Dec 13, 2016

TV Retrospective: "Divorce" - Season 1

Scene from Divorce
While many people have been paying attention to HBO's big budgeted dramas, there's been another place on the network to look out for: the comedy. With exception to Silicon Valley, 2016 wasn't a big year for the network's funny stories, which largely fell under the radar. Which is a shame because Divorce is one of their finest programs of the year. Focusing on a couple as they begin to express animosity towards each other, the 10 episodes have managed to turn the nasty separation process into a compelling, humane tale full of awkwardness, self-righteousness, and an overall exploration of what it means to be flawed in a relationship. The results were just as messy, but nevertheless exciting thanks to an expertly worded script that made it one of the best written shows of the year.
On paper, the show doesn't sound like it has much going for it. A loving couple discover that they have differences and decide to file for divorce. While most series would immediately jump to their independence, the show decides to take the long and more painful route. Over the first half of the season, the former couple decide to break the news while attending therapy and pursuing other projects. It is the natural progress of adulthood and something that would make sense in a separation. However, there is still the tie to the other person. Even as they find ways to escape their company, there is still the nasty battles and involvement of lawyers (specifically Dean Winters) who wish to find loopholes to make matters worse. 
It is a familiar story in a lot of respects. Divorce isn't anything new, though its placement as the central theme of a series seems to be. With limited exceptions, few shows have painstakingly mixed the drama of break-ups with the comedy of awkwardness that follows. There's more than two people in this equation; notably children and extended family members who they're forced to behave around. The writing is so tight that each of these moments manage to feel natural with subtle jabs at each other before creating understated attacks on each other. Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church make the show work because they each have their own sets of flaws within their ego. Neither is superior to the other, and neither really outshines the other. In a divorce scenario, it is easy to pick sides. However, the writers never really allow that without justifying reasons.
Add in a classic pop soundtrack and the show's melancholy undertone begins to feel appropriate. This is a couple who likely fell in love to these songs; danced endlessly to their magic. There's an allure of happiness that contradicts their emotional follies. It becomes especially true when applied alongside their own personal struggles; Parker as an artist, and Church as a new business owner. Neither is too successful in ways that separate their dependency on each other. However, there's still this desire to see them have a modicum of success, if just to escape the misery that they had just come from. There's outbreaks and the vulnerability of aging comes into the equation repeatedly. This isn't about who is right and who is wrong; it's about how these two will learn to live on their own.
With plenty of nuance and clever moments, Divorce is a show that feels understated for a reason. Without feeling redundant or pointless, the show reflects the mundane nature of trying to restart your life when your dream falls apart. The first season ends with neither getting too much of their goals done. However, it's in the small failures that their divorce develops a capital 'D' and the real emotions are shown. It's a character study that shows how personal frustrations can fuel relationships and inevitably break apart good things. While there's more to the character side of things to justify their divorce, it's largely a failure of self that causes them to lash out at each other. It's painful, but it's also oh so real.
What's most impressive is that for a show whose theme can easily be so painful or awkward, it never strays into too depressing or caricature. Divorce feels real in a way that turns the relationships that many take for granted into something to stop and consider. Yes, it's very funny. It's also secretly one of the best written shows of the year, choosing when to pull punches and when to allow the actors to convey deeper thought. Along with Parker and Church, this is a show that captures the realities of getting older in ways that make general TV seem false. It's beautiful, uplifting, and singular. It's something that you don't have to have been through to appreciate, either.


OVERALL RATING: 4 out of 5

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