Divorce: “Counseling” Season 1 Episode 3 Review

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Divorce fills in the blanks in an informative, but all together middling episode.

Thomas Haden Church is clearly this show’s ace in the hole. How do you make a series about two people ending the life they built together from being too much of a drag? You hire a top comedic actor. As the title would suggest, this week’s episode features several scenes in a therapist’s office as Frances and Robert make one last attempt to work out their issues. Marriage counseling isn’t an easy thing to go through—as indicated by the deeply unsettling waiting room scenes with the woman with a black eye—and yet these moments were some of the episode’s funniest. Church’s matter-of-fact delivery contrasts well with Sarah Jessica Parker’s exasperation, and he continually steals the show with so much as a light smirk. Even when the subject matter is about emotional affairs and 9/11, it’s impossible to keep from smiling.

Speaking of which, the subject matter, though important, is where things get a little murky. This is easily the most informative episode of Divorce so far in terms of the backstory of Robert and Frances’ marriage, but I’m not exactly sure that the series’ attempt to change the dynamic between the couple lands. We learn that Robert was having an emotional affair with one of his old friends from college, which was stopped short because of 9/11.

Though it’s interesting—and funny—to watch this story be revealed, it seems as though the show is attempting to even the playing field. Yet, it doesn’t really work. Robert never got physical with his friend, and was actually on his way to end things when 9/11 happened. Yes emotional affairs are just as bad as physical ones, but Frances still feels like “the villain” in this relationship, if there is one. Her affair was physical, and though she says it meant nothing, she also told Julian she wanted to take things to the next level with him, so there’s a chance it was emotional as well.

Still, the information we get in “Counseling” does well to explain how Robert and Frances drifted so far apart. If Robert was confiding emotionally in this other woman, it makes sense that Frances might seek affection elsewhere. Additionally, we learn that Frances is an executive recruiter, and that she took the job and moved out of the city to help Robert with his get on his feet with his contracting business. All of these tidbits are revealed in an organic way that never feels too expository. Robert and Frances loved each other, but it’s easy to see how they could build up some mutual resentment.

Because this is a show called Divorce, the counseling doesn’t end up being too effective. This straw that breaks the camel’s back turns out to be Robert telling Frances she should wait for a better time to sign the lease on her gallery. Frances is clearly done waiting for a better time, and so this leads to the final and best scene of the episode when Robert leaves the house. The sequence resonates both because of the excellent acting—Church and Parker do have excellent chemistry together—and because the simplicity of it feels very honest. Robert and Frances have reached the point of no return. Divorce might be one of the funniest shows on the subject, but it can’t escape the fact that sometimes breaking up just plain sucks. When Robert calls out Frances’ name “just to say it one last time,” it’s heartbreaking…even though he’s just politely asked her to go upstairs so he can take a dump privately.

Now that the actual divorce seems to be getting underway, I’m interested to see the direction this show goes in. Are Robert and Frances going to remain as civil as they say they’re going to be, or will something—or someone—cause their best laid plans to go awry. So far, this show has presented a funny and authentic look at a marriage that’s falling apart, and I have faith that the actual separation will be just as well-constructed. I do hope that the writers stop worrying about making Frances more likable, though. For one thing, Parker is a very likable screen presence, so anything her character does or says is automatically a little more charming. Also, screw likability. There are more than enough likable characters on TV. I want to see more real humans, even if they are total assholes. Grade: B

 

Some Other Notes:

  • I think this show could do well to further explore emotional affairs and their impact on couples. The reveal in this episode reminded me of this show’s west coast sister series, the criminally underrated Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, in which Lisa Edelstein’s character has an emotional affair that proves to be just as damaging, if not more so, than a physical one.
  • Diane’s husband Nick wakes up from his coma this week, and surprisingly he does a complete 180 and is head-over-heels for his wife. Robert interrupting their make-up session by trying to remind Nick that he almost got shot is hilarious.
  • Also very funny: Robert’s continued insistence that Julian is French.
  • Dallas is clearly not over Robert calling her a harpy, and this week calls him a “monster.” It’s weird how worked up she gets over it, like, girl, this isn’t even your divorce….

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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