more than the dirty little secret he signed up for — “some bourgeois affair,” he calls it disdainfully — and they part ways.
This shakes Frances up enough to reconsider what she has back in Westchester. (If that sentence were a person, I would slap it.) She treats the kids to a surprise take-out night, and backpedals frantically about her desire to split up with Robert. But it’s not as easy to convince him as she expected. “You think you’re the only one who wonders if this is working?” he asks her. “Well, you’re not.” Somehow, she talks him into it despite his better judgment — it was an impulsive mistake, it’s not who she is, it’s not what she wants.
Robert and Frances have sex. She looks bored and uncomfortable. Afterwards, Julian calls, and she doesn’t pick up. Things start falling back into place; her kids are even acting a little nicer. She visits Diane. Nick is in critical condition, but she’s trying not to beat herself up about it. After all, there were a lot of factors. “You were unkind to him lately,” Diane tells Frances. “That didn’t help.” (An interesting thread here: When close female friends shit-talk each others’ husbands during bad patches, what’s the subsequent fallout if the marriage recovers?)
We come full circle at the end of the episode: Frances is locked out of the house (with Diane’s new dog that “smells like a yeast infection”), and Robert doesn’t let her in. Why might that be? Because Robert snooped in her phone, called “J,” and discovered the affair. She’s the villain here, he says: “You’re Jesse James, and I get to be Sandra Bullock, and I get to rise from the ashes of humiliation and win a fucking Academy Award.” Now he’s the one who wants a divorce, and it isn’t the amicable kind. “I’m gonna make you miserable. And more to the point, I’m gonna make your children hate you.”
Door slams. Cue Supertramp, the soundtrack of all college-educated American men over the age of 50 contemplating a major life change.
- I’m a huge Sex and The City fan, but I’ll try to spare you guys for as long as I can. (In other words, I’m holding back so many references that I’m giving myself an ulcer.)
- Frances’s confession about being happy when Robert’s not around reminded me so much of Carmela’s amazing monologue in The Sopranos’ “Whitecaps.”
- And on that note, Robert’s pukey reaction to her demand for a divorce reminded me of the breakup scene in the pilot of Pulling, one of Horgan’s earliest and best shows.
- It’s way too soon to stack Divorce up to Catastrophe, but it’s easy to imagine Rob Delaney pulling off a lot of the dialogue that feels stilted from Church.