'Divorce' is a dark comedy that follows a suburban couple as they navigate a tumultuous and painful end to their marriage after years of growing apart. Wife and mother Frances decides to end the union after her husband Robert has an 'emotional affair' with another woman. The show breaks down the pristine facade of the nice house and upper middle income lifestyle to show what happens when the walls crumble and the fairy tale falls apart.
There are two ways to tackle a subject like divorce that hits close to home for so many of us. You can make it a serious drama (A Divorce, Blue Velvet), or you can take the route that I prefer, which is to make a dark comedy. That is the approach with The Squid and The Whale, and the same goes for HBO's Divorce, a series that leans so heavy on the comedy it sometimes forgets to focus on the drama and its subject matter.
Sarah Jessica Parker was never an actress I fully warmed up to. Many times, her characters come across as being forced and not natural. Even on Sex in The City, her breakout HBO role, she was the least interesting character on the show for me. Now, returning to her HBO roots, she stars as Frances Dufresne, a woman who has put aside her dream of opening an art gallery in order to take an advertising job so that her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church) could start his own construction business. It could be because of her resentment towards the business, or something they are leaving for a future season, but Frances has grown to absolutely loathe Robert. In fact, she has been cheating on him with the same man “Thirty-two times!!” as they will say over and over again as a recurring joke. Even though I don't quite understand what brought Frances to where she is when we first see her, I finally like Parker in her role here. She is playing a likable jerk that's usually cast as a male, but Parker pulls off most of her dry humor and smarm.
The way the divorce comes into play highlights one of the biggest weak points of the series. Frances has a group of friends, one of which is Diane (Molly Shannon). After a life or death incident occurs between Diane and her husband Nick (Tracy Letts) right in front of their eyes, Frances decides to tell Robert she has fallen completely out of love with him and wants a divorce. We never know why she chose this odd time to tell Robert, but this all happens while paramedics and police officers are literally working around them. There are a number of scenes in the show that take the comedy to an absurd place where I personally wanted a more heartfelt, dramatic explanation for why she wanted the divorce. The comedy of the circumstance cheapened the moment and, as a result, the show feels uneven at times and has trouble balancing its comedy and drama.
Divorce is most entertaining because of the way the two leads react to the circumstances they are put in week after week, and nobody has better reactions than Robert. That is mainly because of how well Thomas Haden Church nails his character and the situations he is put in just for the sake of getting the upper hand. Robert deals with the divorce by wanting to be considered “cool” again; he tries to hang out with his workers at job sites, hang out with his kids, and regain his faith in religion. Church does all of this with a kind of sincerity that really makes you believe the emotional journey he is going through. With every episode that focuses more on Robert, I am more engaged, particularly because of Church's performance, but also because I understand his reaction to the circumstances he is put in. Frances, on the other hand, has somewhat underwritten motivations that I'm sure are being saved for a later season. But for now, there is no way for me to get on her side despite Parker’s humorous performance.
There is actually a lot to like about Divorce. Its lead actors are great in their roles, and when the comedy feels natural, this can be an enjoyable thirty-minute romp. But there are times (about three or four times an episode I would say) where the situations either feel forced or like they were put there to fill its runtime. At times, it does actually undermine the drama of the series and cheapens it a bit. Lastly, Frances's backstory and motivations have been largely excised here for what I can only guess will be a series of flashbacks in later seasons. Throughout my time watching Divorce, I couldn’t escape the fact that I have seen this same type of story many times before, and done better. I had to ask myself, "who really wants to watch an entire series about this couple getting a divorce?" In the end, this is a somewhat flawed premise that is elevated by its two leads, and for anyone looking for a lighter show that isn't so heavy minded,
In the end, this is a somewhat flawed premise that is elevated by its two leads, and for anyone looking for a lighter show that isn't so heavy-minded, Divorce could, in fact, scratch that itch.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
HBO brings Divorce to Blu-ray with a standard slipcover to blue elite keepcase, which has a very appealing poster image that I have liked since the first time I saw it. All ten episodes are transferred onto two BD-50 discs inside the case along with an Ultraviolet Digital HD download code. Skippable trailers are at the beginning of both discs followed by a still image main menu.
We sit down for our couple’s therapy with HBO's Divorce, which boasts a 1080P MPEG-4 AVC encode. In all of my research, I haven't found any signs on how this was filmed, but judging by the sharpness of the transfer and the lack of grain even when we are out of focus, I think it was filmed digitally. This is a very clean and crisp transfer with striking detail work. You can see every strand of Roberts ridiculous-looking mustache, and those are the fine details that I personally look for in today's transfers.
Framed at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, they chose to go with a more washed out wintery color palette, that in my experience, usually results in a flatter image. But that isn't actually the case here, as we get large portions of the transfer that feel greatly dimensional. My one gripe is the fact that the actual cinematography feels unremarkable. Whenever you have a drama like Divorce, it is going to have a downplayed cinematography style. That's why it is so important to film a show like this about a specific place and area, kind of like the way HBO’s Big Little Lies is so much about California that it is embedded in almost every frame of the show. This was filmed, and I'm guessing, takes place in Tarrytown, New York, which has beautiful buildings and parks that would be a great setting for this material. But unfortunately it is a squandered opportunity here, and it makes the transfer slightly forgettable while still being technically competent.
Divorce hits Blu-ray with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that is more or less what you would expect from a family comedy/drama -- it's a front-heavy affair -- but surrounds do show signs of life. I always like when dramas use the score to fill the surrounds, providing a more immersive experience. Unfortunately, that doesn’t carry over into the LFE channel because my little blue light on my subwoofer was red and non-responsive for much of this series. Yes, there isn't a whole lot of bass response here but, again, that is a given for most family dramas. Everything about this mix is exactly what I expected coming into it, in the end, a lot like the series itself.
Audio Commentary with Sarah Jessica Parker - This particular audio track has been broken up into three separate episodes that I have listed below. These were actually a group of interesting little commentaries because of the fact that I never really took Sarah Jessica Parker to be the kind of actress to really delve too much into her producing rolls. But she actually does here and has a great deal of knowledge about the production and actually reveals key aspects of her character Frances's personality that isn't on the screen.
Disc One, Episode 3 with Sarah Jessica Parker, and Executive Producer Paul Simms
Disc Two, Episode 6 with Sarah Jessica Parker, Executive Producer Paul Simms, and Writer Tom Scharpling
Disc Two, Episode 7 with Sarah Jessica Parker, Executive Producer Paul Simms, and Writer Adam Resnick
There are concepts that just work better in a specific format. Take the recent superhero craze that is going on. A lot of the adaptations out there could really benefit from having a syndicated show to really flesh out those characters. I feel like Divorce has the opposite problem. This should have been a two-hour movie at the most. There is a whole lot of filler here, and most of the filler is gags rather than character beats. This makes the show feel uneven and disjointed at times. Even the reasoning for the decline of the marriage feels like it was stripped from this season, and as a result, we aren't sure why Frances has such disdain for Robert. But there is a whole lot to like here as well. The performances are great from the two leads, and even when the material lets them down they continue to be engaging characters. Some of the situational comedy is great and leads to amusing payoffs. Divorce feels like a show that we would have seen in the 80s through early 2000s. A lighthearted affair that doesn't require that much of its viewers and doesn't take itself too seriously. I could even see the filler here to be an asset to certain people who don't want to pay too close attention but still want to keep a grasp on what is going on. And if that is for you then you very well might like this. But we have entered an era of television that demands more for their viewers, and those shows are more rewarding in the long run. Unfortunately, Divorce falls a tad bit short in that regard and becomes an average show with above average performances.