Divorce’ slowly pulls an insufferable couple apart

Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker, knives out.
Photo: HBO / Courtesy

Two stars

Divorce Sundays, 10 p.m., HBO.

HBO’s latest dramedy about the emotional problems of well-off narcissists, Divorce pits two self-absorbed, petty people against each other in a battle that neither of them deserves to win. Created by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, Divorce stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as Frances and Robert, a suburban New York couple with a nice house, two teenage kids, two fledgling businesses and plenty of money to waste on destroying each other in court. What starts out as a semi-amicable split between two people whose passion for each other has cooled slowly turns acrimonious, although not nearly enough to qualify as an over-the-top The War of the Roses-style black comedy.

Divorce doesn’t really qualify as much of anything—it’s too superficial to be emotionally affecting, too dour to be funny, too slow to be engaging. As Frances and Robert’s uncoupling proceeds at a crawl, it’s hard to have much investment in their small victories and defeats at each other’s expenses, or the impact on their two barely present teenage children (a daughter and a son). Although the show’s tone is generally lethargic and downbeat, the supporting characters can be irritatingly shrill, especially Molly Shannon as Frances’ clueless, selfish friend Diane, whose own drunken confrontation with her husband (Tracy Letts) prompts Frances to first broach the topic of divorce with Robert.

Given how slowly the divorce itself progresses, the show also struggles to find interesting subplots to fill time, and Frances and Robert’s respective efforts to pursue their new careers (she wants to open an art gallery; he plans to get rich with a ridiculous family fun center) are complete narrative dead ends. Parker and Church are both solid actors, but there’s never any sense that Frances and Robert ever had any love or passion for each other, even at some point in the past. Every time they reminisce about their former life together, it rings false.

Without any genuine emotion, Divorce gets by on the occasional funny line or offbeat character; Jemaine Clement is amusing as a buffoonish college professor, and Dean Winters shows promise as a ruthless lawyer. There just isn’t enough to set Divorce apart from other premium cable semi-comedies about whiny, upper-middle-class suburbanites, from Togetherness to Happyish to Hung. It’s obvious from the first moments that Frances and Robert need to just pull the plug on their marriage; the audience isn’t likely to hold out nearly as long as they will.

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