Watching a relationship fall apart isn’t pretty, even if it’s only on television. Watching a relationship completely disintegrate ... now, that’s just painful. In Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church play a married couple on the brink of what looks to be a long-drawn-out, bitter divorce.
From the opening scene, it’s pretty obvious that romance has long exited Frances and Robert’s marriage. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a time when the two of them shared a kiss or even a giggle, let alone two teenage (or maybe tweenage) children. Instead, we are introduced to two people who seem like roommates who have to try very hard not to get on each other’s nerves.
To be honest, Robert doesn’t appear to be as dissatisfied as his wife, he seems to have accepted their mature marriage for the routine that it has become. It’s Frances who seems frustrated, unsettled and trapped in a loveless marriage. She’s on the edge all the time and everything Robert does seems to grate on her nerves – particularly that moustache he recently cultivated. She has a point; it looks horrid and she says it makes kissing unpleasant.
One night after a disastrous night out at a friend’s party, Frances brings up the subject of divorce, much to the consternation of her spouse who ignores her request at first and later implores her to give their marriage another shot. But Frances isn’t interested, partly because she’s having an affair with a bohemian college professor and therefore has the promise of a new, more exciting life ahead of her.
She doesn’t need Robert and she definitely doesn’t need to put up with his moustache.
Unfortunately, when she tells her boyfriend Julian of her divorce plans, he flips out. Turns out he just wanted a fling and now Frances finds herself in a bind: she has no choice but to stick with Robert. I know, that sounds completely off-putting – as if Robert is her consolation prize.
As luck (and karma) would have it, Robert accidentally stumbles upon a message from Julian and decides that he doesn’t want Frances anymore. He locks her out of their house (after changing the locks) albeit in the dead of winter and lets her beg to be let in. This happens not once but a few times.
What follows is the two of them navigating their fractured relationship. They argue, they try going for therapy, they skip therapy after it doesn’t seem to be working and seek legal counsel instead ... it’s the reverse of courting, almost.
Divorce was created and is largely written by Sharon Horgan, the British actress/writer who co-wrote the highly acclaimed British sitcom Catastrophe with American comedian/writer Rob Delaney (both of them played the leads on that show). Catastrophe – which isn’t airing here ... yet – won a Bafta and an Emmy for best writing (comedy), which probably prompted the duo to team up again.
Reviews for Divorce don’t seem to be as gushing as they were for Catastrophe but they’re overall quite positive.
Divorce is a difficult subject to pivot a show on, let alone to make it a comedy. Church provides much of the comedic elements in the series. His depiction of Robert – sarcastic with a deadpan exterior and with many, many idiosyncracies – cuts a sympathetic figure, particularly because he was blindsided by his wife’s affair.
But as easy as it is to blame Frances for the relationship breakdown, as in real life divorce is never just one person’s fault. The series explores this and we move from blame to acknowledgement to just witnessing these two people having to work out their shared mess before they can be free to go their separate ways.
While the series addresses the bitterness, hurt and disillusionment in a dysfunctional marriage pretty well, I think it fails to provide a balance. We don’t get to see any other side to Frances or Robert – not even as parents. And their kids seem really flat and one-dimensional too ... more like props than supporting characters. Even the dog has more of a role to play in the story than those insipid (they are!) children – no fault of the young stars but more in the writing.
The other supporting characters are the couple’s friends, married couple Diane (Molly Shannon) and Nick (Tracy Letts), who are also going through a rough patch in their relationship. They are whacky and over the top and perhaps some much-needed comic relief to bring a little levity to the otherwise dark subject of the series.
I am entertained by Divorce. It’s certainly different and four episodes on, I’m still deciding if I like it or not. But its tone is definitely unlike anything currently on TV and I’m curious enough to see where it goes.
Divorce airs every Monday at 10am (encore at 10pm) on HBO (Astro Ch 411/HD Ch 431).