HBO’s ‘Divorce’: Over-dressed and underprepared

Sarah Jessica Parker's new HBO series has taken the safe route and that's a problem


Whenever actors portray characters of landmark importance, their subsequent roles carry the ghost of those past performance. Take any of the actors who’ve donned James Bond’s three-piece suit, Seann William Scott, or Sarah Michelle Gellar. An audience’s expectation can haunt the plausibility of an actor’s presence outside of the role they’ve become synonymous with.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Sarah Jessica Parker. Although already a success prior to appearing as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (1998-2004), her legacy in Hollywood will always be sealed with a Cranberry Kiss and the click of Manolo Blahniks.

Carrie Bradshaw and her three best friends forever altered the face of television; unapologetically feminine and graphically sexual, Sex and the City proved there was a market for a female-dominated cable show. Since its airing, shows like Girls, Damages, Broad City, and many more of their ilk carry Carrie’s legacy. Now, over a decade after its finale, Divorce reunites Parker with HBO and teams them with Catastrophe co-creator, Sharon Horgan.

Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO's DIVORCE/Courtesy HBO

Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO’s DIVORCE/Courtesy HBO

Delivering on its title, Divorce tracks the crumbling marriage of a couple just past middle age. After settling into roles as professionals, parents and homeowners, the pair have grown out of their partnership and now live under a veil of passive aggression and resentment-laden antagonism.

Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Hayden Church), while attending a birthday party, brush against their own mortality, and for Frances, the flash of crisis sobers her on the comfortable haze of her current life. She blindsides her husband with the request of divorce. Long disillusioned with her marriage, Frances maintains an affair with a granola-making, Peter Pan type, performs a job she empathetically coasts through, and harbors aspiration of opening an art gallery. The oppositions between Frances’s husband and her lover, her job and her passion, make her appear lost in the maze of “having it all” feminism that popular culture wants, maniacally, to believe exists.

Parker is no stranger to this subject. Her 2011 flop I Don’t Know How She Does It, looks like Divorce’s,
bouncier cousin. Completely devoid of humor other than dry (often to the point of flakey) jokes, Divorce should from rom-com tackiness. Neither acidic enough to achieve a Whit Stillman-esque portrait of the petit bourgeois or narcotically enjoyable like UnReal, Divorce decides to be a hanger back at a party, pressed against the wall with its nose in a drink because the fear of interacting negotiates its own coolness. The tone of the show, even after a handful of episodes, can’t land on an even timbre and thus rings flat, thin and glassy. Divorce yearns for a voice, but Frances appears, unlike the character Parker perfected, without motivation. Parker’s strengths lie in her verbosity and physicality, but here she’s made mundane, quiet, severe and often sedentary. Her narrativization throughout Sex and the City enlivened the character enough to justify her self-absorption, but Frances shares so few scenes with her friends and speaks so sparingly during counseling sessions, the entirety of her desire rests in disappointed glances, sighs and frustrated remarks.

Unlikability, especially when applied to female characters, can unfairly undermine the potential of a show. Don Draper, Dexter, Tony Soprano and Walter White all enjoyed the title of “anti-hero, ” say, while Patty Hewes (Damages), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder), and Olivia Pope (Scandal) are all given extensive back stories and characters on the sidelines to compensate for their issues.

But the audience’s difficulty enjoying Frances isn’t the problem holding Divorce back—it’s the safeness. The casting of its leads, the premise, showrunner and directors all signal HBO’s desperation for a hit when networks with less prestige are thriving with shows like Atlanta (FX), Stranger Things (Netflix) and Fleabag (Amazon) that all feel unprecedented and less algorithmic than HBO’s latest offerings (Divorce, Insecure, Westworld).

Thomas Hayden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO's "Divorce"/Courtesy HBO

Thomas Hayden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO’s “Divorce”/Courtesy HBO

What could have been a compelling crossfire between Frances and Carrie instead relies on Sex and the City’s backstory more than the believability of Frances and Robert as a couple. The show’s premise too closely mimics Sex and the City’s third season during which Carrie cheats on her lovable, but somewhat goofy boyfriend, Aiden (with her past love, Mr. Big). Even Robert’s occupation as a carpenter parallels too closely Aiden’s as a woodworker. But unlike Sex’s affair, Frances’ appears, like everything she does, without meaning. Not only does Divorce tend to recollect Parker’s previous work but also the entire show prods at other media artifacts at its periphery. Notably, Thomas Hayden Church’s Robert relies on the same paradoxical sharp bluntness he delivered in 2004’s Sideways, the premise nudges both Showtime’s The Affair and CBS’s The Good Wife and the reveal of Frances’s affair recalls Mad Men’s pilot episode in reverse.

Divorcefeels like eyeliner applied in a rush on the way out the door. It appears both overdressed and underprepared for its occasion. Watching a couple zombie-fied by an anger without a specific cause could be captivating, but the original sin of infidelity ultimately falls on Frances and the show never forgets to blame her. In place of character development, her spouse is made dull and dimwitted to balance her shortcomings.

Stories following the decay of a hopeless union like Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman), Contempt (Jean Luc Godard) and Closer (Mike Nichols) rectify the lack of affection between the couple by imbuing their growing hatred with a spirit and spark of mischievousness easily imaginable as affection gone awry. Divorce attempts to explore a deadening affection through desensitization—and reminds its audience of shows they’d rather be watching…unless that counts as cheating.

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