How HBO's Divorce narrowly escapes terminal bleakness
On the twinkle of intimacy that saves the show
I still don't know why I like Divorce — the HBO series, created by Sharon Horgan, that wraps up its first season this week — as much as I do. A dark comedy focused on the painful divorce proceedings of a well-heeled Hudson Valley couple, Frances and Robert Dufresne (Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Hayden Church), the show has all the makings of a stone cold bummer. In many ways, it is — and I am not the kind of person who, when searching for a new show to watch at the end of a long day, says "You know what? I'd really like to feel devastated." Divorce is at times a devastating show, full of the kinds of recriminations and self-deceit that are all too familiar to us from our real lives — but it's also a funny one, and, in perhaps a more sustaining way, it is kind. Its kindness, as a narrative, comes from its willingness to look unflinchingly at its characters no matter how selfish and delusional they prove themselves to be, to continually give them chances to redeem themselves, and to document their near-misses as they strive to understand some emotional reality beyond their own.
Divorce takes two lead actors known for their broad, comedic performances, and subdues them. It's hard to watch Sarah Jessica Parker in anything without seeing her as an older version of Carrie Bradshaw, the self-obsessed but undeniably winsome heroine of Sex and the City, a show Parker carried with effervescent wit and energy. In one episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw decides — after a breakup that leads her to compare herself to Katie, Barbra Streisand's spitfire heroine in The Way We Were — that "the world is made up of two types of women: the simple girls and the Katie girls. I'm a Katie girl!"
Frances, Sarah Jessica Parker's character in Divorce, is decidedly not a Katie girl. But she's not a simple girl, either: She's a woman who seems to have ignored her instincts, so completely and for so long a time, that she can voice a desire only at the moment that it overwhelms her. For Frances, and for nearly every other character in Divorce, emotion and equilibrium are mutually exclusive.
None of the characters on Divorce quite know how to talk to each other: Frances and her friends Diane (Molly Shannon) and Dallas (Talia Balsam) don't have conversations so much as overlapping monologues; in the days after Frances asks him for a divorce, Robert can't find anyone to talk to, and ends up sitting by the bedside of a friend who is in an induced coma, and telling his troubles to a warm body — until that body regains consciousness, and tells him to shut up.
The warm body, otherwise known as Nick (Tracy Letts), is Diane's husband, and the heart attack he suffered in the pilot episode — when Diane, whipped into a murderous rage, pulled a gun on him — provides the catalyst for Robert and Frances' divorce. Frances is horrified that the hatred she sees between Nick and Diane is hatred she has felt for Robert, but long repressed. It is only once they begin to separate that Robert and Frances become capable of seeing each other — and maybe even of communicating.
"I never saw one sign of it," Robert tells Frances, of an affair Frances only told him about after announcing her intentions to divorce him. "I never saw anything in your eyes. I was never suspicious of you."
"And I was never suspicious of you," Frances says, of the massive debt that was Robert's secret from her.
If there's one thing that keeps Divorce from being terminally bleak, it's not its wit or its compelling performances or its understatedly beautiful production. It's the fact that, as the series progresses and Robert and Frances continue toward divorce (though divorce itself may be as anathema to Divorce as Walter White's death from cancer was to Breaking Bad), the two characters grow more and more willing to understand each other, and less and less able to conceal the depth of their unhappiness from themselves.
Divorce provides a fascinating little companion piece to this fall's The Girl on the Train, a movie that also depicted the hidden troubles of rich white Hudson Valley residents — another group, basically, of unfulfilled suburban women in beautiful, earth-toned sweaters. The Girl on the Train identified the trouble-lurking-beneath-the-affluent-surface as one Very Bad Man. Divorce suggests that the misery of the privileged might just come from a sheer lack of intimacy; from the hunger that results when friends and lovers and romantic partners not only stop trying to communicate with each other, but lose the ability to do so.
But the last season of Divorce has also shown us a group of people who can be forced to see each other a little more clearly when faced with a crisis, a moment of rupture, an experience that rocks their sedate little world. To that end, it's a beautifully constructed show, as tightly imagined and grimly compelling as a series of linked short stories. But in the end, it also creates, in the viewer, a hunger for more stories that depict the emotionally open: Characters for whom intimacy and connection are everyday realities, accessible even beyond the timeline of a crisis.