“Divorce” was never going to be an easy show to make — or to keep making. The word by itself is enough to give people shivers, so asking viewers to watch a marriage fall apart every week is asking a lot.
“First seasons of television are difficult,” Sarah Jessica Parker said in an interview with IndieWire. “Second seasons are difficult for entirely different reasons.”
HBO’s black comedy saw all of those difficulties and more when it debuted softly in fall 2016. Some claimed Parker’s return to HBO was too different from her landmark debut, and mixed reviews combined with meager buzz left the show out in the cold as fall turned to winter and brisk days became bitter nights.
Now, a revamped version is returning in the early months of 2018; a fitting relaunch for a show with a lighter aesthetic and “more forward momentum,” as new showrunner Jenny Bicks told IndieWire.
But shaded in among the changes is an admirable defiance. While “Divorce” Season 2 is indeed more digestible than its gut punch of a first season, it’s loyal to an original premise as challenging as it is enlightening. Claims that Parker’s character was unlikable were dismissed during the revamp, and for good reason.
Divorce isn’t easy, but it’s a significant part of many, many lives. “Divorce” Season 2 isn’t easy, either, and it shouldn’t be — for more reasons than are immediately clear.
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What Worked, What Didn’t, and What Happened Behind the Scenes
Season 1 of “Divorce” dug into the nitty gritty details of not only a couple’s emotional separation, but the legal and practical ramifications of a divorce. Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) faced new financial demands, living situations, and various solo responsibilities that helped convey to viewers why the divorce process is so grueling.
Was it tough? Sure. Was it unique? Absolutely.
“I really kind of liked the tone of the first season,” Parker said. “For some people, I think, it was not immediately palatable in certain ways because Frances was such a different sort of character than one I had played in the past, for instance, say, on television.”
Differences between “Divorce” and “Sex and the City” were cited as reasons for the new series’ varied initial reaction, including how far removed Frances and Carrie Bradshaw can seem.
“But I was proud, for the most part, that we believed in somebody and wrote into those ideas and didn’t concern ourselves so much with what people would think,” Parker said. “I think that’s a very hard way to produce television. […] I think it’s kind of a little bit of a trap to write into results vs. ideas that you believe in. So I was pleased [with Season 1]. There were episodes that I can tell you I felt were not as strong as others, but I think we learned a lot about what we liked doing and what was interesting to us.”
Paul Simms served as the showrunner for Season 1, but he left the series after Season 2 had been picked up and production start dates had already been set. HBO started looking for a replacement, but it needed to happen fast.
“Paul left and we were moments away from starting Season 2,” Parker said. “It was a little bit scary — we wanted to shoot a second season and we had a window in which to do it.”
Luckily, the studio pitched Bicks, who had worked with Parker as a writer and executive producer on “Sex and the City.”
“Jenny’s really so good at, first of all, she can get it done,” Parker said. “It’s really impressive. But that coupled with a voice who also has darker qualities I thought might be a nice marriage.”
Bicks had watched the first season purely as a fan, but she re-watched the season and got a clear idea of where to take the series before meeting with Parker.
“I think I maybe had two weeks in the writers’ room with the writers where we figured out what the arcs for the season would be,” Bicks said. “Then I pitched it to S.J. and to Thomas [Haden Church] and to Alison [Benson, Parker’s production partner].”
“When I got to our first meeting, an unexpected, bigger-than-we-had-imagined storm hit the city,” Parker said. “Alison and I trudged our way up to midtown, and sitting in the room were Elisa [Zuritsky] and Julie [Rottenberg], who had been staff writers on ‘Sex and the City,’ as well. I didn’t even know they’d been brought on, so I was staring at a room of people that a majority of whom I had had some really important experiences.”
Despite the influx of Carrie Bradshaw experts, Bicks didn’t intend to change Parker’s new show into her old show; in fact, quite the opposite.
“If anything we were aware of never touching on anything that we had already been down the road on,” Bicks said. “Even if it’s brighter this season, I think tonally it’s still quite different from what we did on ‘Sex and the City.’ We’re certainly not doing ‘sex story of the week’ kind of stuff.”
Finding the Story for Season 2
Bicks came on board with ideas for how to tweak the series.
“[Season 1] got very dark, and I think tonally it was a little bumpy in places,” Bicks said. “Because that was the explosion of a marriage and then [Season 2] is the aftermath, I felt like the best thing I could do is to […] give it more hope; to give it more forward movement.”
Part of that forward movement meant moving beyond the divorce itself. The very first scene of Season 2 finds Frances and Robert signing the papers and making their separation official.
