Divorce Struggles to Find Enough Reasons for Viewers to Care

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Photo: HBO

Who wants to watch Divorce? I’m not asking that rhetorically; I’m genuinely curious. This is a solid show, despite problems that I’ll get to shortly, but still dire and nerve-wracking, whether you’ve been through a divorce yourself (as a spouse or as a kid) or watched from afar as friends muddled through one. Series creator and head writer Sharon Horgan, who made Amazon’s superb Catastrophe with her co-star and writing partner Rob Delaney, focuses on an upper-middle class Westchester couple with relatively comfortable jobs (she’s a corporate recruiter, he’s a home-flipper) and a spacious suburban house; but once you get past the surface details, you’re looking at a recognizable comedy of personal disaster stretched out over a season — enough time to scrutinize every agonizing detail of a collapsing marriage, or wallow in it.  

Sarah Jessica Parker is Frances, the corporate recruiter; Thomas Haden Church is her husband, Robert, a wannabe real-estate baron who’s bought too many houses and is leveraged up to his eyeballs. Their relationship has been moribund for years; Robert’s Fuller Brush mustache at first seems like a mere pretext for cheap recurring jokes, but Frances eventually dates the final decline of their marriage to Robert’s decision to grow it. (It makes kissing him unpleasant.) The split is set in motion after Frances and Robert attend the 50th birthday party of a mutual friend, Diane (Molly Shannon), whose marriage is a toxic waste site; her husband, Nick (Tracy Letts), weaves passive-aggressive insults into his toasts to her (“I’d offer you some wine, but Diane’s already sucked up most of it”), and the situation escalates and explodes into mayhem, prompting Frances to confront Robert, admit how miserable she’s been, and confess that she wants a divorce and has for some time. Robert is abashed by this, though more surprised than he should be.  

Unfortunately for Frances, Robert learns that she’s been having an affair with a Columbia University professor named Julian (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) for months. It’s not about love, it’s about feeling wanted and appreciated; he gives her orgasms and also homemade granola. The professor loses interest in Frances the minute he realizes that their relationship is at risk of becoming something other than a “dirty little secret,” but Robert still uses his knowledge of their trysts as leverage, locking Frances out of her own home, demonizing her in marriage counseling, and otherwise trying to position himself as the unimpeachable Good Guy in their union (even though we later discover that Robert once had an emotional affair with an old college friend — a relationship he insists is not as destructive to their marriage as his wife’s physical one). Frances masochistically accepts each twist of Robert’s knife because she feels like she’s failed; the affair distracts Robert from facing his own culpability.

This deepening pit of self-justification and sadness is keenly observed by Horgan and her collaborators (including regular director Jesse Peretz, who helmed some of the best episodes of Girls, another half-hour fingernail-puller of a “comedy”). And both the acting and the dialogue are barbed-wire sharp. Horgan, one of television’s finest screenwriters, has a knack for constructing sentences that place a qualifying sentiment at the back end that’s meant to soften a blow but that instead makes it land harder: “I love you Julian, I think,” Frances tells her lover. Those last two words are presented as an afterthought, but are actually the heart of her statement. Later, describing her loathing of Robert’s every habit, Frances says, “We can’t even watch TV together because he repeats the jokes right after they say them, instead of laughing.” That “instead of laughing” transforms what might have been a typical bit of sitcom complaining into a hint that Robert is one dark, sad dude.

There is indeed something joylessly controlling and pitifully clueless about Robert, down to the way he constantly, thoughtlessly interrupts Frances — often with pointless digressions like complaining that a waiter has charged him separately for a salad and pasta that were “supposed to be part of the meal deal” at the moment that they’re about to have a long-deferred talk with their kids about their plans to split up. Robert turns out to be the show’s biggest creative hindrance, beyond the inherently grim nature of Divorce’s main story, which is saying something about a sitcom that’s basically a Cracker Jack box filled with sharp bits of gravel and a razor blade as a prize.

I don’t know if Horgan’s writing of the character or Church’s bull-in-a-china-shop swagger is more to blame (perhaps the latter — I could envision Kelsey Grammer, Bryan Cranston, or Horgan’s Castastrophe-mate Delaney making the character’s narcissism and abrasive peevishness endearing rather than tiresome). But I very quickly got to the point where I didn’t want to hear anything Robert had to say, which is not the effect that a co-lead character should have on a viewer. To be fair, Parker’s carried-over likability from Sex and the City and so many rom-com films could be a factor in the imbalance. Parker never gets much credit for this, but her Carrie Bradshaw was one of the great likable-awful TV leads of the ’90s and aughts, one that could’ve fit neatly into the Seinfeld universe had there been a crossover. Although I know some people flat-out don’t like Parker, I adore her so much that I always want to hear her character’s side of things even if it’s plainly self-serving.

Whatever the explanation, there’s a sympathy imbalance at the core of Divorce that makes the relative evenhandedness of the plotting (we keep seeing and learning about mistakes by both parties) seem more theoretical than felt. Frances is a complicated person that you’re inclined to understand and root for, even when she’s dragging a young employee into an impulsive heart-to-heart and then realizing that she’s been calling him Ryan for years when his name is Bryan. Robert, in contrast, is a self-important doofus who has been given more screen time than his psychology merits, presumably because you can’t cast an Oscar nominee and Emmy winner like Church and then treat him as comic relief.

Another problem is the pacing. I know I lodge this complaint so often that it’s giving readers déjà-vu, but Divorce is another new series that meanders through its salient points in eight episodes when it could have boiled them down to six or four, or packed them into an incident-filled two-hour film. When, for example, Frances spends the better part of an episode locked out of her house, you don’t necessarily see it as a case of scripted TV expanding time to examine an experience in more detail than a feature film might allow, but as something more akin to a sports team running out the clock while it’s ahead (or thinks it’s ahead). Economy of expression is nearly always a virtue, except when excess is the point. And on that note, I should divorce myself from this review.