Divorce: “Pilot” Series Premiere Review

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Sarah Jessica Parker’s return to HBO is way more than just Carrie Bradshaw all grown up.

“I want to save my life while I still care about it!”

So declares Parker’s character Frances while trying to tell her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church) that she wants to split up. The statement comes on the heels of her friend Diane’s (Molly Shannon) disastrous 50th birthday party, which culminates in a gun shot and a heart attack.

It’s a whirlwind of an opening, and one that immediately sets a distinctive tone for the show. SJP might be playing another plucky everywoman, but this isn’t Sex and the City: Part Two, and she’s way more than just Carrie Bradshaw all grown up and moved to the suburbs. Divorce is smart, darkly funny, and truly something all its own.

Director Jesse Peretz films the birthday blowout with a precise amount of escalation, using the space of Diane and her husband’s home to its advantage. We watch from both Frances’ and Robert’s perspective as they witness a typical marital spat flow from one room to the next, until it eventually becomes very atypical when Diane pulls out a gun. The scene is marriage at its absolute worst, and it’s the type of experience that should bring other couples together in a “well thank god that’s not us” sort of way. For Frances and Robert, however, it only serves to pull them apart.

One of the most interesting things about the premiere is the mid-episode reveal that it’s Frances who’s technically the wrongdoer in the relationship. She’s been having an affair Julian, a granola-making hipster played perfectly by Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement. Having your lead character be introduced through such morally grey actions in the first episode is a bold choice to make, and one that will certainly make Frances and Robert’s undoing much more nuanced and engrossing.

Part of the reason that Frances is still a character to root for despite her cheating is Parker’s endearing performance. Her exasperation at her stalled marriage and life is excellently displayed through her yearning line delivery and expressive eyes. Her chemistry with Church is exciting and very lived-in, making each of their arguments and make-up talks feel very authentic.

Divorce was created by Sharon Horgan, and anyone who’s was also a fan of her previous series Catastrophe will be delighted to know that her dark sense of humor has been carried over to this show. Despite the somber subject matter, the pilot episode has several winning zingers and laugh-out-loud moments—particularly whenever Shannon’s self-obsessed Diane is onscreen.

Horgan’s script is also terrifically picks apart the everyday banality of a failing relationship. Frances’ complaint about not being able to watch TV with her husband because he “just repeats the jokes that were said instead of laughing,” or her comment that the only conversation the two of them have anymore is about whether or not the alarm is broken are both nice little nuggets that do well to exemplify how much these two are just treading water.

The episode’s main point seems to be just how much work a marriage can be, and how difficult the decision is to decide to fully call it quits. There’s a brief scene between Frances and her friend Dallas (Talia Balsam) where she warns her about the perils of actually going through with a divorce. Dallas is recently separated and her ex is now in a new relationship with a baby on the way. Between this and Diane’s blind rage at her husband, Frances is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to seeking advice from friends.

Unfortunately for Frances, her decision ends up being made for her when Robert finds Julian’s number on her phone and decides to call it. He changes the locks on the house and tells his wife that he’s going to make their children hate her. So much for keeping things civil.

When compared to some of HBO’s other recent premieres, Divorce feels fairly low concept, so its impressive how much information we’re able to get from the pilot. Frances and Robert already feel very fleshed out, and I’m excited to see where this new journey takes them—even if it doesn’t look like it will end in a happily ever after. Grade: A-


Some Other Notes:

  • I’m not sure which was better: Diane drunkenly telling her party guests to stay and enjoy food as she’s being carted away in handcuffs, or her nonchalant dismissal of her husband’s stress over “whatever he does at work” the following day. Molly Shannon is fantastic in this role and I have a feeling she’s going to become my favorite part of this show.
  • Church’s matter-of-fact delivery throughout the whole episode is great, but it’s especially hilarious when he tells his wife he’s going to give her an orgasm.
  • Frances and Robert’s children aren’t seen that much during the pilot, but I’m very interested in the role they’ll play in whatever sort of separation happens. Children always make everything more complicated.
  • “You’re Jesse James and I’m Sandra Bullock! I get to rise from the ashes and win an Academy Award!”


By Mike Papirmeister

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