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.
Frances is, on paper, at least as much of a twit as Robert — she’s the one having the affair (even if his emotional distance drove her to it), she never seems to think through the impact their behavior will have on their teenage kids, and relies too much on the terrible advice offered by her friends Diane (Molly Shannon) and Dallas (Talia Balsam) — yet Divorce tries to grant her humanity and vulnerability that Robert isn’t allowed, and it throws things out of whack. Not only is Parker no match for the comic energy Church is hurling out with every grimace, hurled invective, and defiant ’70s soft rock music choice (the divorce gives Robert opportunity to really explore his old record collection), but Frances’ solo scenes are tonally off from the ones about him, or where they’re together. It’s like Frances has wandered over from a softer and more dramatic show like Togetherness, and only starts to fit in when she’s around her dolt of an estranged husband.
Thanks to Sex and the City, Parker’s one of the biggest stars HBO has ever had, but she’s never been a particularly dark comic performer in a way Divorce seems to need. (Carrie Bradshaw was Sex‘s straight woman, and when Parker’s been at her funniest in the past, it’s usually been playing sunny flakes, like in L.A. Story.) Whether it’s Parker’s choice or Horgan and Simms’, Divorce seems reluctant to acknowledge that she’s just as hot a mess as he is, and it keeps undermining the comedy elsewhere.
Still, Church, Shannon, Balsam, Clement, and Tracy Letts (as Diane’s bitter husband and Robert’s only friend) commit to the ridiculousness of their characters, and Horgan and Simms know how to generate big laughs out of mortification, like Robert’s too-little, too-late attempt to sexually gratify Frances, or Robert (who rehabilitates and flips houses for a living) trying to tell his predominantly Spanish-speaking employees that Frances has been “making f–k with a French pendejo!”
HBO’s other new Sunday comedy Insecure is more consistent and sure of its voice, but I laughed a lot more watching Divorce, even as I kept feeling frustrated that it didn’t seem willing to fully embrace the awfulness of its premise, or its entire cast of characters. To be as good as it can be, it has to be more willing to be bad.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org