“Divorce” Season 1 was a petrified flower of a TV show. A black comedy that cut deep, again and again, like a particularly thorny rose that you couldn’t stop picking up, Sarah Jessica Parker’s return to HBO was met with an aptly mixed reaction. For some, it was too bleak and too suffocating in its exhausting exploration of a broken marriage. For others, it provided insight into (and thus relief from) one of life’s most prevalent predicaments, making the process of divorce both intriguing in its unexpected challenges and moving in its oh-so-human central characters. The dead rose poked back so much it felt alive, and viewers gleaned something meaningful with every prick.
“Divorce” Season 2 is a rose in bloom, in that much of the elements that scared off onlookers before have been pruned. In their place lies a show intent on discovery, hope, and positive thinking, ushered in by new showrunner Jenny Bicks. There’s still damage here — as evidenced by a powerful moment in the premiere where Parker’s character, Frances, weeps on a newly purchased trampoline — but the new season is undoubtedly lighter, less claustrophobic, and keen to explore relationships with a future instead of a dying one trapped in the past.
It’s also still a damn good show. Though some viewers may have embraced the original darkness, taking a few steps further into the light isn’t a slight against the new episodes. All eight were given to critics for review, and all eight carry unique moments of development, humor, and honest emotion. The characters are still learning quite a bit about what life looks like post-divorce; they’ve just moved beyond the actual business of divorce — as noted by the season’s first scene, where Frances and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) sign their divorce papers.
The first episode of “Divorce” Season 2 is titled “Night Moves,” but don’t expect a Bob Seger-themed half-hour: Frances and Robert are making literal movements in the night. Buoyed by finalizing their divorce papers, both are ready to move forward, and moving forward means big changes. Frances copes with insomnia by going after the ever-elusive 30-minute abs, while Robert makes the next-level choice to shave his “North Dallas Forty”-era Nick Nolte mustache.
It’s official: They’re both out on the prowl, looking for new soulmates to match their new lifestyles. Whereas the married versions of Frances and Robert would be thinking about a good night’s sleep once darkness falls, these two wildcats are pushing themselves to do more; to be more; to change instead of maintain. The same could be said about the series itself, as the active role these two take in finding new relationships and fresh purpose stands in stark contrast to the meticulously waged war of inches duked out in Season 1.
While Robert quickly gets mixed up in the semi-exciting single life of good-looking, middle-aged, middle-class men, Frances throws herself into her work. The gallery she worked so hard to get going in Season 1 becomes her healthy yet all-consuming passion, and she gets stuck on one artist in particular to fill it. Played by Roslyn Ruff, Sylvia is an artist who’s all but given up on her career when Frances finds one of her pieces and starts pushing her to produce enough pieces to put on a show.
Ruff is a strong performer and it’s encouraging to see a black woman in this very white series, but Sylvia’s story is Season 2’s most glaring weak spot. Not only is there a bit of “Blind Side” white savior complex happening, but her arc is resolved in such a way that her perspective and autonomy are overshadowed by a far more privileged individual. Sylvia is more than prop, but not much more, and there were certainly more compelling aspects of her story to explore.
But overall, Season 2 is less divisive than Season 1. Anyone who wants to see a Sarah Jessica Parker character explore relationships with her friends should find these episodes more appealing. Anyone eager to see what happens next for a couple who never imagined a “next” in the first place should still be pleased. “Divorce” is still authentic, still focused, and still telling stories few other series are willing to explore. More than a few storylines take critical left turns just when you start to think they’re familiar, and Parker, Church, and Molly Shannon remain in top form.
“Divorce” may have gotten a makeover in Season 2, but it’s still the same sharp rose under all that color.
“Divorce” Season 2 premieres Sunday, January 14 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.