“Divorce” is meant to be a messy show about a messy divorce by a middle-aged couple whose best friends are in a messy marriage. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off Sarah Jessica Parker throughout the first five episodes, because she never looks messy. Never. In every shot she’s in, Parker seems almost airbrushed, as if she’s in a commercial for a new line of makeup or clothing — which, given the fashion history of “Sex and the City” and Parker’s presence in ad campaigns for beauty products and jeans, may not be out of the question.
I’m not beauty-shaming Parker. It’s just that her unending composure, no matter how hard her character, Frances, suffers, undermines her overall dramatic and comedic impact. “Divorce” is about the ways that marriage and intimacy can ultimately transform loving partners into spiteful idiots, monsters, or worse. Familiarity can breed contempt. You sense that Frances and her husband, Thomas Haden Church’s Robert, are probably good at heart, but their relationship problems have turned them into petty, lying, horrible people — not at the level of “The War of the Roses,” but at times close. It doesn’t matter that they’re well-to-do Westchester suburbanites; a bit of muss and some crazy eyes on Parker would help the show land. As the focus of this raw story, which traverses more gnarly territory than “Sex and the City,” she’s too artificial.
It’s one of many atmospheric disconnects in “Divorce,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO. The show aims for emotional realism one minute, farce the next, and sitcom-like goofing the next, and it all never quite hangs together naturally. Creator Sharon Horgan fares better in her terrific Amazon comedy “Catastrophe,” which is also about the messy fallout of romance, albeit a romance that’s ultimately working. “Divorce” doesn’t achieve the lived-in feel and elasticity of tone of “Catastrophe,” nor does it exude the same amount of heart. At times, Parker, so chilly and stiff, seems to be acting in a different show from everyone else.
The title gives up the overall plot, of course. Early in the premiere, Frances tells a shocked Robert she’s done. “I want to save my life while I still care about it,” she says. “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.” “Divorce” then sets out to reveal how complicated the process can become after the initial decision is made. Frances is dead set on splitting, but Robert, an extroverted and boyish dude, has a few stages of grief to go through. I never fully understood how a relationship between these two opposites ever made sense, and that makes it hard to feel the tragedy of their failure. Only the presence of their two kids, who will be misused in the split, adds the necessary bitterness.
Robert and Frances have married friends — played by Molly Shannon and Tracy Letts — who do fall more at “The War of the Roses” end of the spectrum. They despise each other — they represent the darkest and most aggressive feelings that Robert and Frances are suppressing — and in a birthday party scene that goes too far over the top, one of them winds up in the hospital. I understand the point in having a couple on the show to both contrast with and mirror Robert and Frances, but this couple belongs on a more gonzo comedy like “Californication.”
The best thing in “Divorce” is Church, who manages to be at once funny and moving. Robert is a blustery guy who loves talking about poop. He has old-school masculinity, and he’s not innately able to be civil in the face of rejection and jealousy. He’s annoying, but ultimately sympathetic, and Church pulls it off beautifully. When I was frustrated with “Divorce,” wanting to feel more invested in the show and its characters, his performance kept me engaged.
Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Molly Shannon, Tracy Letts, Talia Balsam. On HBO, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.