I’ve been asking myself a lot whether HBO’s Divorce is one of those shows you won’t relate to unless you’re in your mid-40s and divorced with kids—if for everyone not in that demographic this is just a pointless parade of neurotic behaviors by provincial middle class (and middle-class-way-plus) white people as they make stupid mistake after stupid mistake. Or whether it’s something way more universal. The truth is, I am exactly the person this show was written for, and for me there’s a familiarity verging on the autobiographical (a strange thing to see myself writing, believe me), so I’m not sure how objective I can really be.
I avoided the first season for a long time specifically because, based on the trailers I saw, it looked a little too much like my life. Swap the Hudson Valley for the Oakland-side suburbs of San Francisco, sure. My pals-with-money are nowhere near as batshit as Molly Shannon’s Diane, my ex was the one who made the paycheck-of-record while I tried to raise the kids and Be a Writer, and it’s my buddy, not me personally, who’s got the bring-culture-to-the-suburbs art gallery, but the rest of Frances Dufresne’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) world is familiar to the edge of assault.
So. You’re not getting any younger. You work your ass off to make ends meet and it’s never quite enough. You’re surrounded by outrageously wealthy and oftentimes provincially minded people, though you do have friends you love, and maybe the material stuff would be less of a grind if your marriage hadn’t been on a ventilator and a feeding tube for years, but you are fortysomething and you are not ready to die. Your spouse doesn’t appear to notice whether you’re alive or not anyway, and something gives. For Frances, it’s an affair. For me it was a lot more complicated, but the disillusionment, anger, resentment, blame-shifting, loss of trust and general sense of panic that you will never feel safe again if you leave and pretty much the same if you stay? Let’s say they get that. Believing your ex would never cross that line and being blindsided over and over? Yep. Thinking you’re going to feel liberated only to discover you feel empty and regressed and that even if you don’t want your old life back, you kinda want your old life back?
Season Two opens with a little temporal distance from Season One, which ended, for those of you who missed it, with Robert (the wonderful Thomas Haden Church) committing the permanently game-changing Divorce Foul of giving Frances custody of the kids verbally and then calling the cops on her. Actually, that opener, where they’re already talking it out like normal civilized people as they sign the final papers, is one of the weaker moments of the season—at least, I would expect, to anyone who actually knows what it is like to have minor children in joint custody with someone who elects to use them as pawns. Letting tincture of time and a season hiatus do the work there was a cheap trick, in my opinion. If you have the experience or even the imagination to know how hard that one is to just get over, you will probably agree. If I am indeed in this weird little world where creator Sharon Horgan has tapped into my personal subconscious and written a show about me, then you can probably let this go.
Anyway: The season moves fast from there—a lot faster than a real divorce, which is a process that makes time crawl on its belly, bleeding heavily from multiple wounds but never quite stopping, so that you feel much older by the time it’s really time to move on. Both Robert and Frances contend with alone-ness, and with branching out into new relationships, one of which seems to be working and one of which blows up. Diane’s identity crisis is ongoing, Dallas (Talia Balsam) continues to be convincingly therapist-sketchy, though she does have the decency to back out when she realizes Robert’s new girlfriend is one of her patients. Frances discovers an artist, loses an artist, doesn’t get the response she was expecting when she attempts to pay Diane back for the money she was loaned to start the gallery, and has to make a lot of really shitty decisions where either choice will mean an equally unpleasant form of self-compromise. As Robert’s fortunes change in one direction, Frances’s invariably trend the other way, and the ups and downs are painful to watch. Adults turn into children as children struggle to become adults. Sometimes it’s horrible. And sometimes hilarious.
What’s great about this character-driven show is that even though several of the peripheral characters are pretty two-dimensional, the two primary ones are really well balanced. This is not at all a show about who’s right and who’s wrong, about good people and bad people or sane people and crazy people or people that ruin the lives of normal people and must be excised from normal people’s lives. Both Frances and Robert can be hideous. And they can both be noble. And they do both, repeatedly, on agonizing syncopated timing that leaves very little room for a peaceful minute, but that’s why the show has been and continues to be almost unpleasantly realistic.
Parker’s a certain style of cringe-comedian, and sometimes her signature moves (the awkward human-velcro goodbyes, the way she always just says one sentence too much) can get old. But underneath that layer of this character is a woman most of us can see our own reflections in: someone who wants to do the right thing, doesn’t always succeed, but genuinely wants to be a mother to her children, a friend to her friends, and a fulfilled and happy human being. She tries so damned hard it hurts to watch. By the same token, Church’s Robert is impossible not to care about, not because his wife decided she needed to move on but because he’s such a compelling combination of hapless and ultra-capable, callous and caring, really stupid and really smart. Watching him rise from the humiliations of the first season only to find himself unsure if rising up is acceptable is kind of remarkable. He’s a hugely watchable actor in general, and all his strengths are optimized in this role.
If you happen to be a divorced person, what will probably hit you hardest in both the comedy aspects and the “Ouch, stop that” aspects of this show is the memory of that feeling you had, in the beginning, when you’d finally made up your mind that the pain of ending it was better than the pain of white-knuckling your way to your (hopefully mercifully early) grave: optimism. A heady, almost euphoric conviction that yes, there’d be grief, but that on the other side of it there would be a better world, where both of you were more appropriately re-partnered and got to live some magical do-over life with a big messy blended family and an ex you once again saw as a friend; how you’d probably invite each other over for Thanksgiving and everyone at the table would laugh and laugh at how serious it all seemed back then, how it felt like you were going to die whether you tried to tough it out or tried to break the chains. Remember that feeling? Frances and Robert actually get glimpses of it. They actually both do kind things for each other, even if it means falling apart when the door closes and wondering how they ended up in such a mess.
And that’s hard to watch if you are one of the people who knows that’s a freaking fantasy, because the behaviors and traits and dynamics that broke the marriage will never change or get better. Human adults who are willing to try to become better, more expansive, more honest, more adult adult humans? They are one in a hundred thousand.
I’m a little mad at this show right now for reminding me that I used to believe in all that. In the optimistic outcome, in closure, in not oscillating forever between feeling overwhelmed and empty. These people, in spite of (because of?) their own massively neurotic personalities, and the significant amount of crazypants players in their joint and separate lives, appear to have a chance.
If you are one of the ones who doesn’t, it’s going to be hard to watch that. Stick it out, though, because the last scene of the finale is a gem. And lots of moments throughout the season are, too. I’m not sure I can call this show a comedy, personally, even though I get that it is one and even though aspects of it make me laugh.
But for some of us it’s a little too real to be funny.
Season Two of Divorce premieres Sunday, Jan. 14 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.