HBO’s ‘Divorce’ Traps Us in the Middle of a Bitter Feud


Frances and Robert Dufresne hate each other; got it? Good. Welcome to Divorce, a caustic new HBO comedy from Catastrophe co-creator and star Sharon Horgan. Set in the casually wealthy enclave of Westchester County, Divorce tracks the escalating horror of Frances and Robert’s separation with a realistic lack of sentimentality. In the opening scene of the pilot, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) is peering intently into the bathroom mirror when her husband interrupts to ask if she heard him knocking earlier. “I was forced to take a shit in this coffee can in the garage,” Robert (Thomas Haden Church) says. “Just wanted you to know.” Frances doesn’t look up. “Ok,” she says. When he walks away, she flips him the bird.

Catastrophe, a British comedy available on Amazon Prime in the U.S., follows a couple through the beginning of their relationship, from what they assumed would be a one-night-stand through the birth of their first and then second child. Divorce begins at the end, which perhaps accounts for the lack of Catastrophe’s warmth and shaggy-dog appeal. Divorce is nothing if not messy, and yet this vision of domestic disarray feels coldly clinical, as if afraid to knock a strand of Parker’s perfectly coiffed hair out of place.

A mutual friend’s 50th birthday party incubates Robert and Frances’s eventual separation. After birthday girl Diane (Molly Shannon) gets sloshed and aims a gun at her husband, Nick (Tracy Letts), Frances wonders aloud, “How do you go from eight years of happy marriage to wanting to blow someone’s head off? What if the same thing happens to us?”

Frances, we later learn, is having an affair with a Columbia professor named Julian, played with much-needed charm by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. When Robert finds out, it’s on. “I’m gonna make your children hate you,” he snarls, locking Frances out of the house.

Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker are completely believable as a couple in hate, but there’s not much there to indicate what they might have seen in each other once upon a time. Five episodes in, Frances is the more fully-drawn character, but Robert gets all the good lines — Church is such a magnetic presence, he unfairly makes Robert more appealing than Frances, who mostly chides and cajoles. (For all her charms, Parker isn’t the warmest actress; that’s what made her such a perfect choice for Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who was, rather pointedly, not the warmest character.) “You’re Jesse James and I get to be Sandra Bullock!” Robert yells when he first discovers Frances’s affair. When he and Frances visit a mediator, attempting to keep the split civil, he merrily tells the woman, “It’s like the first day of divorce school. I want to be a good student.”

Church has a wonderfully booming, angry-whiny voice that perfectly suits the role of cuckold. I like his ne’er-do-well shtick (where my Ned and Stacey fans at?!), and the way he enunciates every word as if whatever he’s saying is the most obvious thing in the world. But I quickly grew tired of watching him unleash his fury on a series of random, unsuspecting shmucks. When Robert, a contractor, drops in on an open house to loudly talk up the granite countertops, the real estate agent asks him to leave. His response: “If I wanted my balls crushed and stuffed up my ass I’d stay at home.” Har-de-har.

Divorce is best when it lets us see Robert and Frances from other characters’ perspectives. In the fourth episode — the best of the five I’ve seen — the couple’s two children watch their parents argue from the backseat of the car; the kids can’t hear what they’re saying, but their body language speaks volumes. When Frances turns and walks back to the car, her face perks up with an exaggerated grin. The kids see right through it. The show could also use more of the hilarious Jemaine Clement, whose presence is a blast of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy series.

A lot of talented writers are credited on Divorce, including Horgan herself, Cindy Chupak, Tom Scharpling, and Paul Simms. And yet so much of the dialogue and situations in these first five episodes feel all too familiar: The argument with a couples therapist about whether or not an “emotional affair” counts as infidelity; bougie party chatter about an ex-husband’s new, young wife; a fist-fight between middle-aged men at a gallery opening.

Some of this rings true, however shopworn — the issues that lead to any separation are probably not as distinct as your average couple would like to admit. But Frances and Robert’s problems are so vaguely outlined that it’s hard to get a sense of what exactly has made their marriage unbearable, or why they stuck it out as long as they did. By the end of the fifth episode, I felt like one of their children caught in the middle of yet another bitter argument. Divorce already, and leave us out of it.

Divorce airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.