Divorce and Second Chances in the Peak TV Era Divorce and Second Chances in the Peak TV Era
KSiteTV's Shilo Adams argues that underrated HBO dramedy Divorce exemplifies the pitfalls of the Peak TV era. The season two finale aired March 4th. Divorce and Second Chances in the Peak TV Era

One of the great joys of the Peak TV era is witnessing not only the creative boundaries being pushed by outlets hungry for scripted content, but the type of smaller stories that are allowed to exist. With this much demand for scripted television, creators can afford to go more specific with the type of stories they tell and that type of narrative intimacy can make for quality television. However, for as much latitude as there is for shows to explore, Peak TV has made it so that if you’re not your best self upon your premiere, you can get lost in the shuffle. The attention span of the American public is already short enough, so with 400+ scripted series coming every year, Netflix said to be eyeing 700 original series and movies, and more of television’s vast library of content available through streaming services and iTunes, it’s especially hard for shows still figuring themselves out to cut through the clutter and find their footing in an increasingly difficult media landscape. While shows with bigger concepts, splashier pilots, and stronger platforms can (usually) gut it out, especially when ancillary factors come into play, it’s often the smaller, more niche show that falls through the Peak TV cracks.

One such example is HBO dramedy Divorce, which follows the dissolution of the union between Frances Dufresne (Sarah Jessica Parker), an aspiring art dealer living in New York, and husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church). After an incident at a friend’s party inspires her to chase the happiness and fulfillment she was getting from her marriage, Frances decides to separate from Robert and begin the process of finding her independence, only to realize that decades of marriage have left her unprepared for life on her own. Debuting in the fall of 2016 to mixed reviews, the series garnered a second season renewal on the strength of its cumulative viewing being on par with Veep and Girls, as well as it being one of HBO’s most female-skewing programs. Awash in melancholy and oftentimes angry and morose, Divorce was a show that kept you at a certain distance from the beginning, its darker sense of humor, insular storytelling, and prickly lead characters preventing you from getting too close. Though it had moments of greatness, succeeding moreso as a drama than as a comedy, it was at a point where its viability as a series was in doubt enough that a creative refresher was in store. But what exactly did the show improve upon when it came back from a 13-month hiatus this past January?

The most noticeable change for Divorce this season has been the lightening of its tone. Whereas season one was bogged down by the animosity between Frances and Robert, to the point of discomfort a’la visiting a couple who just got through arguing before you arrived, season two opened up the narrative curtains and allowed a little hope to shine through. With the actual divorce between the two being finalized in the opening minutes of the season premiere, the show wouldn’t have to deal with caustic divorce attorneys, tense couples therapy sessions where the past gets dredged up and relitigated, and the legal do-si-dos that tied the storyline up in knots. Instead, it could focus on the emotional element of getting a divorce – what exactly happens when a person so accustomed to operating as a We is forced to focus solely on the Me? It’s that broadening out of its concept, stretching to become a more relatable story about starting over and chasing your own version of self-actualization, that made season two of Divorce so well done and it all came down to the decision of keeping Robert and Frances mostly separated. We finally got to see who exactly these characters are without the other, what they learned from their marriage, and how they planned to become their best self, all interspersed with thoughtful takes on the more traditional fallout from the failure of a long-term marriage (e.g. who gets the kids when, how do you handle family functions without stepping on each other’s toes, etc.) and injected with a likable sense of humor from season two showrunner Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City). Divorce‘s ability to laugh at itself, to find the humor in a source of so much misery, gave it the type of complexity in its emotional palette that it didn’t have in season one and allowed for more varied dynamics in its storytelling, thereby turning season two into a smarter, more thoughtful version of itself.

divorce hboThe decision to finalize Frances and Robert’s divorce early in the season not only took that monkey off the show’s back, it allowed Divorce to expand its world to become a show better built for the long haul. Season one was so embedded in the intricacies of actually getting a divorce and the psychological warfare between Frances and Robert that everything else around them kind of got swallowed up in the void. Season two found both of the Dufresne’s dipping their toes into the dating pool, Robert with headstrong realtor Jackie (Becki Newton) and Frances with blind date Andrew (Steven Pasquale), while also pumping up their professional lives and giving more material to their friends. Watching Robert and Frances interacting with other people on a romantic level was insightful as to the type of person they wanted to be with and how their marriage informed their relationship choices; most impressively, though, this didn’t evolve into jealousy and frayed tension between Frances and Robert. The show instead looked at how difficult it could be to watch someone with whom you spent decades of your life move on before you and the anxiety that comes with feeling like you’re in second place in your own divorce, a decision that kept the storyline grounded in emotional truths that aren’t always explored on television while refraining from becoming too soapy. Divorce also gave much more light to Frances’s professional self, as we watched her fight to open and sustain her gallery while carving out an identity for herself in a field she was passionate about. That professional competence wasn’t always apparent in season one and gave balance to her character’s sometimes messy decision-making in her personal life, all the while showcasing who she was outside the confines of her marriage. In addition to that diversified narrative, which kept the show from becoming too insular, this decision allowed the great Molly Shannon more to do than she had in season one, as Diane was a financial backer of the gallery and became a confidante in which Frances confided in. Watching them interact in a professional setting further defined their relationship and gave Frances the much needed sounding board and social connection that was missing in season one.

