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The Reinvention of Divorce

With the help of former “Sex and the City” writers, Sarah Jessica Parker shines in the show’s second season.


The first season of Divorce, which aired on HBO in 2016, was a dark show, and not just in the metaphorical sense. The color palette of the comedy was so suffused that many times, when watching it on my laptop, I was moved to turn up my screen brightness only to find that it was already at maximum level. The gloom hanging around the series was there for a reason; it was as if intended to diminish Sarah Jessica Parker’s plucky brightness, a planned dourness that would, once and for all, mark a permanent split between the actress and her former HBO alter-ego, Carrie Bradshaw. Where Carrie was all pink tutus and giant hothouse flower pins, Frances Dufresne, Parker’s staunch character on Divorce, wore the modest, minimalist uniform of a wealthy mom: long dresses in cornflower blue and maroon, grey stockings, and tidy ankle boots in lieu of bedazzled stilettos.

When Divorce premiered, Parker had not been on HBO in twelve years, and yet, as she admitted in a New York Times profile, fans still saw her—and may forever see her—as synonymous with Bradshaw, clomping her way across Manhattan cobblestones with a shellac of wit and self-regard. “But it was definitely acting,” she told The Times. “I never lived any of those experiences in my own life. I’m not Carrie.” Divorce may have been a calculated career move to make this distinction clear. And it did work: Frances is suburban in ways that would make Carrie squirm in her Manolos. Frances was married for two decades, she has two teenage children, and she lives not in a Manhattan brownstone but a creaky wooden house in Hastings-on-Hudson, a tony Westchester suburb 45 minutes north of midtown on the Metro-North line.

If anything, the first season of Divorce presented this bas relief a little too well; it was, decidedly, not a romp. If Sex and the City was a fizzy vodka cocktail, then Divorce was a bitter aperitif. It sprung from the mind of Sharon Horgan, the canny creator of the charming, messy British sitcom Pulling, and, more recently, the Amazon series Catastrophe, which manages to play off the doldrums of married life for high comedy. With both Horgan and Parker on board, along with the droll bravado of Thomas Haden Church as Frances’s soon-to-be-ex Robert, the show should have had more lightness, it should have bounded through its jokes. Instead, it beat up its leading players, and by extension, its audience.

Divorce is never a concept brimming with joy. Most separations, even the peaceful ones, are deeply unpleasant, full of paperwork and pettiness and pain—but the first season of Divorce had a distinct brand of joylessness that made it difficult to stomach. As Frances, who initiates the decline of her souring union by entering into an affair with a weaselly art history professor, Parker grimaces her way through most of the episodes, slumping through her scenes. Haden Church, on the other hand, plays Robert as a violent cartoon, a cocksure contractor whose fragile masculinity explodes into petulant retaliation. He bellows while Parker mewls, struts while she shrinks. The talented supporting cast of (wealthy, white) friends tossed into this melee—Molly Shannon, Talia Balsam, Tracy Letts—all do their best to keep up with the duo’s central ugliness, but they were never given large enough roles to thaw the ice at the show’s center.

At the end of season one, Frances and Robert have hired bulldog lawyers. Robert has callously involved the police, accusing Frances of kidnapping their children when she takes them on a ski vacation (that Robert previously approved). We leave Frances screaming by the side of the road, yelling into a phone that Robert should prepare to lose everything he loves. The erasure of Carrie Bradshaw was complete, but it left a grey vacuum of misery in her place.

Divorce returned for its second season on January 14 with a jangly new attitude. Gone are the muted colors and the dowdy dresses. Robert even shaves his mustache, and with it, a decade from his age. In the second episode of the new season, Frances purchases a giant trampoline for her backyard, and she spends more than a little time bouncing on it, honey highlights akimbo. She wears turquoise and emerald green, white palazzo pants, summery floral prints, and slings pastel satchels casually over one shoulder. The season begins six months from where it left off—a television secret for pressing the reset button—and, instead of intense acrimony, the lead characters now approach each other with a new tolerance.

After the official signing of the divorce papers at the beginning of the season, Frances and Robert barely see each together again, allowing them to veer off in separate directions and each star in their own mini-comedy about dating while middle-aged. This is a welcome shift, one barely recognizable as the original show. It is as if HBO executives told the creative team that there was only so much torture an audience could take—and that, if you already have Parker on the hook, then there is no point in flattening her undeniable charisma. That charisma made the network. It was time to bring it back.

For this season, Horgan exited the day to day operations of the show (she still remains executive producer), and HBO hired former Sex and the City writers (Jenny Bicks, Liz Tucillo, Julie Rottenberg, Elisa Zuritsky) to shape many of the episodes. The change paid off. These women know how to write for Parker, how to lean into her sarcasm in a party scene, how to elicit her trademark squeal when she is swept up in a moment of glee. Frances sparkles this season, as she attempts to grow her fledgling Hudson Valley art gallery into a bonafide business by aggressively pursuing an up-and-coming painter. Haden Church is also given more room to roam: He meets a new woman, a real estate agent named Jackie (Becki Newton), who is as stubborn and sauntering as he is.

With her vulpine smirk and acid tongue, Newton is one of television’s best comic actresses, and her presence on the show feels like an open window in a stuffy house. The rest of the cast is also given more to do: Molly Shannon, as a bored rich housewife, makes a meal out of a plot arc involving a $2 million golden sculpture of excrement, while Talia Balsam, as Frances’s wise therapist friend, pursues several romantic liaisons, including a steamy run-in with the hot tennis pro at the sports club.

And yet, the question persists: who is this show for? What is its bigger purpose, outside of the initial re-branding of Parker as more than just a woman who couldn’t help but wonder? When the show began, in 2016, we hadn’t yet experienced so much national trauma, and perhaps the appetite for depressing, intimate stories about (white, wealthy) New Yorkers was still palpable. But now, when so much is at stake, even a glint of sunshine on this narrative cannot make it feel completely necessary. Divorce is heartbreaking. Every unhappy marriage crumbles in its own unhappy way. And yet, these two characters were always going to be fine. They are moneyed, surrounded by support, invited regularly to dinner parties where someone is serving sous vide duck.

Yes, we should be consuming more stories about women (and men) who are no longer young, excavating and exploring the middle years of life with tenderness and curiosity. But what Divorce lobs into that conversation feels slight: that it is possible to jump on a trampoline after life has crushed you. If you have enough resources, you will always find a way to bounce back.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Julie Rottenberg’s name and the title of the British sitcom “Pulling.”