October 9, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Divorce”


DIVORCE:  Sunday 10PM on HBO – In the Queue

In its opening half-hour, HBO’s DIVORCE doesn’t show much interest in the “-medy” part of “dramedy.”  The series creator is Sharon Horgan, who with Rob Delaney is also the co-creator and co-star of Amazon’s wonderful Catastrophe.  Part of what makes that show so extraordinary is the way it balances its central relationship on a knife-edge between genuine love and acrid annoyance that not infrequently becomes a more serious anger.  Watching the show, you feel as though the couple played by Horgan and Delaney could just as easily break up as live happily ever after, and the characters are equally aware of the constant risks they face.

Divorce is Catastrophe without the romance.  Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) have been married longer, with teen kids, and they’re both weary with each other.  Frances, in particular, is in the midst of a full-sale midlife crisis, complete with a lover in the person of Julian (Jemaine Clement, off-kilter as always).  A birthday party out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for family friend Diane (Molly Shannon) ends with Diane’s husband Nick (Tracy Letts) hospitalized after a cardiac arrest brought on by his wife brandishing a gun, and it makes Frances question whether she wants to go on with her marriage.  She decides to keep her life intact, but it’s too late–Robert has learned about Julian, and that will kick the story in the direction of its title.

It should be noted that Divorce is one of those shows where the series creator won’t be the showrunner (that will be TV veteran Paul Simms), and while it’s not clear whether that’s because of Horgan’s other commitments or creative issues, it means that the series going forward may be different than the pilot.  What we have so far is something with more the feel of one of John Updike’s Maple short stories than a conventional TV dramedy, a succession of little suburban moments that turn bad.  Considering that Parker’s return to HBO is Divorce‘s major selling point, it’s brave to have Frances as the darker half of the couple, guiltlessly enjoying her affair while her husband remains ignorant.  Parker is committed to playing the role without vanity, but she’s not an actress who brings a lot of shading to her roles, and with her in the lead, Divorce feels soapier than it was perhaps meant to be.

Church, at least in the short run, becomes the hero by default, not just because Robert is relatively blameless, but because he gets to be funnier and generally better company.  (It’s hard to see, though, how his Robert and Parker’s Frances could ever have been much of a couple.)  Molly Shannon handles the bulk of the comedy as Diane, and Tracy Letts is naturally comfortable in a role that basically lets him repeat his Tony-Award winning performance in the recent Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf.

Divorce is a solid piece of storytelling, handsomely shot and well paced by director Jesse Peretz.  Its tone, however, is not yet clear, and neither is whether it’s going to bring new insight to its subject matter, or if its lead character will be more than unsympathetic and unhappy.  A place midway between the feel of Catastrophe and The Affair, which is where it currently sits, may not be a tenable location.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."