Can Sarah Jessica Parker Shake Off Carrie in HBO's New Series 'Divorce'?

Will Frances and Robert find happiness in untying the knot? A new HBO comedy series tackles the woes of holy deadlock.

Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Divorce.'
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When I heard that a TV comedy series called “Divorce” was planned, and even before I was told (again and again in the promo clips) that it would be the Big TV Comeback of Sarah Jessica Parker (the stiletto-addicted Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City”), I was reminded of a joke.

A couple who have been relatively happily married for 75 years, still on speaking terms, are being interviewed on a TV program about relationships. The host asks whether either or both of them had ever considered divorce. They exchange glances, and (here it very much depends on whether a man or a woman is telling the joke, and who is the audience, gender-wise, so I’ll play safe) both answer, eyes sparkling, almost in unison: “Divorce? Nah, never. Murder, definitely, more than once.”

Having amused myself, I did switch the set on (in Israel the show can be seen on Yes Oh or HOT Plus on Wednesdays at 22.00, roughly in tandem with the U.S. screening. It premiered on HBO on October 9). And lo, there on the screen, I heard the husband being surprised to hear from his wife – after denying having any murderous intentions toward her – that she had been on the verge of doing him in more than once. (His name is Robert, and he is played by the mustachioed, tall and somewhat wooden Thomas Haden Church.)

And as if that were not enough, in the second episode the wife, Frances (Parker is her flustered self here) is driving her car while in the background the radio plays the 1968 Bee Gees song: “I started a joke which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see that the joke was on me oh no / I started to cry which started the whole world laughing / Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me.”

Indeed, that is what happens to Frances, who realizes, after umpteen years of marriage (two teenage kids, a boy and girl, two cars, house in the suburbs) that her life lacks whatever it is she sorely misses. We once called those moments “ennui,” but nowadays we are not that pretentious. She asks her husband for a divorce. Not that there is a reason for them to divorce, we are led to believe, but she fails to come up with a good enough reason for staying together.

Robert refuses to take her seriously at first – which proves that he is indeed a man. But when he finds out that she has been actively seeking, with another male, the coital bliss he did not provide (not for lack of trying on his part), he shuts her out of their house. So in effect – she just wanted to rock the boat a bit, not sink it – the joke is on her. That is the premise, and from then on all bets are off.

Romantic notions

Once, in the good old days of drama, a comedy used to begin with a couple trying to tie the knot – or get between the sheets, whichever came first – and the writer trying to keep them apart until the happy end. In “Divorce” it’s the other way around: The couple tries to get unhooked, and the writers try to make this as impossible as can be. The “happy ending” would be that each goes his or her separate way, but that would spell the end of the series, so In other words, a comedy about getting married is about two people trying to be happier (according to their romantic notions); a comedy about getting divorced is about two people (and all their friends and relatives, too) trying to be less unhappy than they are. This, according to the same romantic notions, but based on a grim (at worst) and dreary (at best) experience of “married life,” aka “life.”

The British writer and actress Sharon Horgan made a name for herself as someone who knows how to mine TV riches out of the stuff of which normal life is made. We still can appreciate her talent and skills as a writer, show runner and star (with Rob Delaney) of a series entitled “Catastrophe,” which covers the ground between the starting line (the coupling or the wedding) and the finish line, (divorce). She is the creator of the new series, intended to be a star vehicle for Parker, whose need (on the verge of dire) is to fill bigger shoes than those designed by Manolo Blahnik on “Sex and the City.” Her down-to-earth humor is there, as is her ability to turn everyday occurrences (marital strife is very much an everyday thing – pretty much what marriages are made of to begin with) into little dramatic gems.

However, it’s not Horgan on the screen, but Sarah Jessica Parker, and her partner is not the warm Rob Delaney, but Robert, who is almost a caricature of an obtuse American male with a Neanderthal turn of mind. And that is what makes a lot of the difference. Parker is “a star” of a particular kind. Wherever she goes on screen, she is still Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City.” She’s the girl who couldn’t make up her mind about whether to get married, and many other things. As Frances – although we are told she has been married for some time – Parker lacks a certain whiff of tired experience, of having gone through the ordeal called everyday life.

Given my age (oldish) and sex (male) it’s clear that I was not the audience targeted by “Sex and the City” in its heyday (1998-2004) on TV, nor by the two movies (a third is still a threat, or possibly a treat). But as nothing human is alien to me, and females being human, I admit I have been following the sex-capades of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha, mainly in reruns. That is how I know that the path Carrie (and Horgan) are treading in “Divorce” was paved for them by Samantha. Kim Cattrall, who played Samantha, is still starring in an HBO Canada series, “Sensitive Skin,” as Davina, a disillusioned 50-ish wife trying to find out whether there is more to life than she has experienced so far, which has left her unsatisfied in more ways than one.

“Sensitive Skin” is preparing its third season, but it is much too soon to tell how many seasons it will take Frances to get a divorce (or not). In the meantime I’ll be waiting for the character of Nick (husband of Frances’ closest female friend) to snap out of the coma he fell into in episode one. That minor character is played by Tracy Letts, the much esteemed author of the renowned play (and subsequently film) “August: Osage County.” I hope he won’t be spending the entire season asleep in a hospital bed. Honestly, that interests me more than the possible end of the marital life of the would-be divorcees.