Commentary

The Catastrophe Of Divorce -- And Other Post-Election Fixations

It’s post-election season, so I’m saying “Sayonara,” and off with the talking heads of CNN. With its smug, idle chatterers, MSNBC didn’t exactly do me any favors, either.

Instead, I’m in search of my new content happy place, where I can stream and binge in a gentler, kinder, more carefree fictional universe.

So why not start with  “Divorce”?

Yep, this is the story of a divorcing couple living in the snow-covered suburb of Pelham, New York that HBO just picked up for a second season.

It had better luck than “Vinyl” because it marks the virgin return of Sarah Jessica Parker (beloved, of course, as Carrie on “Sex and the City”) to the small screen.

And while, in the intervening years, some of us have had to forgo the Cosmos, we all still need shoes -- or as in the case here, Muk Luks or perhaps hobnail boots. The point here seems to be to make SJP’s character, Frances, as unlike Carrie as possible.

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While Carrie was the warm, energetic heart of SATC, Frances is cold, hard-to-know, and stuck. (I couldn’t get a handle on her wardrobe, either. Mid-calf-length dresses, clear hose, and high heels? I guess it’s to blur the bitchin', Hollywood-skinny bod.)

Speaking of stuck, Robert, the man she’s divorcing after 15 or so years of marriage, played by the otherwise exceedingly lovable actor Thomas Haden Church as an unplaceable lumbering jerk, is a guy obsessed with his bodily functions and toileting, um, arts. (Or is that sciences?)

They are as unlikely a pair as can be, have zero chemistry, and it’s hard to understand why they are together. Still, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in literary deconstruction to realize that their marriage is in the crapper: the opening scene of the pilot, written by Sharon Horgan (more on her later) shows Frances in her master bathroom, gently dabbing skin cream on her (non) problem eye area.

As she studies herself in the mirror (duh!) it’s the only time we get to see SJP’s exquisite, delicate bone strucha, and it’s a shock.  That’s when her galumphing, soon-to-be ex appears, offering her a coffee can full of aromatic stuff. “I was forced to take a shit in the coffee can in the garage,” he says.  

That’s not exactly “Madame Bovary”-level dialogue, but it shows similar character development. Robert is plodding and clumsy, just like the solid, if boring, doctor whom Emma Bovary marries and then cheats on. It turns out that the artistic guy that Frances is having an affair with is a contemptible dud, too.

The thing about the show (and I do think it gets better in the later episodes) is that it seems really stilted and at times empty and boring, but there are tons of literary and film allusions — everything from Woody Allen’s “Interiors” to “The Ice Storm” to “The Sopranos,” (especially Carmela’s divorce scene), “War of the Roses” to “Dr. Zhivago,” particularly the snow part.

As a literary symbol, snow generally means death and war. And for all the white stuff here, Pelham could be Siberia.

More on symbolism: Apparently, the hubs had to go to the coffee can because he’d been pounding on the door to get in from the garage, because he needed the bathroom, and NO ONE HEARD HIM!  

The house is indeed annoyingly huge, and as is relatable, also accommodates two kids who are loyal members of the earpod nation.

Still, here’s another plot point that doesn’t make sense: He’s in the construction business. Surely he could have added a tiny bathroom, (or with his bowel obsession, an outhouse) to his setup in the garage. But that wouldn’t have underscored that the poor guy expresses his emotions through his gastrointestinal tract. (He vomits when he hears she wants a divorce.) When he finally leaves for good, he first ducks into the downstairs bathroom before he goes, asking her to go upstairs, lest her last memory of him be of his toilet water aroma, so to speak.

Other than through his problem innards, Robert is represented mostly by his enormous, Mark Twain-type moustache, which precedes him into every room. His wife later describes it as a horrible brush that is “always damp.” Odd, indeed.

Neither character is traditionally “likable” — but I hate that word when it comes to women. TV is filled with antihero men. What I do like is that our affection for the characters ping-pongs back and forth, the way it would in real life, and at least Robert occasionally shows tender mercies.

I also like that the series sends up the whole divorce industry: therapists, mediators, and divorce lawyers, both sharks and the inept. (One of the funniest scenes is when Robert at first hires a cheapo lawyer who normally does wills, and works out of his suburban house. He shares a timer with his wife. When his wife is around, he has to have a meeting in Robert’s car. )

Energy-wise, the first episode is saved by Molly Shannon, of “SNL” fame, who explodes on the scene playing Frances’ unbearably rich friend (who lives in a glass house, and throws stone, or stoners — or as in her case, fires bullets.) She seems to be playing a mix of her “SNL” Liza Minnelli character, and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

What was interesting to me about this scene is that I thought contemporary couples didn’t have time anymore to throw lavish dinner parties and get hugely drunk and curse and shoot at each other, but go know.  

