Divorce (HBO) (2016-2018)
Over the last ten years, the waning of whiteness and the waning of the romantic comedy have tended to go hand in hand in Hollywood cinema – or, rather, the romantic comedy has become more untenable and uncomfortable as it has become more evident that it was always a genre that was in some sense invested in the spectacle of whiteness. Specifically, the two spectacles of whiteness most integral to the romantic comedy – property and upward mobility – have become problematic even for white audiences in the wake of ongoing recession, turning the romantic comedy into a period piece, a reminder of a different era where feeling good was more available, and in which the very idea of a feel-good film could be embraced or enjoyed without some of the reservations that might attend to it today. In fact, the spectacle of property and upward mobility are probably more connected to the romantic comedy than any other genre in American cinema, or at least more affirmed by the romantic comedy than any other genre in American cinema – especially in comedies of remarriage, where the institution of whiteness is typically thrown into question, only to be resolved, restored and contained by the time the couple reunite.
From that perspective, crafting a romantic comedy commensurate to today’s cultural climate is a considerable formal challenge – one that Sharon Horgan’s Divorce achieves in a particularly original and irreverent manner. Set along the Hudson Valley commuter line – a privileged space of white angst in the 2010s, from Happyish to The Girl on the Train – the great twist of the series is that the tropes and affects of romantic comedy can now only ramify through divorce, just as the spectacles of property and upward mobility once so inextricable from the romantic comedy are now only tenable when mediated through divorce. In other words, Divorce is a comedy of remarriage in which the prospect of remarriage is extended to a hypothetical horizon, allowing the romantic couple involved to come to terms with both their differences and connections without marriage looming over their heads as an unattainable cinematic fantasy. The result is an almost-romantic comedy, and even an elegy for the romantic comedy, that works precisely because it manages to find that same sense of comedy in the prospect of divorce, rather than milking divorce for the kinds of sententious gravity and even grandeur it tends to receive in more cinematic texts.
That all plays out in terms of Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) Dufresne, who break up in the first episode of the series after a succession of complications in their marriage bring them to an impasse. What ensues isn’t exactly a drama, but not exactly a comedy either, just as the series never opts for the kind of contrived edginess that you tend to see in contemporary series that are about putatively post-heterosexual couples, but not willing to commit to a more expansive and collective queer aesthetic either. In fact, what makes Divorce work so well is that it remains within the traditional framework of marriage, loyalty, infidelity, betrayal and all the other tropes of romantic comedy, but inflects them through divorce while retaining their comedy at the same time. Key to that process is a rich and broad scope of supporting characters, especially amongst the Dufresne’s circle of friends, where Molly Shannon, Tracey Letts and Talia Balsam fill out a cast of straight white characters who all nevertheless are stuck in an oblique relation to the trajectories that their sequestered lives in Hastings-on-Hudson seemed to have laid out for them. For the most part, too, these are characters who don’t have children, or who only have children, as their point of focus, meaning that parenthood never quite comes into focus as a way of restoring the lost property, status and mobility of the Dufrenses, even though it never gets in the way of them being adequate parents either.
In some ways, all those tendencies are intensified in the second season, which focuses on Frances and Robert’s lives after divorce. Despite the fact that the first season takes place in the depths of winter, and the second season takes place in mid-spring, these sixteen episodes feel like one sustained experience, as the relation to property and aspiration take on new and unexpected dimensions over the second set of eight episodes. These start with Frances unable to sleep, wandering around the house as she gets to know its fixtures and features in a new way, just as leaving home forces Robert to invest even more time and energy in his home renovation business, bringing him into a different but equally intense proximity to property in turn. By the time that the season comes to a close, Robert has entered into a property flipping business with his new girlfriend, while Frances has finally fulfilled her ambition of opening a contemporary art gallery in Hastings, only for those two achievements to be turned comically awry when it emerges that their friend Nick, played by Tracey Letts – the horizon of both their aspirations – has been arrested for insider trading.
