Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s a thin line between uncomfortable, dark drama and prickly black humor that HBO’s newest half-hour series Divorce appears, momentarily, to be straddling with precision. But like the bickering couple at its center, the show loses itself in a melancholic cloud of unfunny narcissism with haste. It’s a show with enough clout and prestige to carry the pilot, but its premise is so suffocatingly bleak, that the subsequent five episodes I sat through were sluggish at best, with only occasional upticks in interest centering around well-recognized insight into marriage, friendship, and casting Molly Shannon.
Otherwise, it’s hard to engage with. Creator Sharon Horgan has done the legwork in making the embittered couple at the center of Divorce multilayered and appreciably resentful to one another in believable ways, but on a level of pure entertainment, the show just thuds along. It’s the kind of people-at-their-worst drama with no real redeeming qualities shining through to endear you to the characters, or connect you to their situation, or make you care about the ultimate outcome (which the title largely spoils anyway). In comparison to HBO’s string of recent gems, the bottom line is that watching two grown, suburban white people succumb to paroxysms over dirty dishes and unfriendly alarm noises is disappointing, frustrating, and boring on nearly every level.
So it might be a good idea to check out the perfectly realized pilot and then call it a day. It starts when Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker), who’s already unhappy in her marriage to Robert (Thomas Haden Church), faces reality after a traumatic event at the birthday party of her best friend Diane (the criminally underused Molly Shannon), who just so happens to be in a loveless marriage as well. Tired of the banality of their lives together, and mostly tired of Robert’s accumulated quirks, Frances decides to call it then and there: she wants a divorce.
Set against the backdrop of the snow-blasted suburbs of upstate New York, not to mention a few chillingly specific dips into black humor, the 30-minute opening salvo of Divorce is near perfect. Frances and Robert are introduced with lived-in tangibility and history (essential for the spewing of hatred to come), the supporting cast is dynamite (Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement also pops up), and a few sly comments on life in a loveless marriage ring sadly true. It’s self-contained, despite a cliffhanger-y ending, and has an obvious thematic tenacity (winter = death) that feels like an endearing, just-earnest-enough short film.
And then it keeps on going. Divorce‘s main problem is that, by the end of the sixth episode, it stands as the epitome of a premise not supporting the expansive, long-form nature that TV allows as a medium. Delving into the nasty specifics and power dynamics of a divorce isn’t totally an unwarranted idea for a show, but Divorce doesn’t come up with anything substantial as a reason to tell a four-hour long dissolution of two people’s lives (it’ll be eight episodes in total). It loses the confident bite of the first episode, and fails to keep delivering smart commentary on marriage and relationships (besides one or two exceptions), in favor of a back-and-forth tennis match of mean-spirited humor and a few colossally dull subplots.
Its one bright spot is Parker, who plays Frances with a familiarity and sweetness that makes her outbursts all the more satisfying. The pilot’s ending shifts Frances and Robert’s power dynamic in an interesting way, and she essentially spends much of the rest of the season attempting to triage her past mistakes before Robert can divulge their situation to kids Tom (Charlie Kilgore) and Lila (Sterling Jerins). That puts Frances largely in the sympathy of the viewer for most of the show, so there’s little “which side will you choose?” line in the sand here, but she picks up Divorce‘s slack far more than she should have been asked to.
On the other hand, Church is more like the 2016 idea of a dad than a real dad, or character for that matter. They nail his cheesy jokes and dad-isms (he calls money “green,” etc), and Church does what he can in a frustrating role, but he becomes so unbelievably insufferable as the divorce proceedings ramble on, that anytime he’s on screen it’s easy to sympathize with Frances’s middle-finger, eye-roll combos. A subplot later in the season attempts to be metaphorical about his quest to distract himself from the divorce with work, but it’s annoying, tedious, and largely repetitive, since Divorce does the same thing with Frances in the second episode. Thankfully, the two have welcome, clashing chemistry together, so at least when Divorce is off the tracks in terms of coherent, satisfying storytelling, scenes with the two together feel genuine and potent.
But it’s too easy to ask for the show to be more. The pieces are there (hell, there’s even a decent running gag about the constant displacement of a giant dog named Hannah), but the show is mired in its characters’ misery. Maybe there’s truth to that – like when Robert stutters Frances’ name the night he leaves their house just to be able to say it aloud one last time – but there’s no emotional gratification found within that sadness. It’s empty and vapid and exhausting, and only more frustrating when it actually succeeds at being clever. But those moments are few and far between, and even when it gets there, the show plays hot potato with potentially dodgy issues before moving on to the next hollow spat between Frances and Robert.
That’s epitomized in a glimpse of the encroaching topic of spousal abuse midway through the season, which is introduced and executed with a subtle grace that the show as a whole could have used more of, and then dropped like a stone. Divorce didn’t need to be about abuse, or about shifting marital power dynamics, or be the ending period on the all-too-normal reality of broken marriages, but it did at least have to be entertaining. The first six episodes of the show have their moments (and at least an ever-present Molly Shannon-slash-Sarah Jessica Parker gal pal angle), but it’s mostly a downward spiral of negativity and regret that could have been a powerhouse dramedy, but lacks a deft of emotion (or humor) to make the ennui worth it.
Without recognizable humor or gratifying emotions, Divorce's melancholic dissection of a loveless marriage fails to deliver on the potential for a black comedy-filled title fight between two clearly game actors.