I realize that so far, I’ve managed to cover only a tiny fraction of the series (there will be 10 episodes this season, and we’re up to eight.) But you might be reading this on your phone, so I have to stop.

When I surveyed my FB friends about the show, it was almost universally disliked for being weird, stilted, and depressing. There is a tone problem — it goes from dark to darker to insanely dark, and then comically insane at times.

Sharon Horgan, the writer and co-star of “Catastrophe,” wrote the pilot, and after that the “dramedy” was written by committee; the showrunner comes from “Girls. “

While I did develop some commitment issues with “Divorce,” I’m going to continue watching until the end.  

But I’ll always be grateful to “Divorce” for being my gateway drug to “Catastrophe,” Horgan’s other show, on Amazon, which is also about a feuding married couple. That one is an unquestionable knockout: thoughtful, funny, filthy, surprising, smart, charming and human. You’ll want to zip right through it. Now I’m up to Season 2, where there is suddenly trouble in Paradise.

I’ll know it’s getting really bad if there is a sudden snow alert.

13 comments about "The Catastrophe Of Divorce -- And Other Post-Election Fixations".
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  1. Joshua Chasin from comScore, November 18, 2016 at 4:35 p.m.

    One of my problems with this show is that it seems like SJP is in a drama, and everyone else is in a sitcom. 

  2. risë birnbaum from zcomm, November 18, 2016 at 4:54 p.m.

    on the money!

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 18, 2016 at 5:06 p.m.

    If I get through the rest of the series I may never catch up on, it will go on my list.

  4. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, November 18, 2016 at 5:12 p.m.

    You make it sound freaking awful.  Thanks for saving me time I'd otherwise never get back and can better use watching something British.

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, November 18, 2016 at 5:15 p.m.

    Claudia-- It's really not freaking awful. There are some funny parts. But it's definitely painful, as is divorce!

  6. George Parker from Parker Consultants, November 18, 2016 at 5:40 p.m.

    Barbara... As an ex Mad Man from the sixtes on, I've tried everything, and I mean everything. That's why I have the gnarly picture in the attic. But... I've never been divorced. Married to the same woman for sixty years. Do you think it's too late to dump her? You know I value your advice, so if I do as you sugest, and if it works out badly, I can blame you.
    Cheers/George

  7. AC Winters from ACWintersEsq, November 18, 2016 at 6:51 p.m.

    The one thing your FB crew seemed to have in common (myself included) was despite disliking it so much, we are continuing to watch. I can't put my finger on why. Maybe I am hoping the mood will suddenly lift and SJP's talent will be allowed to shine. We could all use a little hope now. 

  8. Nanci Ross from MediaTechnology LLC , November 18, 2016 at 8:21 p.m.

    OMG...so completely with you on "Catastrophe "...binging at it's best. When I think about the fireworks if my own divorce, this one lacks fire, passion, fury, revenge, righteousness...all the elements of good TV. I'm plodding through it because I'm hoping for lighting to strike...otherwise I'm back to The Affair which is at least more intriguing on a psychological level. As usual, you are spot-on!

  9. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, November 18, 2016 at 8:23 p.m.

    George Parker-- all I can say is that your wife is a SAINT.

  10. Neilan Tyree from The Propeller Group, November 19, 2016 at 7:58 a.m.

    I'm definitely more than a bit puzzled by the show. I'd initially been delighted to see such terrific actors return to the small screen and was certainly curious about it. I missed its premiere and...the rest. But after reading this? I think I'll retain my VERY high regard for both lead actors and...wait to see what they do next.

    Hoo boy.  Your very choice samples were...quite VIVID. I'll just say that it doesn't seem quite my cup of coffee.

    (But your column remains an absolute favorite!)

  11. George Parker from Parker Consultants replied, November 19, 2016 at 8:30 a.m.

    Barbara... Every morning I tell here she's the luckiest woman in the world. Then she hits me. It's a mutually satisfacory arrangement!
    Cheers/George

  12. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 21, 2016 at 11:16 a.m.

    Watched it this weekend. There is value to this show if it goes to show that there lives do change. That lovely large house is history and debt showers them. It happens all the time and so far, he is in some financial trouble and she thinks there is money in a local gallery in a high turn over location, and giving up her paying position. She screwed up royally and she will be the one who pays the most. She will get a lot of nothing from a business that is in debt. 

  13. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future, November 21, 2016 at 3:49 p.m.

    I am generally an optimistic and forgiving TV watcher but although I like Divorce, the show not the legal interpretation, I don't think it has much of a chance of surviving without any likable characters.  Do you? Compared to The Sopanos i felt more concern for a character like Tony Soprano than I do for SJP's character Frances and he is a mass killer, drug dealer and wife beater!



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