Much of the second season deals with this kind of haptic domesticity, as well as the way in which it suggests a certain finitude to whiteness and the kinds of spectacles associated with whiteness in American cinema, and in the romantic comedy in particular – spectacles that can perhaps only now be parsed through television, not merely because of the more modest address of the smaller screen, but because these motifs of property and mobility need a more sustained treatment to really flesh out their failure to ramify in the present moment. Nowhere is that clearer than in the single strongest subplot in the entire series, which revolves around the relation between Frances and Sylvia, an African-American artist played by Roslyn Ruff, whose work Frances discovers while going through the collection of a man she has started dating. Within the strange and distended space of her divorce, Frances is drawn to a portrait of a young African-American man as a point of affective stability, and tracks down Sylvia, who is working as a bank attendant in Harlem. At first, Sylvia is uninterested in Frances, and in resuming her art career, but after some fairly aggressive pushing from Frances, she agrees to complete all her unfinished works and have a show at the gallery in Hastings, only for a top New York art dealer to poach her on the opening night.
This shifting interplay between Frances and Sylvia corresponds to the broader shifting interplay between the Hudson commuter line and New York City. At times, the Hudson feels like the apex of Manhattan – the most exclusive part of Manhattan – but at other times it feels more banal and exurban. At times, too, the Hudson feels like the province of a form of white privilege, or an attachment to white privilege, that is too white even for Manhattan, while at other times it feels more like a space of disenfranchised whiteness, and a retreat of whiteness from a cityscape that it could once command and arrogate with ease. All those tensions converge on the circulation of an antique magnifying glass in the final pair of episodes, which Frances encounters at the auction of one of the last great New York socialites. At first, Frances bids for it, only to be outbid by an art dealer that she is trying to court as a patron for her gallery. Then, she finds the magnifying glass sent to her by the dealer, who is trying to romantically court her in turn. Next, she gives the magnifying glass to Sylvia on opening night to formally welcome her into the world of urbane art. Finally, Sylvia gives the glass back to Frances when they meet back in Manhattan, just after she announces she has chosen to sign with the very dealer who bought the watch to begin with.
Throughout those series of exchanges, Divorce beautifully captures the unholy alliance that whiteness brokers with everything around it in the romantic comedy, as well as the extent to which the romantic comedy demands that experience be mediated through white spectacles of property and mobility, even or especially in those romcoms that are more self-referential about the formula. As much as Frances might give the magnifying glass to Sylvia as a way of mediating the New York art world for her client – and a reminder that she has mediated the New York art world for her client – her claims to represent New York are pretty spurious in the first place given that she lives in Hastings and Sylvia lives in Harlem, just as the gift is not even a genuine gift in but a fairly cynical regift, something that Sylvia never actually finds out. While the series reserves some genuine sympathy for Frances – the way Sylvia tells her about being poached is pretty brutal – there’s still a pervasive sense that “reaching out” to diverse demographics – such a critical part of the romcom mode – has been taken to such an extreme here that it collapses back on itself, leaving Frances in a limbic space where she is literally unable to mediate the conceptions of property and mobility that once drove her, just as the Hudson is unable to mediate New York City in turn.
Yet that proves to be a surprisingly resilient and liberating space, imbuing the final episode with a freeform playfulness that brings the spring backdrop of the second season to its apotheosis. It’s also a space that is less relevant to Robert, who takes their two children and his girlfriend to Europe for a month’s vacation in the final scene, leaving Frances alone at home to spend time with her friends, spend time on her gallery, and develop a new sense of herself outside of the roles she has typically played. The first thing she does, though, is get on the trampoline in her backyard – a recurring motif throughout the series – in a gesture that might seem trite in another film or television series, but which feels really moving with the weight of the previous sixteen episodes behind it. For a moment, it’s like seeing whiteness liberated from the burden of whiteness – the burden of having to believe that everything can and should be mediated through whiteness – as Frances just becomes another person, rather than a repository of centuries of engrained and embedded entitlement. While she might comically tell her children that “we come from a very long line of white people”, she seems to find a line of flight from that heritage here, as well as a line of flight from the romantic comedy itself. In recent years, efforts to rehabilitate the romcom have often had to be inflected through cynicism, brutality or vulgarity to avoid seeming naïve, but there’s something quite refreshing about the way in which Divorce shrugs it off altogether in this final scene, paving the way for what will surely be an original third season.
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