Sunday, October 9, 2016

REVIEW: 'Divorce' - A Shocking Event Convinces Frances to Ask Robert for a Divorce in 'Pilot'

HBO's Divorce - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Frances and Robert - a middle-aged couple in the suburbs of New York City - try to figure out if their marriage is worth saving after a shocking event at their friend Diane's 50th birthday party makes them take a hard look at their own lives.

HBO's new dramedy Divorce opens on the end of a marriage. Frances and Robert are a middle-aged couple with two children. There's no immediate outward contempt to each other but it's clear they don't get along as well as they used to. Their lives are wildly different than the people around them. Frances' friend Dallas is divorced but is all alone with her ex-husband already having a new woman pregnant and her kids hating her. Meanwhile, Frances' other friend Diane is turning 50 and is trapped in a marriage where she and her husband, Nick, really do hate each other. It's a fantastic display of passive aggressive behavior in the hopes of undermining the other person. Frances and Robert's relationship isn't anything like that. Things are seemingly going well. However, things have changed over the years. Frances is no longer as happy or in love with Robert as she was in the beginning. It still takes a big event to happen for her to finally admit that to herself and to Robert.

The desire to get a divorce is the defining action of this couple. Frances and Robert's relationship doesn't really exist beyond that. This is a show that highlights just how nasty and awful relationships can be - especially near the end. When the writing decides to be as nasty and vicious as possible, this premiere is wickedly funny and so smart. When it tries to build up the audience's empathy and sympathy for the characters though, it does fall a little short. The story is a little scattered throughout this opening episode. Frances decides to get a divorce and then back tracks on that once it's clear it won't be as glamorous or easy as she originally thought. That back-and-forth happens in order to prop up a big moment in the end with Robert learning about Frances' secret lover, Julian. So, it's clear this divorce will be moving forward. It's just a little too manipulative in the hopes of building up empathy when the audience should be laughing and horrified by the actions of the main characters.

It's also clear that Frances has been feeling this way for a long time already. She is so annoyed by all the trivial tendencies of her life with Robert. It's the life she signed up for when she married him. But now, things have just gotten too bland and small for her. There is no more excitement in this marriage. Their big fight is about Robert not having anywhere to go to the bathroom in the house. That's not big or revolutionary. It's just this small detail that builds the show's sense of humor. Frances barely listens to Robert's concerns and then flips him off as soon as he leaves the room. It's a funny opening scene because it highlights the awfulness of these people. Frances has been having a secret relationship with Julian for a year now. He has brought her much more happiness than Robert has. She lets him give her an orgasm. She doesn't want that from Robert. He's doing it in order to reignite the spark in their relationship. Julian does it because Frances believes she loves him. Of course, that feeling of love could be severely misplaced as well. She thinks this relationship is so much better. But that could just be because of its secretive nature.

Robert almost dying is the thing that gets Frances to ask for a divorce. It's a pretty ridiculous and absurd sequence as well. Diane's party does so much to inform the dynamics of so many characters. Frances would rather spend time with her friends than her husband while Robert feels the same way. He's a man who sticks his finger in the fondue and gets burned while she's a woman who listens to her friend's problems. Neither Diane nor Nick hide their anger towards each other. She hates that he has gotten fat while he makes jokes about her finally starting to look her age. This party is for her 50th birthday. It's clear she's trying to rediscover her youth. Nick isn't onboard with that. He thinks it's an embarrassment when she starts suggestively dancing with a stranger. She's making a fool of herself in front of his friends who he has invited over for this party. Frances and Dallas are really the only two actually there for Diane. Everyone else is there for Nick. They don't know Diane at all. But it's still pretty outrageous when Diane pulls a gun on Nick. It shows that she's offbeat and perhaps a little crazy. After she shoots and is arrested, she tries to calmly tell everyone that the party can continue in her absence despite the gun and Nick having a heart attack. That's a funny scene despite the absolute horror of it all.

Robert was almost shot. He took that moment as a realization to get closer to Frances again. He saw it as an eye-opening experience to the error of his ways over the past few years. He learned how fragile live really is and wants to spend that time with Frances. Meanwhile, Frances had the absolute opposite reaction. That moment forced her to realize that she doesn't want to waste anymore time with Robert. He annoys her too much. She thinks that there is a better world out there for her. She believes she has true happiness with Julian. Of course, that's not the case at all. The passion in that relationship is because of its illicit nature. This isn't the first time Frances has thought about leaving her husband. But now, she has actually done. It may have been because of the shock following the gunshot. But she did it. And now, she can't just take it back. Nor can she escape to Julian like she has done so many times in the past. This news changes their relationship. It makes it a serious affair. Julian never wanted her to leave her family. He thought she would always stay because of her children. He's taken aback by the news. His reaction is the main reason why Frances decides to return home to Robert in the hopes of making things work.

And yet, Frances' relationship with Julian is the reason why Robert agrees to get a divorce. He was so surprised by Frances wanting out of their marriage. He had a very different reaction to the gunshot. He wants to put in the effort to work out their problems. He's not denying that things are wrong between them. He wants to work on them. At least he did until learning the truth about Julian. Learning Frances was cheating on him pushed him over the edge. It's a big and climatic moment to end the premiere on. He locks Frances out of the house with Diane's new dog. He plans on making this a contentious divorce that will turn the children against Frances. He's doing all of this out of spite for what she did. Again, it's a very immediate reaction. He's in shock upon learning the truth about his wife. So, he acts impulsively. It wouldn't be surprising at all if the show walks back this moment. Frances and Robert could try to work things out. That could be a mistake for the show though. It's much funnier when it's being nasty. That final moment is all about emotion and sudden reactions. It's very effective but could indicate at some structural problems for the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Sharon Horgan and directed by Jesse Peretz.
  • That's a crazy luxurious house that Diane and Nick live in. It highlights that these people are wealthy which does make their problems seem a little sillier. Diane is distraught over the recent death of her beloved dog which Nick tries to manipulate by getting her a new one as a replacement.
  • It's unclear what all of these people actually do for work. It's not important. They make a lot of money somehow. That elevates their status. But work and income could become an important issue in divorce. So that needs to be something established sometime this season.
  • Aren't those kids a little too old for Frances to be walking them to the bus stop every single day? The kids don't get a lot of attention. When they do, it's largely just a way of saying that two people still like Frances somehow.
  • Frances telling Julian about her divorce sours his appetite for pizza. That must mean it's shocking because who could turn down pizza after craving it so much? Of course, it is some pretty big news that Frances seems sure about.
  • Frances tries to make Diane feel better about causing Nick's heart attack by firing a gun at him. She says there could have been many contributing factors to it - including the fact that he put on weight. Diane being torn of whether she wants him to live or die should be an interesting subplot this season.
  • There's a ton of snow in this premiere. It's clear this pilot was shot during the middle of winter. I wonder how much that will change in upcoming episodes. Will it get better because of the production? Or will it remain important because winter highlights the stark, cold and alienating emotions of divorce?