When I talked to Stephen Falk in August in advance of the new season of his excellent dark comedy “You’re the Worst,” we found ourselves talking about the nature of contemporary comedy.
“I do feel whatever we’re putting up on screen or on stage should be at its best a heightened version of reality, not reality,” Falk told me. “For my tastes as a viewer, I noticed that a lot of shows, particularly comedy shows, seem to forget that. One often feels like they’re watching something that feels very believable, but that may not be very interesting at the end of the day, or that may not add that much to the conversation because it’s just a reflection of life.”
I found myself thinking about my conversation with Falk over and over again as I watched the first six episodes of “Divorce,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s much-heralded return to HBO. The show follows Parker’s character, an executive recruiter and aspiring gallery-owner named Frances, and her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church), an overextended real-estate developer, as they decide to split. “Divorce” is a half-hour show, but it’s not particularly funny. And it’s ultimately not very interesting about the particular slice of life it reflects.
Part of the problem with “Divorce” is that the series introduces Frances and Robert at the moment when the compromise that has come to comprise their marriage becomes untenable. We see some flashes of why they might have liked each other once, in scenes where Robert does a good job of communicating with their children, Tom (Charlie Kilgore) and Lila (Sterling Jerins), or when Robert helps Frances tell her parents that they are separating. But for the most part, the series involves two people who are practically allergic to each other behaving with escalating cruelty.
Unkindness can be revelatory, but not without context. If Robert and Frances’ sniping at each other told us something about where their marriage went wrong, and what about their suburban existence was unsatisfying, it might be worthwhile. But the idea that people behave harshly after one of them suddenly asks for a divorce under stressful circumstances is not precisely surprising.
I don’t need my fictional characters to be likable in order to enjoy them. I wouldn’t have stuck it out through five intermittently frustrating, continually rewarding seasons of “Girls” if that was the case. But Lena Dunham’s series, which shares frequent director Jesse Peretz with “Divorce,” captures something more than acrimony and bad behavior. It’s generationally and geographically specific, and the couples on the show share real heat and real sadness: The moment when Hannah (Dunham) and her ex, Adam (Adam Driver), face off over a bassinet in a hospital nursery hit me harder than anything in three hours of “Divorce.”
Not everything about “Divorce” is terrible. After “Sex and the City,” Parker rarely got the opportunity to do the sort of dramatic acting she that so clearly had the chops for, except in the highly underrated “The Family Stone.” Watching her turn her eyes into twin wells of misery is a reminder of just how little Parker has been appreciated, and how deeply “Sex and the City” was misunderstood. Peretz gives the series, which begins in winter, a cool, quiet look that makes the volcanic emotions erupting from Frances and Robert all the more unsettling. And it’s always a pleasure to see Talia Balsam, here playing Frances’ friend Dallas, on screen.
But “Divorce” should be a caution that leaching all the fun out of a television show doesn’t automatically make a story insightful or even highly intelligent. “Westworld” hasn’t forgotten to spike its philosophizing with visual pleasures and unnerving thrills. I understand if Parker wanted to rebound from Carrie Bradshaw’s pun-bound reputation. But I don’t know if anyone’s going to fall in love with Frances while she’s falling out of love with Robert.