Sarah Jessica Parker Falls Short in HBO Series 'Divorce'

And screenwriter Sharon Horgan doesn’t match the magic of her British sitcom ‘Catastrophe.’ There’s clearly emotional baggage more complex than hatred.

Sarah Jessica Parker, right, in the HBO comedy series 'Divorce.'
Craig Blankenhorn / yes

The decision by Irish writer and actress Sharon Horgan to create the series “Divorce” starring Sarah Jessica Parker, which debuted last week on HBO, seems an obvious step in the antiromantic trilogy of her career as a television creator.

Before Horgan became famous for the British sitcom “Catastrophe,” where she dealt with relationships and parenting in a daring, witty and heartrending way, she created the BBC comedy “Pulling” about three friends who celebrate the world of singledom. There, Horgan took apart fantasies about intimacy and romance.

The connection between Horgan and the megastar of “Sex and the City” is surprising because during Parker’s six years playing Carrie Bradshaw, she reveled in the romantic fantasies whose dismantling Horgan enjoys so much. But now both women aim to shatter the identification of Parker with that smash from over a decade ago.

To help viewers understand how far Parker is from Manolo Blahnik shoes, Parker begins “Divorce” in a scene sans makeup or designer clothes. Her character, Frances, looks into the bathroom mirror and examines her wrinkles. She doesn’t even glance at her angry husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church), who couldn’t get into the bathroom because she was in the shower. When she turns her back on him, she gives him the finger.

But Horgan, who in “Catastrophe” excelled in balancing comedy with drama, intimacy with distance, doesn’t meet the challenge this time. She brings with her the same refreshing frankness but doesn’t give viewers enough time to empathize with the protagonists. Nor can we learn about other aspects of their characters so that we care their lives are falling apart.

Also, Parker once again proves that she’s not a great actress. Her dominant gesture for displaying anxiety, honesty or any other significant emotion is to talk with one hand on her chest. Although she’s trying to turn her back on the days of “Sex and the City,” watching Frances fighting with her husband on “Divorce” echoes the quarrel between Carrie and Aidan immediately after they started living together.

The insults on “Divorce” are more vulgar and caustic than a fight about ruining a $300 shoe, and rather than fears of commitment there’s disgust with it. Parker’s acting in the new series is artificial, as in the quarrel with Aidan about a decade ago. There too Parker places her hand on her chest.

Dealing with divorce is depressing, but when people fall in love, live together for years and raise children together, there’s clearly emotional baggage more complex than hatred. Although Horgan tries occasionally to show sparks of intimacy or affection that have remained from the shared journey, these moments are too few and unconvincing. The humor so crucial to a relationship’s dark moments is almost nonexistent in the series, which is described as a comedy.

At the heart of “Divorce” remains a story that’s crudely staged and a relationship that's oppressive and lacking naturalness. Instead of inviting us on the roller coaster that accompanies the crumbling of the family unit, the series repels the viewers, who soon will want to flee the protagonists almost as much as the two of them want to flee each other.