There’s a moment on the HBO comedy Divorce when the splitting spouses at the show’s center must perform a heartbreaking rite in their conscious uncoupling: telling their children. Frances, played by Emmy-winning Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City, is an aspiring gallery owner. Robert, played by Sideways Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church, is a house flipper with a questionable mustache. They are ending their rocky 17-year union for two reasons, one wacky, one not. The wacky? Watching one unhappily married friend (Molly Shannon) nearly murder her equally unhappy husband (Tracy Letts). This is a fate Frances and Robert wish to avoid. The non-wacky? Robert caught Frances having an affair. Breaking the news to the kids should be shattering. Instead, they shrug. No biggie.
That moment made me laugh because it spoke for how I felt about the whole damn show. Divorce makes you feel almost nothing. It’s a shallow bore, and not even the flailing efforts of its stars make it interesting. The show comes from Sharon Horgan, the co-creator and star of the fantastic British import Catastrophe, a series whose success illuminates the flaws of Divorce. There, two strangers conceive a child during a torrid fling and rashly decide to marry. We get to know them as they grow into their relationship.
Divorce rushes into tracking the fallout of its “catastrophe,” too. We meet suburban Frances and Robert at peak meltdown. The dark comedy of that previously mentioned murder attempt triggers Frances to ask for a divorce, and by the end of the premiere, after Robert learns of her sexcapades with a tomcat prof (scene-stealing Jemaine Clement), he petulantly gives it to her. The next episodes track their kiss-off. Counseling. Mediation. Negotiating holidays. Give Horgan points for difficulty. How to make us invest in characters when we find them at their worst? How to make something so sad really entertaining?
RELATED: Your Burning Westworld Questions Answered
After six episodes, I’m still waiting on Horgan & Co. to meet the challenge of their ambition. The adultery angle turns Robert and Frances into two-note characters. He feels emasculated. She feels ashamed. He’s vengeful. She wants to move on. The show lightly interrogates the old chestnut that infidelity is a symptom of other problems, but it has no imagination for the marriage itself, and no deep insights into divorce, either. The actors are on different pages. Parker plays Frances as mournful and mostly humorless. Church plays Robert as detached and disoriented, but he goes for laughs a bit too hard. The other adults are far more fun because they’re all caricatures of middle-aged sourness. The result is tonal quagmire.
While watching the series, I thought a lot about my divorced friends and felt greater empathy for them. I suspect the show might find itself once it gets past the divorce and focuses on Frances and Robert rebooting their lives, or perhaps reconciling. For now, Divorce doesn’t work. It’s fitfully successful at capturing the pain of a broken marriage, but it’s more frequently painful for simply being broken. C+