In Pulling and Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan turned her filthy, profoundly funny eye to the minefields of falling in love – the awkward dates, the sex, the, er, unexpected pregnancies… Divorce sees Horgan transporting her particular brand of tragic romance to the other side of relationships (and the Atlantic), charting the marriage of well-off suburban New Yorkers Frances and Robert (Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church) as it disintegrates in a storm of deadpan humour and icy bleakness.
Those thinking the presence of Parker makes this an unofficial follow-up to Sex and the City, beware: the brittle Frances is a world apart from the glamorous, romance-seeking Carrie Bradshaw. Yet another brilliantly flawed Horgan anti-heroine, Frances is a tangle of flaws and contradictions, gamely played by Parker. A sympathetic friend and a caring, if under appreciated, mum to two teenagers, Frances is initially easy to empathise with and root for as she strives to balance a demanding career with an even more challenging home life.
But gradually Horgan and Parker peel back her layers to reveal a bitter, selfish monster who impulsively embarks on an indulgent affair with Jermaine Clement’s egotistical, granola-making artist. It’s this darker side to Frances that truly resonates; the frustrated adult who’s trying to rediscover the hopeful, adventurous person they always wanted to be but who is also struggling to come to terms with the realisation that they no longer exist.
Not that Frances is the only focus here; Church’s Robert is harder to warm to than his soon-to-be-ex wife, coming across as distant and bluntly passive-aggressive. The superb opening scene sees Robert stride up to inform Frances that he’s just defecated in a coffee tin because she was taking so long in their shared bathroom. But again we slowly come to see his softer side, one that is left vulnerable and totally blindsided when Frances blurts out that she wants a divorce in the aftermath of a friend’s disastrous 50th birthday party.
Unlike so many British comedy writers before her, Horgan’s mordant wit has more than survived the leap across the Atlantic. “How do you go from eight years of a happy marriage to wanting to blow someone’s head off?” Frances muses in the first episode. A script peppered with such caustic one-liners make this show worth the watch alone, but it’s Horgan’s brutally honest exploration of marital disharmony that marks Divorce out as a true original.
Picking up on all those tiny little moments that can turn affection into unbearable resentment – humming along to the car radio, repeating jokes instead of actually laughing at them – Divorce shows the confusing, messy reality of ‘conscious uncoupling’ and yet somehow still manages to find the laughs in life’s ridiculous horrors.
And yet, the show lacks the warmth of Pulling and Catastrophe. Whereas Sharon and Rob will engaging in blazing rows and deeply personal insults, it’s tempered by the understanding that they have a genuine affection for on another. For Frances and Robert, that spark has long since been snuffed out by the grinding monotony of married life. But while Divorce sometimes feels relentlessly bleak, more often than not it finds the exact sweet spot between edgy humour and scathing observations. Basically, it’s vintage Sharon Horgan.