HBO’s Divorce begins with a 50th birthday party gone bad. The fete is being thrown for Diane, a wine-guzzling Westchester resident played by Molly Shannon. That Shannon was once known for proudly declaring “I’m 50” as Sally O’Malley on Saturday Night Live adds a little bit of meta-textual humor to the scenario. But, unlike Sally, Diane is not proud of her age. This is a gathering filled with middle-age ennui that turns volatile, and the raucous events inspire the protagonist, Diane’s friend Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker), to tell her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church), that she wants a divorce, setting the plot in motion. The laugh-out-loud viciousness of the opening, which involves both a gun and vomit, is clearly the work of series’ creator Sharon Horgan, who also co-writes and stars in Amazon’s brilliant Catastrophe. But Divorce isn’t always as biting as it is in those moments, leading to a solidly acted but somewhat mundane exploration of a breakup.
That’s somewhat to the point. There’s no real hook here: These two are a run-of-the-mill couple living in the upper-middle-class New York suburbs. She works as an executive recruiter, while he remodels and resells houses. Their distaste for one another has been festering for a while, but their animosity is manifested in passive-aggressive gestures rather than drag-out fights. Although they’ve both made transgressions—some arguably worse than others—neither is a villainous party: Both sides are justifiable and unreasonable in equal measure. Horgan and her team are mostly interested in how small infractions can shift the path of the divorce proceedings. It seems strange that any plot point from this show could count as a spoiler, but almost every episode has a mini shocker that alters the power dynamic between Frances and Robert. Just when you think their situation is going to be handled one way, it goes another. It’s a small feat.
For all of that, process and awkwardness don’t always make for the most interesting television, and Frances and Robert’s travails often amount to “white people problems.” The couple exists in a homogenous world where divorce is a common occurrence: Frances’ friend Dallas (Talia Balsam) has been through it as has Diane’s husband, Nick (Tracy Letts). And while the experience is, yes, made out to be difficult, there’s nothing to indicate that lives will be ruined. A scene wherein Robert turns to his Hispanic employees—laborers on a construction site—for sympathy reads particularly tone deaf. Why do we care about these relatively well-off people, their limited world, and their marital challenges? Divorce struggles to answer that question, even though it’s executed skillfully.
Parker’s gift, even on Sex And The City, has always been a well-timed comeback or a reaction shot. Frances is not a reboot of Carrie Bradshaw, but she doesn’t exactly force the actor to stray from her comfort zone, either. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: It’s a pleasure to see her back, shaking her head at just the right moment. In a sea of unlikable female characters, Frances, flaws and all, is one you’d want to get a drink and have a chat with. Church, on the other hand, is a performer who always risks going over the top, and as Robert he can fall prey to his worst instincts thanks to uneven characterization. His offbeat delivery and Neanderthal enunciation are a great asset in early scenes of bewilderment, but start to feel forced as Robert flails. The character becomes fundamentally incompetent, hiring an ineffectual lawyer and dreaming up plans to turn an abandoned warehouse into an activity zone for kids. His detachment from reality raises the question of what Frances—or her friends—ever saw in him.
Parker and Church’s relative lack of chemistry also becomes an issue. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to root for Frances and Robert to get back together, but we should want to see them on screen together. Instead, they never seem to fall into each other’s idiosyncratic rhythms. As Frances’ confidants, Balsam and Shannon are underused in the first six episodes. Balsam has an expert haughty deadpan; Shannon, meanwhile, is a master when it comes to crafting delusional, self-centered characters like Diane.
It’s tempting to compare Divorce’s weak spots to Catastrophe’s strong ones. In the latter, Horgan latches onto a go-for-broke nastiness, which the former lacks. That Frances and Robert try to maintain some element of civility seems like the biggest misstep. Letting them be a little more evil toward one another might serve the series well.
Reviews by Gwen Ihnat will run weekly starting Sunday, October 9.