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How Not to Be a Bad Person on Television

On ‘Divorce,’ catastrophes, and the limits of domestic unlikability

HBO
HBO

Two separate, and at times antithetical, dynamics have defined this era of television. The first, of course, has been the Rise of the Prickly Antihero — your Tony Sopranos and Don Drapers and Walter Whites; your Hannibals and Dexters; your Marcia Clarks and Johnnie Cochrans and your O.J. Simpsons. A memo seems to have finally gone around the TV industry that human beings are complex and multidimensional and that even the decent ones sometimes do terrible things. Difficult People, You’re the Worst, and Fleabag are all titles of current comedies.

The second dynamic is, as you’re all too aware, called Peak TV. We have too much to choose from, and so we are quicker to move on if a show doesn’t particularly grab us from the start.

This is the problem facing Divorce, an acerbic half-hour comedy premiering on HBO this Sunday night, starring Sarah Jessica Parker (in her first lead TV role since Sex and the City) and a midlife, mustachioed Thomas Haden Church. (“When did it start to go off the tracks?” he asks in the pilot; she replies, “Well, perhaps when you grew the mustache?”) As its title suggests, Divorce begins with an ending. After witnessing a mutual friend suffer a near-death experience, Frances and Robert abruptly decide to separate, and the rest of the show follows the awkward intricacies that follow this decision: visits to accountants, lawyers and mediators; stammering attempts to break the news to their children, parents, and friends. Both visually and tonally, the show’s palette is a veritable melancholic rainbow of dirty-snow grays and therapist-waiting-room taupes.

Theoretically, if anyone can draw some laughs out of such a bleak concept, it’s Divorce creator Sharon Horgan. The 46-year-old Irish writer-actress first made a name for herself in the U.K. with the great, aimless-single-woman-in-her-20s comedy Pulling, suffused with humor so dark it makes Girls feel like a ray of sunshine. More recently, Horgan has charmed audiences stateside with Catastrophe, the terrifically caustic Amazon show she cocreated and costars in with the American comic Rob Delaney. The pair play a couple who accidentally get pregnant during a one-weekend-stand and, exhausted of the single life in their late 30s, decide to bunker down and start a family. The viewer witnesses them — out of both necessity and genuine chemistry — fall in love, undercutting the show’s barbed sensibility with an almost disarming tenderness. Catastrophe might be charred at the edges, but inside beats a bleeding heart.

Divorce is a little more … burnt. It is by its very nature a taller order for the viewer, because the show’s narrative arc follows a couple falling out of, rather than into, love. It doesn’t help that we know next to nothing about Frances and Robert’s history. There would have been a million ways to botch a flashback sequence in the pilot of a show like this, but I found myself wishing for one just the same, if only to raise the stakes a bit — as a viewer, it’s hard to feel particularly invested in a couple when we’ve only ever seen them at their worst.

Frances and Robert are an interesting case study in a 21st-century marriage, because once it comes time to divide their assets, it becomes clear that Frances has been the family’s breadwinner for some time. A few episodes in, Divorce begins to explore this dynamic quite compellingly, as Robert tries to grapple with this stereotypical aberration; Divorce takes the untraditional route of making the husband a more sympathetic character than the wife — though he’s not genuinely likable so much as he is emotionally bruised and a little pathetic. “You’re Jesse James,” he spits at his wife towards the end of the pilot, from behind a locked door. “And I get to be Sandra Bullock. I get to rise from the ashes of humiliation and win a fucking Academy Award.” Church is, mercifully, hilarious on this show; he animates Robert with a California stoner accent and a deep absurdist streak, like Will Ferrell doing an impression of The Dude. When trying to place the name of Diane’s sheepdog, Hannah, his subconscious offers, “Guillermo?” A beat later: “It’s Spanish for Wayne.”

Frances is a tougher, more competent character than her husband, and in theory that feels like a bold and welcome provocation. But in practice it’s a drag, because it means she’s a hell of a lot less funny than he is, and in a show this macabre, comic relief is about as necessary as oxygen. Parker’s performance feels a bit out of step with the rest of the show’s pacing; she dives for deeper pathos than the writing allows, and when she must come to the surface to make a quick, crude joke, something about her tone feels a little off. What makes Catastrophe so brilliant is the rat-a-tat rhythm of Rob and Sharon’s repartee; though they’re from wildly different families and cultures, affectionately nasty jokes are the common language of their love. Frances and Robert never seem quite on the same page conversationally, which certainly underscores the fact that they’re not a perfect match, but it also deepens the mystery of what they ever had in the first place.

A few years ago, in a much-needed critical reappraisal of Sex and the City, TV critic Emily Nussbaum dubbed Carrie Bradshaw “the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television.” Parker’s return to HBO showcases what a difference 18 fall TV seasons have made: Frances makes Carrie feel like a Charlotte in comparison. Antiheroism is (like almost anything in this world) a trickier game for women than it is for men, and beneath the age-old demand for “likable” female characters is a desire to keep women in line, repressed, and imprisoned within boring, circumscribed roles. It’s thrilling that TV is finally populated with more complex women expressing a wider range of emotions, but there’s a difference between “complicated characters” and “characters we care enough about to spend time with week after week.” Frances and Robert certainly check the former box, but for many viewers of those crucial first few episodes, I’m not sure they’ll check the latter.

The flip side of the antihero trend is that it sometimes feels as though there’s an arms race on TV right now to see which show can present us with with the most “difficult” characters. Divorce is perhaps one of the first casualties of this trend, partially because the couple’s “difficulty” is too banal and even relatable; sure, there are much worse people we proverbially invite into our living rooms week after week, but there’s an element of fantasy in, say, examining the character complexities of a serial killer that isn’t present when watching a pretty average husband and wife going through a painstaking divorce. It’s hard to build momentum with cliff-hangers as bleak as “Who will get custody of the children?” or “Will they finally tell Frances’s parents at Christmas?” It’s perhaps too much to ask of a modern viewer, to become so invested in a union we’ve known in sickness but never in health.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.