There’s something to be said for dark comedies. The trend toward greater realism in the recent slew of fall comedies, like FX’s “Better Things,” could be an indication of the desire to see our own human flaws and everyday realities laid bare on screen. With HBO’s newest comedy “Divorce,” however, there are realities better left unshown.
The series follows a couple, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker, “Sex and the City”) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church, “Easy A”), through a lengthy, tumultuous divorce. But rather than providing a poignant look into the lives of two people who, against all odds, have decided to call it quits, the series is a dismal portrait of two self-centered middle-aged people who are too consumed with themselves to make any effort in their relationship.
This is apparently reason enough for Frances to reevaluate her life and her marriage, following a jarring incident at her friend Diane’s (Molly Shannon, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”) 50th birthday party. It’s not clear in the episode why Frances and Robert’s marriage suddenly crumbles before our eyes. Yes, the two main characters are flawed, and yes, there is some deep-seated unhappiness, as with many marriages, but there aren’t any significant points of contention between Frances and Robert. Rather than seeing a meaningful problem that antagonizes their relationship, we get a scene that shows their close friends, Diane and her husband Nick (Tracy Letts, “The Big Short”), erupting in a violent conflict that spurs Frances’s uncertainty regarding her marriage.
Frances doesn’t waste a moment after her revelation. While Robert still reels from the events that take place just moments before, Frances gives it to him straight. In a more convoluted version of the “It’s not you, it’s me” break-up speech, Frances articulates her dissatisfaction — something that comes as a complete surprise to Robert. In this moment, it’s apparent that Frances spends a lot of time thinking about herself. While the verbiage she uses implies some level of soul-searching, it’s obvious that she hasn’t considered the implications.
From this moment on, Frances only becomes more unlikable. Though the motivation behind her crisis isn’t clear at first, her selfishness is immediately clear. This isn’t helped by the fact that after the first act, we’re introduced to the man she’s having an affair with, Julian (Jemaine Clement, “What We Do in the Shadows”), who’s equally self-centered. It’s the thought of Julian that comforts Frances when her friend Dallas (Talia Balsam, “No Strings Attached”) warns that divorcing her husband will leave her feeling lonely (side note: Frances’s only other close friend is a bitter divorcée — another demonstration of the show’s lack of subtlety and ingenuity).
After leaving her husband, Frances goes to Julian expecting him to welcome the news with excitement. However, he’s predictably freaked out by the sudden serious turn their relationship has taken. Again, Frances demonstrates her complete lack of empathy towards the people in her life she depends on most — a highly unappealing quality in a protagonist. When it becomes clear to Frances that her plan to leave Robert and be with Julian won’t go as expected, she halfheartedly makes amends with Robert.
There is nothing respectable about her decision, but it’s understandable considering her circumstances. Not everyone is strong enough to make the kind of self-sacrificing decisions that often need to be made. The show isn’t asking us to sympathize with her, but to understand her. If this is the kind of character that embodies the gritty storytelling pervasive in TV today, then shows that utilize this type of characterization need to work a lot harder to sustain our attention. It’s difficult to become invested in a character that we resent. Frances doesn’t possess the kind of complexity that flavors her character and story with just enough contradiction to be interesting. She’s unsophisticated, motivated by selfishness, and completely unlikable.
That isn’t to say that Robert is likable, exactly. We’re almost tricked into siding with him when he candidly points out to Frances that “The crisis at Nick and Diane’s is the kind of stuff that’s supposed to bring us together.” But the show quickly reveals its hand when Robert proves to be just as petty as his soon-to-be ex-wife.
It’s hard not to compare a new HBO show about relationships starring Sarah Jessica Parker to “Sex and the City.” The parallels that can be drawn between the two are mostly superficial. The protagonist, an independent woman, struggles with a failing relationship that highlights her greatest flaws and draws out extremely unlikable qualities. Equally as unlikable is the male lead: her husband, a man so clueless that he doesn’t realize his wife is having an affair.
However, it may be more apt to compare the new series to HBO’s “Togetherness,” which was cancelled following its second season. The show’s writing was also bound to reality and to the complexity of human relationships. It was dark but sweet, and it was relatable. But “Divorce” lacks the self-awareness that made “Togetherness” equally as charming as it was bleak. “Divorce” attempts to counteract its affluent suburban desperation with shallow humor, often falling flat. If HBO was hoping to replace “Togetherness” with a similar show with greater star power, than “Divorce” is not the ticket.