But as good as it was for the show to showcase the longer tail that divorce has, how it doesn’t just impact your relationship with your ex and the way in which you raise your kids, Divorce succeeded most at refining what it was already good at. Parker and Church already had an intriguing chemistry between them in season one, but where that season was dedicated to what split them apart, season two was more about how they could’ve liked one another to begin with. The show embraced the warmth and inherent likability of Parker’s screen presence, as well as how adept she is at physical comedy, while Church’s droll, prideful Robert was given a greater sense of drive and was shown to be willing to sacrifice for his children. It took the past that was weaponized during the couple’s arguments and couples therapy sessions and made it matter by injecting a tinge of sadness in their interactions, particularly during the episode where the two go back to Robert’s hometown. It’s that emphasis on regret and how the choices we make can unintentionally drive away the ones we love that made Divorce richer and more sensitive this season. Which plays into its strengths of small-scale storytelling with a focus on emotional intimacy between adults. Season two further teased out valuable insight into the sometimes minute, often unseen complexities of leaving someone yet still having them in your life thanks to your children and the difficulties that come when any relationship transitions from romantic to hateful to platonic. It’s one of the only shows on television that looks at age, love, sex, loneliness, parenting, and personhood through the eyes of middle-aged protagonists (that aren’t stand-up comedians), which gives it a perspective you don’t often get to hear, and manages to subvert any concerns about watching two well-off people navel gaze through its broadened out premise, likable cast, and gorgeous art direction, costume design, and cinematography. 

Frankly, Divorce is the prototype for a show that (unfortunately) gets swallowed up by Peak TV. It has no genre elements, doesn’t rely on OMG twists, doesn’t traffic in a parade of big name guest stars, and doesn’t have as racially inclusive a cast as it could. It’s simply a show that teeters between comedy and drama and tells an intimate story of two people of a certain age starting over when they thought that major changes in their lives were done. Though not salacious or format-busting enough to draw the buzz necessary to break through, season two of Divorce was a clear improvement over its predecessor, a more hopeful vision of life post-marital commitment that fleshed out its leading characters, allowed its supporting players their moments to shine, and stretched its legs in anticipation of a longer run. The Divorce that emerged at the end of its eight-episode second season is a show that grew into itself and built out something that could survive once Frances and Robert had consciously uncoupled, a show that retains the specifics of divorce while leaning more into character-based work and the broader strokes that come with any transitional phase in life. It might not have the sexiest premise in town, but Divorce became the show it always had the potential to be on the backs of its sensitivity, a tone that allowed it more emotional latitude, and better utilization of its talented cast. Even with hundreds of new scripted shows airing every year and the libraries of streaming services running over with completed content, there should be room for shows that take a minute to grow into themselves in this television environment and season two of Divorce is a perfect example as to the value of patience with certain shows.

divorce hboUnfortunately, as of press time, the show has yet to be renewed and with Bicks and Parker intimating that it won’t live to see a third season, all this bloviating trying to get you to sample/revisit the show might be for nothing. (You should still watch, though.) Which would be an absolute shame considering it’d be yet another quality low-key, highly specific half-hour that HBO cancelled after two seasons, most of whom finding themselves burned against event season (e.g. Looking, Togetherness, Enlightened). After airing its first season following the incompatible but still huge Westworld, season two of Divorce aired unprotected against the Grammys, Oscars, Super Bowl, and Winter Olympics, with only fellow niche comedy Crashing by its side. An attempt at giving it a lead-in fizzled as Alan Ball’s Here and Now failed to find an audience, forcing Divorce to build from it multiple times and offering not much in the way of support. With Veep on its way out, The Comeback likely finished despite no formal cancellation, and no new female-led comedies on the horizon for HBO, a cancellation for Divorce would simply be bad optics, particularly in an era so focused on gender representation and holding networks accountable for not developing enough female-fronted content. Though it might have Big Little Lies and Insecure in its coffers, HBO should nurture a quality female-fronted series that has received positive word-of-mouth for its creative upturn and features a big, marketable name in Sarah Jessica Parker. If it wants to live up to its reputation as a haven for creatives to do material that other platforms wouldn’t dare and support a show whose very premise means it was never going to be a broad-reaching hit, it will reward Divorce for an okay performance in a tough situation and treat it more like the brand asset that it is by renewing it for a third season.

Shilo Adams

Shilo Adams is a contributor to KSiteTV who has written for the likes of TVOvermind, ScreenFad, and TVHackr. You can e-mail him at sda2107@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @sda0918.