Sunday, October 30, 2016

REVIEW: 'Divorce' - Frances & Robert Struggle to Tell the Kids About Their Divorce in 'Mediation'

HBO's Divorce - Episode 1.04 "Mediation"

In hopes of keeping their split amicable, Frances and Robert meet with a mediator. Frances confides in a co-worker. Robert gets surprising financial news.

Divorce is often at its best as a comedy when the characters are nasty towards each other. When the show is aware that these are awful and entitled people, the humor is stronger and it's a much more enjoyable viewing experience. It's a cringe comedy that can be hard to watch at times. But that's a form of storytelling that can really work as well. The show runs into problems when it wants the audience to sympathize with these characters. When we are suppose to agonize over Frances and Robert telling their kids about their divorce, it's just annoying to watch it play out so slowly. It's the show taking the next logical step on what getting a divorce actually means. But it's not the show and its comedic sensibilities at its best. It's largely just meandering around waiting for one of the two leads to get inspired by something new in order to attack the other. That has been a lot of fun so far. "Mediation" contains a number of those moments but they do get lost a little bit in the family drama of it all.

Frances and Robert are trying to have an amicable divorce. They agree that they are done with marriage and want to split. They've looked into the process and have found someone to work with for mediation. They don't want to include lawyers. They just want to get this over and done with as quickly as possible. When the reality of their situation sets in, that's when things start to become a bit more playful and contentious. That's a good move for storytelling. It's boring to watch two people agree on things and go through a normal process peacefully. Sure, there are moments in the mediator's office that are incredibly funny. It's clear Robert still wants to blame Frances for all of this because she slept with Julian. She's to blame and he can't wait to get rid of her. But it's also amusing to see him be so enamored by the binders he is given with the forms he and Frances need to fill out. Those are fun moments. But there wouldn't be much for the show if everything went this peacefully. So, it comes as no surprise that Robert ends the episode by hiring a lawyer to sue Frances so he can get even more of her money.

Money has been a weird subject on the show so far. Robert's job has been more important than Frances'. When he moves out of the house, he moves into one of his construction sites. He even has a cover story to tell the kids about stopping vandalism. His career flipping houses has been more important to the overall story. Last week's episode established that Frances took a job as a corporate headhunter in order to financially support the family and Robert's dream. It's because of that she had to put her own dreams aside. Her wanting to open an art gallery is the reason why she decided to get a divorce. It was in that moment that she realized counseling wasn't working and this is what she really wants. That's a good thing that helped move the show forward. And now, Frances spends a little bit more time at her workplace. She is seen as the woman in charge of a meeting. But it's much more important that she breaks down crying afterwards because she needs to get her financial forms from payroll. It's a great scene because it fully embraces Frances as an awful person. She keeps calling her co-worker by the wrong name and she's keeping a birthday party from being able to use the conference room. That's fun because it highlights Frances at her worst and most self-centered.

Conversely, Robert is spiraling a little bit. He's not in a traditional workplace environment. Frances is able to have someone else fetch her financial information. She has the structure to have that readily available. She knows she has a lot of money because she's the one supporting the family. That has been her role for years. Robert has been chasing his dream. And now, he learns that he hasn't been all that successful with it. He sure has acted like it. He views himself as this great real estate mogul making a ton of money in the market. That's not true at all. In reality, he's in debt. He has multiple properties that aren't selling while he continues pouring more and more money into expensive upgrades. It hasn't been paying off for him. That sends him into a spiral because he foolishly believes he'll have to pay Frances half of what he has. That's the view he has been conditioned into believing about divorce. The man has to pay for it. His situation is different because Frances has all the money. He could take her for half of what she's worth. He could make this divorce contentious and come out on top. That's what ultimately motivates him in the end. It's a great twist that should be a lot of fun to watch in the next stretch of episodes.

And now, both Robert and Frances have dreams that could be corrupted or ruined because of their divorce. They've committed to this path. It's going to get even worse before the season is over. But now, they have things in their lives that they are excited about. Even though he's in debt, Robert looks at a huge space for lease and wants to open a "fun zone" for kids with rock climbing, paintball and basketball courts. It's an idea he gets really excited about. Of course, it seems unlikely because of his financial troubles. He can't seem to get anyone else onboard with this project. So, he's hoping Frances' money will help finance it. This dream goes hand-in-hand with Frances' art gallery. That's a project she is excited about. She finally has the courage to do it now that she's leaving Robert. This divorce really could be a healthy thing between them. But by hiring lawyers and going to court, it could potentially destroy these dreams. They could be used as weapons to hurt the other. This is what both of them want. If they can't have that, it would be devastating to both of them. It's just plot setup here but it should be fascinating to see what happens next.

But again, "Mediation" does get bogged down by the need to tell the kids about the divorce. Robert and Frances' two children haven't been important characters so far. They've just been in the background of scenes. They give off the illusion of this being a picture-perfect family even though it is not. More importantly though, this story highlights a systemic issue in the show. Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church are playing things very differently. Church's performance is much more comedic. It's funny when he spirals out of control because of his money problems, when he gets sick at a fancy restaurant and when he gets it together in the end to deliver the news to the kids. Meanwhile, Parker is much more reserved and dramatic. She just wallows in the scenes and then just talks and talks while not making a clear point about anything. She's worried about the emotional ramifications every decision will make. The comedy comes when the person in the scene with her was interested in something completely different. Julian knew the relationship with Frances was over. He didn't need her going on and on about it. Meanwhile, the kids already knew about the divorce and were just waiting for their parents to tell them. Those are the comedic beats and they just feel off. They don't quite work all of the time.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Mediation" was written by Patricia Breen and directed by Ben Taylor.
  • It's no surprise that the kids knew about the divorce. Frances and Robert did a horrible job hiding their fights. She comes up with a story outside the restaurant but then they just walk a few feet and fight in full view of the children. Frances puts on a happy face but it doesn't work at all.
  • Robert goes to Nick to invest in the Fun Zone with him. He's pretty okay with what happened after Nick woke up from his coma. But right now, Nick just wants to focus on not dying. He simply doesn't care about anything that Robert is up to - which only isolates Robert more.
  • It's great seeing how hostile Robert and Diane are towards each other. He's still traumatized by her almost shooting him. And yet, she just wants everyone to move past that already while also mocking his Fun Zone idea for how dangerous it could be.
  • Meanwhile, Robert has been sending Julian text messages, voicemails and emails. He's really vindictive towards this guy. He's so out of control that Julian reaches out to Frances again to get him to stop. It's great that Robert still thinks Julian is French and taunts him that way. But then, Frances does nothing to stop this harassment.
  • Robert only decides to hire a lawyer because his financial advisor tells him it's the way to get half of Frances' money. He doesn't believe mediation can work because he has personal experience seeing it happen through his sister's divorce.