HBO’s “Divorce” examines the messy and exhausting process of ending a marriage, with a specific brand of comedic neuroses. Sarah Jessica Parker (“All Roads Lead to Rome”) and Thomas Haden Church (“Cardboard Boxer”) co-star as Frances and Robert, a couple whose slow drift apart from one another leads to an aggressive and hostile feud, playing out with upper-middle class suburban flare. But what would otherwise be a contrived narrative of divorce is elevated with sharp writing and well-timed comedic performances. While Parker is refreshingly better than her usual melodramatic self, Church carries the show, being both sincere, comedically vindictive and a nimble wordsmith.
“Divorce” is preoccupied with the process of separation — the lengthy back and forth that involves spouses, children and friends. Season one showed that this awkward and unique process is rich in comedic material and psychological explorations into what it looks like when a 10-year marriage quickly crumbles. With honesty and sentimentality, the season showed that Frances and Robert could still have moments of sweetness among moments of chaos and acid. It was an entertaining, funny and candid portrayal of a broken marriage that doesn’t break cleanly.
Unfortunately, season two is a shadow of its former self. The change became evident in the first episode, when Robert shaved his notorious mustache and effectively transformed from the sharp lead to a sort of melted, pathetic skin sack. Parker also lost her momentum, fading back into the breathy theatrical act that works in “Sex and the City” and nowhere else.
With season two, it feels like the show doesn’t really know what to do with itself. After Robert and Frances finally sign their divorce papers in the first episode, the season drags on aimlessly, flitting between their different flings and job endeavors without the spice and fire of the first season. The auxiliary characters are also more annoying. Molly Shannon (“Will and Grace”) plays Frances’s best friend with a tired performativity that completely undercuts her skills as a comedian and a nuanced actor. Tracey Letts (“Lady Bird”), another Hollywood genius, is reduced to a man with anger issues and a random obsession with gourmet cooking. Even the kids are obnoxious, picking fights and whining for the sole purpose of adding noise to a scene.
“Divorce” started out strong as a show about middle-age problems with a universally resonant brand of comedy and intelligence. With its second season, the show completely loses its footing, fumbling between problems that aren’t problems, overdramatized characters and situations and an overall sense of pathetic sadness that comes with people who have separated but can’t quite seem to get over each other. It lacks the vitriolic bouts of anger, the calculated “fuck you”s, and the acute hilarity of it all. The thing is, Frances and Robert seem fine being divorced, but season two is washed-out and stringy, struggling to make an amicable post-divorce relationship dramatic and interesting, and failing to do so.