TV review: Divorce season 3 offers a thoughtful critique of marriage

Sarah Jessica Parker's HBO dramedy gently suggests that some relationships are wedded to a wider economic order


DIVORCE: SEASON 3 (Sharon Horgan). Begins airing Monday (July 1) at 9 pm on HBO Canada and streaming on Crave. Rating: NNN


What’s the point of settling down?

That’s the question facing Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert Dufresne (Thomas Haden Church) at every turn in season three of Divorce. Now that the well-to-do Westchester County couple has moved on to other romantic partners, the question keeps popping up. Marriage didn’t work the first time, yet they are feeling the urge to seriously commit over again.

Created by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), Divorce debuted shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, its caustic satire fortuitously plugging into the mood of anger among middle-class white men. After a bleak season finale, the show returned two years later without Horgan in the writer’s room and a new showrunner. The tone was much lighter – not entirely unreasonable, given the Dufresnes had officially split – but it felt unearned.

Season three, the shortest yet at six episodes, also doesn’t have the nasty bite of season one, but it shifts some of the show’s core themes around to seemingly wrap up the story and offer a thoughtful critique of marriage as a conservative institution. And it mostly succeeds, despite some clunky and rushed plotting.

The story picks up with Robert engaged to Jackie (Becki Newton), who is pregnant and put on bed rest due to complications. He’s balking at the idea of settling down and becoming a dad again late in life. He’s also coaching his teen daughter’s basketball team and rankles a fellow coach (Dominic Fumusa) who disagrees with Robert’s moral and empowering coaching ethos.

Meanwhile, Frances has moved to New York City and her gallery has burned down, leaving her with a tiny insurance payout and uncertain how to proceed career-wise. She takes a job with a nitpicky older brother-sister duo who run an urban birding organization, giving her enough financial stability to concentrate on her relationships, including a new man Henry (James Lesure), whom she is reluctant to call her boyfriend.

Enmeshed in new romances, Robert and Frances are both questioning whether they want to settle all over again. Divorce has always had a subtheme about working for passion versus working for necessity, and this season it nicely collides with the main plot. Does Frances want to get serious with Henry, despite red flags, because she lacks job security? Robert gradually realizes his sense of moral correctness is not being rewarded. Is he rushing into a life with Jackie because it seems comfortable?

Season three largely avoids unpacking these questions didactically, instead using comic set-ups that sometimes border on screwball to underscore the point that the pressure to partner up colours major life choices. So the true tension between Robert and Frances in season three isn’t will they reconnect romantically it’s will they really think about the temptation to settle – with anyone – period.

Headed this season by showrunner Liz Tuccillo, Divorce continues to be full of quippy one-liners, and goes a little further into all-out comedy. This season Frances’s BFFs Dallas (Talia Balsam) and Diane (Molly Shannon) face workplace crises that are similarly forcing them to rethink what they want out of life.

Diane takes a job in an upscale department store now that her husband Nick (Tracy Letts) is behind bars for perpetrating a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, but the obvious privileged woman-out-of-water schtick is saved by sharp writing and Shannon’s ability to teeter hilariously on a precipice between self-possession and self-doubt.

Balsam’s Dallas, meanwhile, is getting called out by a litigious patient for not listening, and the writer’s room goes all in coming up with ridiculously egregious ways a therapist could ignore a client.

Amy Sedaris also returns as Robert’s sister, basically playing a version of her insult-comic persona, hurling put-down after put-down at Frances that are clearly riffing on Parker’s red-carpet queen image (“Get over it, Farrah!”). Her scenes raise the issue of the value of emotional labour, something Robert can’t grasp. His misogyny was put on a back-burner after season one and it’s too bad the show only explores it in jokey and superficial ways in seasons two and three.

Parker is a gifted cringe-comedy actor, but only gets a handful of moments to shine, including a clever set-up that requires Frances to creep around to meet a lover like a teenager breaking curfew. She is also saddled with clunky and redundant speechifying around privilege and work. And though a scene requiring her to sing an empowerment song is meant to be satirical, it doesn’t quite land given that the show’s tone often feels as earnest as Frances’s intentions.

Perhaps due to the season’s short length, the subplot with Henry also feels like a missed opportunity to interrogate her motivations for wanting to partner up again. Still, Divorce has enough charm and wit to keep things interesting. Ultimately, the series gently suggests that even if we get divorced some relationships remain wedded to a wider economic order.

@kevinritchie

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