Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce does not belong on Bravo. The poster for it certainly does — it features the main character displaying her wedding ring while flipping off the camera; the tagline reads: “Go Find Yourself.” The show is better than the poster implies, and also better than anything you would expect from Bravo. It’s the network’s first original scripted series, a drama based on the book series by Vicki Iovine, and the first two episodes are surprisingly rich, providing a unique take on the idea of reinvention.
Lisa Edelstein (House) plays Abby McCarthy, the author of a popular self-help book and a sort of guru who doles out advice about her seemingly perfect life while harboring a secret that could ruin her career: her marriage is failing, her husband Jake (Paul Adelstein) is sleeping with a creepily young CW starlet (who their teen daughter idolizes), and Abby is on the brink of divorce. She has to play up the false happy marriage as she promotes her book, but the cracks are there, threatening to break open her life at any moment. Of course, this soon happens, in spectacular fashion. After taking a pill from her friend Lyla (Janeane Garofalo), Abby spills the beans in public at a book signing, not just revealing that her marriage is on the rocks but explicitly saying that she sometimes wishes her husband would just die because “it would be so much easier.” That’s one way to get everything out in the open.
Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce relies on the oft-told reinvention narrative, a story about Abby starting over — her marriage is over, her children are upset with her, she has possibly torpedoed her career — and being pretty clueless about where to start. It can sound clichéd (in fact, the cliché is compounded by the fact that the premise also smacks of the “woman balancing her personal life and her career” trope that we’ve seen too much of this year), but Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce takes a purposeful and novel approach to the story, placing much of the emphasis on how close Abby is with her friend group (the poster women for divorce) and how important these friendships are to helping her move on.
The series doesn’t pull punches or shy away from the very real and very honest messes that relationships can be, particularly when they are falling apart. Abby and Paul send passive-aggressive text messages across the breakfast table, alternate between engaging in serious fights and debating whether sex would help, and seek solace in other people. They understand each other so well that they know exactly what to say when they’re angry, so their fights are both devastating and pretty scary to watch.
But Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce isn’t all serious business. It can be very lighthearted at times, switching from serious conversations about divorce to scenes in which two strangers compare their breast implants from the same doctor (maybe it is a perfect show for Bravo). The brightest light in the show is Lisa Edelstein’s performance. She’s captivating from beginning to end, able to reach down deep into Abby’s character and pull out the complexities that make her real, showcasing a wealth of emotion with a few words or a head tilt. She’s positively endearing as she embarks on her first sexual encounter after her husband; Abby comes across as equal parts awkward and seductive, nervous about whether she groomed enough for this younger guy but eager to feel something — someone — new.
There are a few missteps within the first two episodes, a few underdeveloped characters (Abby’s gay brother, for one) and some unfortunate scorned-woman stereotypes, but they are few and far between, and will be easy to fix as the series goes on. The biggest obstacle for Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce will be viewers’ preconceived notions about the network it’s on — it’ll be hard for anyone to believe a good scripted show can come out of Bravo. But the episodes screened for critics are well-written and clever, and definitely worthy of a full-series commitment. The show is both funny and emotionally honest without either side undercutting the other. It’s an example of a good drama — not just for Bravo, but for television in general.