For decades, the TV business operated under the mistaken belief that audiences wouldn’t watch shows about unlikable characters. What the last 20-odd years of television has proved, however, is that viewers are just fine with unlikable characters — provided the shows understand that they’re unlikable.
Many of the best comedies of this period — from Seinfeld to Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm to It’s Always in Philadelphia, Arrested Development to BoJack Horseman — understand from the jump that they’re about fundamentally terrible individuals. Even if the audience doesn’t catch on at first, the people making the shows understand and embrace the nastiness and stupidity of it all, and that only makes the comedy more effective.
On the flip side, some of the lamest and most insufferable comedies of recent vintage — say, Mixology or Happyish — don’t seem to recognize how irritating their main characters are, which only doubles down on other creative problems. It’s bad enough sitting through an unfunny comedy, but an unfunny comedy that tries to present a jerk as a hero is agony.
HBO’s new comedy Divorce (it debuts Sunday at 10; I’ve seen six episodes) gets stuck somewhere in between those extremes. As the title suggests, it’s the story of the end of the marriage between suburban New Yorkers Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church), and at times plays like the meanest, blackest comic version of this kind of tale since Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner split in The War of the Roses. But then at others it dials things back and tries to be more human, which only winds up undermining the comedy.
In particular, the sympathies for the show — created by Sharon Horgan from Catastrophe, and executive produced by Horgan and Paul Simms (NewsRadio, Atlanta) — are almost immediately out of balance. Robert is an unmistakable goon in look — Church has grown an aggressively droopy mustache that becomes one of the show’s more fertile sources of humor — action, and speech. The dumber and more obnoxious he is — say, convincing himself that Frances’ New Zealand-born lover Julian (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) is French, despite abundant testimony to the contrary — the funnier Divorce gets.