“I think some people faced with this might say, ‘But it’s a show called ‘Divorce,’ don’t you want to keep these people in this place of just going through a divorce?'” Bicks said. “To me, I think there’s so much story to tell once you sign those papers that it’s equally, if not more so, interesting.”
Bicks said she wanted to infuse the show with a “sense of hope and new beginnings,” and that plays out to varying degrees in Season 2’s narrative.
For one, both Frances and Robert are active members in the dating game. Robert shaves his mustache to mark the new chapter in his life, and starts up a new relationship with a single mom. Frances uses exercise to fight her anxiety-fueled insomnia and meets a few men who are, let’s say, interesting.
Season 2 explores the differences between men and women in post-divorce dating, but most prominent in Frances’ life is her gallery. She’s fully engaged with her work and passionately pursues an artist she discovers and tries to lure out of early retirement.
“I think what happens, from my understanding, when most people get divorced, they’re looking for liberation, right?” Parker said. “You imagine this life without this partner, and you see all the promise of it. And I think for Frances, a lot of that had to do with the creative [and] professional sacrifices that she felt she had made — the things she felt were missing in her life.”
Bicks said the focus on Frances’ work goes beyond that, too. She needs to learn to trust herself again, rather than share decision-making and its responsibilities with a partner.
“In view of the art, it was important that we talk about how she learns what she likes,” she said. “To pursue that artist was very important because it’s about trusting her instinct and intuition, as opposed to what anyone else is telling her.”
Why Frances Is a Great Character Who Didn’t Need to Change
Frances goes through a lot of changes in Season 2, as does the show, but one thing remains the same: her “likability.”
“[In Season 1], there were many questions about her likability, which sort of struck me — not sort of struck me, but I was somewhat confounded by so many questions of likability,” Parker said.
Even in 2016, Frances’ introduction as a woman who cheats on her husband made her into an unforgivable adulteress to some viewers. Men do it. Fathers do it. But women — and especially mothers, it seems — aren’t allowed such mistakes.
“I found it so perplexing. […] Decent people make bad decisions [and] get caught up in their own needs. I like that Frances is very real to me. She’s both honorable and messy. She’s both exacting and untethered, but I think she’s a very real person.”
Bicks said she’s run into this specific complaint throughout her “entire career,” specifically when it comes to female characters.
“It was a lot worse when I was writing for network and a lot worse 10 or 15 years ago,” Bicks said. “I remember having a conversation when I was developing something for network, and I was pointing out that Meredith from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ was kind of a fuck-up — in a good way. Like, ‘Hey, look, she’s allowed to make mistakes.’ They said, ‘Yes, but she’s a doctor, so she’s saving lives.’ I thought, ‘That’s really… That’s the bar? You could only be a not-perfect person if you’re saving someone else’s life as a woman.”
Frances’ complexity has been inherent since the start, and it’s a big reason Parker fell in love with the series at all.
“Only wanting to play someone who’s likable is just so dreary and boring, and for an actor there’s just simply nothing,” she said. “That’s the worst possible note you could get.”
Credit to HBO, that note was never sent while developing “Divorce” Season 2.
“In this case, no one ever said to us, ‘Make her more likable,'” Bicks said.
That could be because Frances is incredibly likable already. Her flaws are also what make her a fascinating, empathetic character, and Season 1 made sure to outline her motivation (couples therapy was a real high point) and round out her character without erasing any of her decisions.
Season 2 continues to embrace an imperfect individual. Frances can be self-involved and dismissive; she carries her fair share of privilege and can forget to check it; she gets swept up in relationships as she sees fit, harging forward even if it might be a bad idea.
In other words, she’s a lot like Carrie Bradshaw, even when she’s very consciously not Carrie Bradshaw. That character stirred up a good chunk of controversy and still does. It’s what made her compelling and part of what made her iconic.
Frances Dufresne may not reach Carrie’s level of cultural import, but her story is too significant to be dismissed for such subjective, misguided beliefs. In its second season, “Divorce” remains a show aimed at exploring hard truths through personal turmoil. It’s changed, but for the right reasons.
“We knew we had to move on because you can’t do two seasons of battle,” Parker said. “You can’t be in foxholes for two seasons. It exhausting for the viewers. It’s exhausting for the actors because the material becomes redux. The fights become familiar. The arguments, the bickering, those can still exist as you move on because they do in a lot of divorced couples who are co-parenting. But moving on was important, too, because I think, generally speaking, smart people know they have to.”
“Divorce” was never going to be an easy show to make. But Parker, Bicks, and HBO are still making it, just the way they should.
“Divorce” airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. The Season 2 premiere is now available to stream for free.