The much improved second season of Divorce came to a close last night, on a Sunday when it was most certainly overshadowed by the Academy Awards. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.
Being overshadowed has been a theme for Divorce, the HBO series that brought the star of one of its most popular and influential shows ever, Sarah Jessica Parker, back to the premium cable network for the first time since she played Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. The first season received mixed reviews, but critics have been appropriately kinder to the series in season two. In its second outing, the half-hour dramedy about the aftermath of a marriage’s dissolution became lighter, funnier, and more relatable. I didn’t so much binge all eight episodes as chug them in one thirsty gulp.
Based on the metrics one uses to judge these things — not so much ratings, although those have certainly not been massive, but social media, online chatter, media coverage, and Emmy nominations — the series still hasn’t become much of a pop-cultural conversation starter. Thanks to all the talk of the so-called feud between Parker and her former co-star Kim Cattrall, as well as references to Sex and the City on current TV shows like This Is Us, the show about four single ladies in NYC still seems to cause more ripples in the Zeitgeist than Divorce does.
If you haven’t watched Divorce at all or gave up on it midway through the first season, the magic of On Demand and HBO Go still makes it possible to experience season two, which is something I strongly recommend. It’s not unusual for a series that was fine but not great in its first season to recalibrate and becomes something stronger in season two. It happened with both NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation, and more recently with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. I would argue it even happened to an extent with Sex and the City. Divorce is yet another example.
In its first season, Divorce was about a marital split actively in progress, which meant there was a lot of fighting between Frances (Parker) and her soon-to-be ex-spouse Robert Dufresne (Thomas Haden Church). With Sharon Horgan of Catastrophe as its creator and one of the writers, the comedic tone sat pretty solidly in the charcoal-gray section of the color spectrum, and both of the main characters exhibited major flaws. Frances cheated on her husband, Robert misled his wife about their finances and, in different ways and at various points, both behaved like insufferable children. Television characters do not have to be likable in order for a show to be good, but we do have to want to spend time in their orbit. At times in Divorce season one, it was difficult to want to do that.
Then Jenny Bicks, a former Sex and the City writer, came onboard as showrunner and writer in season two, and suddenly, there was a parting in the black-out curtains. Divorce still specializes in dark comedy, but, with the divorce between Frances and Robert finalized in the second-season premiere, the focus for both is on finding bright spots in terms of the way they raise their children, deal with each other, and attempt to move on with their lives. At times the season relies on some borderline sitcom-ish contrivances. One of Frances’s best friends, Dallas (Talia Balsam), a therapist, treats a real-estate agent named Jackie (Becki Newton), who starts dating Robert, all of which may not be technically out of the realm since these people live in the same community in Hastings-on-Hudson. But it feels a little too convenient. Still, these minor off notes don’t take away from all the smart ways in which the show has remodeled itself with keen attention to detail.
In the first season, it was hard to imagine that Frances and Robert ever belonged together in the first place because they seemed so mismatched. But of course, that’s why people get divorced — because they realize they weren’t right for each other. The second season continues to make it clear that they shouldn’t be married, but also persuasively shows the degree to which they maintain an affection for, and even attraction to, one another. When two people not only say vows but start a family together, they become intertwined in ways that even legal proceedings can’t untangle. That fact is put on the front burner in the fourth episode, one of my favorites of the season, in which Frances joins Robert on a trip back to his Ohio hometown to visit his ailing father in the hospital. Robert’s sister, Cathy, played by Amy Sedaris with a hilarious chip on her shoulder that’s the size of the entire Midwest, instantly starts laying guilt trips on her brother and insulting him. It’s Frances who lets her have it, in a terrifically blunt monologue delivered by a blistering Parker.
“Robert and I may live on opposite ends of the planet,” she says to her former sister-in-law. “But if I ever hear that you have upset him or you have caused him any form of distress, I will hunt. You. Down. So don’t fuck with me, Cathy.” The Dufrenes may not be married anymore, but they still have each other’s backs.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they have learned a lot of lessons in terms of how to handle romance. Frances and Robert both get involved in new, potentially serious relationships, which, again, seems pretty fast, even for a TV show. But it enables Divorce to show how these characters, like a lot of us, repeat the same patterns over and over again no matter who our partners are.
In Jackie, Robert finds another woman who is far more organized and mature than he is — his friends also note that she even looks a little like Frances. While dating Andrew (Steven Pasquale), whose ex had an affair that ended things, Frances avoids fully explaining the reasons for her marriage’s demise, which suggests she still has issues being fully honest, with men and herself, about her adultery. The series makes a point of noting that getting a clean slate doesn’t mean all your problems get wiped away like temporary text on a dry-erase board. They just surface again, in different situations and contexts that involve new personalities. (There’s also an interesting subplot involving Frances, who owns a small gallery, and her relationship with an African-American artist (Roslyn Ruff) that speaks to her inability to see art and the world from outside the confines of her white, Westchester County point of view.)
Frances and Robert are the parents to two teenagers, a fact that was only marginally reckoned within season one, in which neither their daughter Lila (Sterling Jerins) nor their son Tom (Charlie Kilgore) seemed like much more than breathing, speaking props. But in season two, the kids are finally real people. While Lila expresses simmering rage at her mother, whom she blames for her parents’ breakup, Tom attempts to slyly glide in and out of rooms, hoping his parents are too preoccupied to hassle him about stuff. “Hey, not much,” he squawks when his dad asks him what’s going on in one episode. “So Mom is outside. She wants to talk to you. I got busted for driving the Tesla.” He delivers this news while simultaneously backing out of the room, which is, of course, exactly what a teenage boy would do. Kilgore gets the pitch and behavior of that behavior just right; he’s really great in season two.
And the show is much better about showing Frances and Robert wrestling with the demands of co-parenting and parenting, period. After discovering that Tom has started having sex, Frances tries to have a talk with him, which involves her chasing him in a pair of pumps and saying, “Hey, we should talk about consent,” while he attempts to go for a jog. That image is somehow the perfect encapsulation of what it means to raise a young man in 2018: It’s a lot of running in high heels while shouting, as Frances does, “No means no! And tie your shoe!”
It’s one of those moments that only great TV can give us, where, even though we may not live exactly like the characters we’re watching or make precisely the same mistakes they make, we recognize them. And we laugh, because for a few minutes, we see ourselves: struggling, out of breath, and just trying to stay caught up with the people and things that matter before they dash away from us.