Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 23, 2017)
More than a decade after Sex and the City’e run ended, Sarah Jessica Parker returns to cable TV with a new series called Divorce. This two-Blu-ray provides all 10 first season episodes, and the plot synopses come straight from the Blu-ray’s menus.
Pilot: “Suburban couple Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) consider the state of their marriage after a drama-filled birthday party for their friend Diane (Molly Shannon).”
The introductory episode sets the tone for a TV series, and that makes “Pilot” an intriguing declaration of intent. While the show doesn’t veer into total farce, it does go down a path that follows broad/black comedy, and that surprises me, as I guess I expected something more focused on a serious vibe.
Still, that doesn’t make “Pilot” a bad launch, and it spends enough time in the “dramatic world” to give it some heft. I’m not sure how well it can maintain the tone, so we’ll see where matters go.
Next Day: “After balking at signing a lease for her dream gallery, Frances rushes to intercept Robert before he tells the kids he wants a divorce.”
“Day” continues the tone of the “Pilot”, and I continue to wonder how good this choice may be. Granted, I’m happy Divorce doesn’t embrace a super-somber take on the material, but its flights of comedy can seem awkward at times. This results in another moderately amusing but semi-spotty episode.
Counseling: “Robert and Frances undergo couples therapy before Frances arrives at an epiphany.”
Is it just me or does Frances seem more like a character who should be played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus? Of course, she has her own HBO series to take up her time, but Frances feels like a role right up Louis-Dreyfus’s alley.
Not that Parker does poorly in the part, but she doesn’t quite feel right when it comes to Frances’s quirkier moments, especially as these contrast with the manner in which Church makes Robert a semi-cartoony dolt. The two approaches don’t battle each other, but they don’t mesh as well as I’d like.
Mediation: “Frances and Robert meet with a mediator. Frances gets emotional at work. Robert despairs over finances.”
With “Mediation”, we get more of the series’ same old. Divorce straddles comedy and drama, with a continued emphasis on the former. As usual, some of this works, but I can’t claim “Mediation” brings it all together in a consistently compelling manner.
Gustav: “Frances discovers Robert has hired a lawyer, and responds in kind. Frances looks to connect with an influential artist. Robert pitches Nick (Tracy Letts) and ‘cant-miss’ investment opportunity.”
With “Gustav”, Divorce shows more promise, largely due to the introduction of Geoffrey Owens as Robert’s bargain-basement lawyer. Sure, it’s not the world’s most creative character choice, but it’s funny, and Owens adds life to the series. Other parts of the show offer better comedy than usual, so I’m hopeful the second half of Season One will continue this upswing.
Christmas: “Frances and Robert try to set their differences aside and make their annual Christmas trip to her parents’ house with the kids.”
After the step up in quality from “Gustav”, we go back to the status quo with the less involving “Christmas”. The episode goes for a more dramatic vibe than usual, and it doesn’t quite work. “Christmas” moves along the overall narrative but creates a modest disappointment after the relative highs of the prior episode.
Weekend Plans: “Frances discovers that Robert has misled her about their financial situation. Robert tries to re-enter the dating pool.”
While I’ve never been married – much less divorced – I can relate to the pain of dating, so I hoped “Plans” would do more to explore that, especially given Robert’s rustiness. However, it largely avoids the topic and focuses on the usual battle between the leads. Some of this works fine – mainly when we see their lawyers – but the show lacks a lot of zing.
Church: “Frances pursues a new job and is troubled that Robert seems to be so happy despite the divorce.”
Divorce occasionally branches to delve into the lives of secondary characters, which sounds good on the surface but it doesn’t work all that well. Even with those dalliances, the roles remain poorly-developed, so attempts to focus on them tend to feel lackluster.
Despite those shifts of focus, “Church” mostly concentrates on the leads, and those parts work fine. I still think Parker feels a little wrong for the character, as she just can’t pull off the part’s more comedic bent all that well.
Another Party: “Frances takes issue with a lawyer’s insinuations of negligence. Dallas (Talia Balsam) makes a connection at Diane and Nick’s latest party.”
While I’m sad incompetent lawyer Gerald went bye-bye quickly, his replacement adds humor to the show. Dean Winters perfected the self-absorbed d-bag on 30 Rock, so his sleazy turn as Robert’s new attorney gives the series extra edge, especially the way he mixes with Balsam’s Dallas.
I know I disliked the occasional focus on secondary characters earlier, but that was before Winters became a more active part of the proceedings. The rest of “Party” meanders somewhat, but at least Winters and Balsam elevate it.
Détente: “Tensions ease between Frances and Robert but a move by Frances’s new lawyer sends Robert on a vengeful path.”
Season One comes to a close with an episode that ups the ante, and I guess that’s a good thing. Stories about divorce usually concentrate on the ugly side of matters, which becomes entertaining but seems hard to sustain over a long TV series such as this – the model works better for movies.
We’ll have to wait and see how well Season Two goes, but “Détente” definitely ups the ante, and hopefully, that’s a good thing in the long run. S1 could seem tentative and flat at times, so I’ll welcome a more dynamic feel to S2. “Détente” ends the year on a promising note that I hope pays off with the next season.