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HBO’s Divorce is a darkly comic look at awful people being awful to each other

Sarah Jessica Parker’s new show might make you laugh. It might send you screaming for the hills.

Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker are getting a divorce on Divorce. (Well, their characters are.)
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Divorce is full of characters who are awful to each other. They’re awful to everyone around them. They’re even awful to themselves, fixating on their own weaknesses and living well beyond their means.



If that makes HBO’s new comedy — which reunites the network with Sarah Jessica Parker, star of its classic Sex and the City — sound like a tough one to watch, well, that’s more or less accurate. I’ve seen six episodes so far, and I’d have a hard time recommending it to viewers who might want a counterpart to the hopeful romanticism of Parker’s earlier series. Or, you know, just a TV show where the characters aren’t such jerks.

But Divorce, for those who are willing to gut it out, proves surprisingly durable, getting a little deeper and more thoughtful with every episode. It features a surprising number of darkly inspired laughs, thanks to creator Sharon Horgan (who also co-created Amazon’s much more traditionally amusing Catastrophe).

It’s the mirror image of Sex and the City, sure, showing what happens once happily ever after loses its luster. But it also proves a surprising companion to the network’s summer series Vice Principals, about the weird intersection of economic anxieties, relationship struggles, and white-hot rage. Divorce, too, is about people who start on one course of action and keep pushing themselves into more and more horrible territory.

Maybe HBO needs to change its slogan to "Awful people are funny, too."

The characters in Divorce are viscerally unlikable — but that’s the point

As Frances, Sarah Jessica Parker gets to be incredibly unlikable sometimes.

When Divorce begins, Parker’s character, Frances, has a major revelation: She no longer loves her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church). She wants a divorce. She tells him, and he seems baffled and more than a little hurt.

But this request doesn’t come out of nowhere. Frances has been cheating on Robert with a different man (played with amusing pomposity by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) for several months.

And though Robert didn’t have a physical affair of his own, he’s been mostly checked out of the relationship for even longer. He even grew a mustache Frances hates, something she points to constantly as evidence of his lack of caring.

The show has more than a little in common with some of the darker divorce movie comedies of the 1980s. (It primarily reminded me of 1989’s The War of the Roses, in which Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner essentially each try to trick the other into initiating divorce proceedings.)

As Divorce begins, Frances and Robert have a chilly but still cordial marriage — one that could be dissolved easily enough if both parties were willing to cooperate. But, of course, the deeper into that dissolution they get, the more all involved realize how quickly cordiality curdles, how little love was left to begin with.

"A couple gets a divorce" isn’t really a premise for a TV show, but it’s impressive how well Horgan (and showrunner Paul Simms, the guy behind Newsradio, a.k.a. the best sitcom of the 1990s) keep escalating the stakes. Maybe Frances and Robert can try counseling. Or mediation. Or they’ll both hire lawyers. Or they’ll both hire really good lawyers, who will bleed them dry but ensure neither of them gets everything.

And all along the way, you get the constant sense that Frances and Robert don’t really want to screw each other over. They might not want to be married anymore, but they also don’t need all of the vituperative ceremony. It’s as if Divorce is dissecting the flip side of all of those gigantic weddings everywhere else on TV. Call it the divorce industrial complex.

To enjoy this show, you have to enjoy people hating on each other — and your mileage may vary

Thomas Haden Church plays Robert in Divorce.

I put off watching Divorce because a lot of people whose opinions I trust absolutely hated it. And it’s easy to see why. Particularly once he learns of Frances’s affair, Robert is positively seething at his wife, and there are few actors who can make over-the-top anger as uncomfortable to watch (or as funny) as Church.

Divorce is very much going to be an acquired taste. Indeed, there were long stretches during the first six episodes where I wondered why I was still watching. The direction of the series is almost clinical, pinning down these awful people in their lush, overdecorated environments, watching as the shadows close in while they doom themselves to simultaneous relationship and economic ruin.

But I also think Divorce has something interesting to say about the marriages of people who stay together not for love, or for the kids, but for their money. The series opens with an absolutely lacerating birthday toast from one of Robert and Frances’s friends, played by Tracy Letts. He’s attempting to tell his wife (Molly Shannon) just why he loves her so much, but it comes out, instead, as a series of "joking" insults. Later, she pulls a gun on him.

It’s the kind of wild comedic scenario that Horgan frequently works into her TV series, and she resolves it unexpectedly, in a way I won’t spoil here. But what’s really impressive about it the way it makes Letts and Shannon’s characters seem as dedicated to their crazy marriage as Robert and Frances ultimately aren’t.

And the deeper the series goes, the more you realize that there’s a good reason for this: Robert and Frances’s divorce just gets more and more expensive, with every new lawyer and every new hurdle added to the process.

The two weren’t happy together, but they also didn’t hate each other — at least until right now. The irony of reaching for personal happiness is that doing so destroys so many other things in their lives, the things that made them comfortable.

Comfort breeds laziness and sloth, of course, and thus becomes its own kind of misery. But at least you know where you stand, you know where you’re going to sleep at night, and you don’t have to worry about going bankrupt just to find something else.

Robert and Frances still have enough in common that you want to see them just split things down the middle and go their separate ways. But they each have just enough to prove, and you know they never will. Is that the foundation of a comedy? I don’t know, but I laughed, if only to keep down the bile.

Divorce debuts Sunday, October 9, at 10 pm Eastern on HBO. The first episode is available to watch on HBO Now.