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Divorce unsparingly shows the dark side of sex in suburbia

Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church (Photo: HBO)
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What if Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw had married boring old Aidan, instead of dashing Mr. Big? What if that package came with a house in the suburbs, two kids, bitter new friends, and a fairly unfortunate mustache? Sarah Jessica Parker’s return to HBO TV, Divorce, appears to offer just that kind of dark-tinged scenario for our formerly fierce heroine, now snowbound and adulterous and seemingly far from her glittery Manhattan.

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Because SJP, as much as we like her, pretty much just plays SJP again here, just as she did on her previous series. As Divorce’s Frances, her usual reactions—belly laughs with friends; pleadings with paramours; some somber, serious head-shaking—are all in play. She’s still our appealing, sympathetic heroine (albeit with a few less wisecracks), so Divorce offers a valuable turn when it’s revealed that Frances is the apparent wrongdoer in her marriage: She’s the one having a hot affair with granola-making Julian (Flight of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, perfectly cast) while her hard-working contractor husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church) holds down the domestic fort.

Speaking of perfect casting: Divorce wouldn’t work nearly as well without Parker and Haden Church playing off of each other. Even as a boring contractor talking about financing over fondue, Haden Church is pretty impossible not to like, although we get why we may not want to talk about home equity loans all the time. Frances’ and Robert’s two teenage kids are fairly nondescript so far, but undoubtedly will make this unravelling process all the more complicated. The sublime Talia Balsam glides in as Frances’ bitter friend Dallas, who’s already been through this process, as her ex has a pregnant new fling. Molly Shannon shows an uncharacteristically bitchy side as Diane, Frances’ self-centered pal who shows us just how bleak marriage can get in this premiere, as she gets so fed up with her husband that she drunkenly pulls a gun on him. Diane’s 50th birthday party that kicks off the series is like a slide show of the worst aspects of marriage, a Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with a deejay: public shaming, too much drinking, and of course, a fight that quickly whips itself into a domestic funnel cloud, with nearly tragic consequences. Again, Shannon’s likability helps sell a character that keeps pushing the party food, even as she’s carted off in handcuffs by the police, or foists her new dog off on Frances, even though she’s in a crisis of her own.

Frances and Robert ponder how a marriage gets to that point after the party shooting: How do people reach an area of so much desperation, and really, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Hatred between two people is always an emotional possibility, but when it in happens in divorce, it’s terrifying, because this emotion has become the exact polar opposite of what it started out as. Chrissie Hynde says it’s a thin line and all that, but drawing from our cliché well, does familiarity actually breed contempt? If we hate the people we spend the most time with, could it possibly be because we’ve spent the most time with them?

This first episode nicely sets up that solid state of ambivalence for Robert and Frances’ marriage. We see him trying, actually trying: devastated (to the point of vomiting) when she says she doesn’t love him anymore, attempting to give her an orgasm to bring them closer together, even accepting her paltry explanation for blowing up their lives after (unknown to him) her disastrous afternoon with Julian. Yes, he may be a bit bland, and yes, the mustache is unfortunate (it may only be a prop to try to bring down his handsomeness quotient, because Thomas Haden Church is an awfully attractive fiftysomething man without it), but we don’t really understand why Frances would jet off with Julian. Granola isn’t that exciting either. When she runs back to Robert, is it really because she’s awoken from the momentary insanity of her affair, or does she realize that she likes the stability of her life, so much that she’s no longer willing to break it wide open?

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But break it does, otherwise the show would be called something else. A few lines from Frances hint at what may be the overall, underlying message of the whole series: Marriage is fucking hard. It’s nearly impossible when you have nothing to talk about with the person you live with except for the weird sound the alarm makes, or when your partner doesn’t even respect you enough to let you use the bathroom. Frances seems sincere in her effort to try to treat Robert differently so that they can just start liking each other again, even if they have to split up to get there.

Only an actor like Haden Church could sell the combination of menace and humor that ends the episode, just when we think that Frances is in the clear, and our marriage hurdle will come from somewhere else. He locks her out of the house, and drops the mic (phone), and Sarah Jessica Parker is as we’ve so often seen her before: dumbfounded, at loose ends—but still with enough reliance that we remain confident she’ll get through. At least through the next nine episodes.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome to the world of Divorce weekly reviews! I am trying really hard not to sneak ahead on the screeners, but this show is so addictive, it’s been difficult.
  • While Frances is no Carrie Bradshaw, fashion-wise, she’s not exactly a slouch, either. And she has an exceptionally nice collection of coats.
  • Molly Shannon’s dismissal of her husband’s possible stress over “whatever he does at work” was genius.
  • I’m taking Robert’s vomiting reaction as a nod to Jill Clayburgh’s similar one in the ’70s movie An Unmarried Woman, when her husband tells her he wants out.
  • As with this show’s kind-of West Coast counterpart, Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce, if your life has to fall apart, at least it’s in the midst of some really gorgeous real estate.
  • At the TCAs this summer, the Divorce panel was listed as TBD, so the big question buzzing around the ballroom that morning was whether Sarah Jessica Parker would show up. She did, and looked amazing. Haden Church had to field some mustache questions.
  • One of my favorite parts of the show is its excellent use of some vintage rock: The Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke,” as Frances rides the train home after realizing Julian is an assbite, or Supertramp’s “Just Another Nervous Wreck” to close out the episode, a song I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard in decades, and I forgot how much I liked it.
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