By Lori Acken
Ah, the midlife marriage crisis.
Happens to lots of us. One day you wake up and realize the kids are growing up fast, the finances aren’t quite where you hoped, your best days (and best looks) may well be behind you and your better half doesn’t seem that great after all. But you’re luckier than your single friends, anyway. Right? Er, right? The ones who can (or so you imagine) go wherever they want, whenever they want. Spend however they choose. Sleep with whomever they please. And never, ever have to share the remote. Or feelings. Or failures. Or anything else, for that matter.
So it goes for Frances Dufresne on Divorce, HBO’s long-awaited new half-hour dramedy (Sundays beginning Oct. 9) from Sarah Jessica Parker’s Pretty Matches Productions that is both achingly poignant and fiercely funny. In her first televised lead role since Sex and the City, Parker stars as Frances, whose life in the NYC suburbs isn’t so bad — but it isn’t so satisfying, either. When her splashy pal Diane (a made-for-this-role Molly Shannon) goes briefly off the rails, Frances takes it as a sign to free herself from domestic boredom with her bland but loving husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church) and chase what dreams she has left.
“I knew we could talk about being single at a certain age,” Parker says. “I knew we could talk about how complicated the finances are — and those very complications really allowing people to behave very badly, because these lines of combat are drawn. Smart people making really not-smart choices, and behavior that’s almost unrecognizable to yourself, from yourself, by yourself. The parasites that glom onto divorce and relish it. How do you date again? Do you want to date again? Are you the person you thought you were? Are you proud of the way you conducted yourself? How do your children see you? How do your friendships view you? There’s so much that’s rich with potential.”
And so much that’s recognizable for folks who’ve been in the Dufresnes’ shoes. Furtive glances at each other’s cellphones. Disastrous counseling sessions. Swearing that mediation is best, even so. Shock at your partner’s rage. Rage at your partner’s actions. Telling the kids. Wondering if any of this is really worth the promise of greener grass.
What makes Divorce so appealing is that the series — created by Brit actress/scribe Sharon Horgan, a brilliant observer — refuses to assign hero or villain. Robert can be humorless and work-obsessed. Frances, self-absorbed and imperceptive. Both love their children deeply, but parent very differently. And neither knows what the hell they’re doing as their marriage falls apart.
“What I like about playing [Frances] is that she’s not really a very cozy person in a lot of ways,” says Parker, who’s been happily wed to fellow actor Matthew Broderick since 1997, but for years longed to develop a show about a marriage’s foibles and failings. “She’s not super-buoyant and warm. She’s a little chilly. She’s complex in a new way for me, and I like that she’s not giggly and laughing with her friends and trotting along and figuring all the pieces will fall into place. I like that she is the problem and she’s the solution.”
Now here’s a surprise: Parker never planned to play Frances at all. Even as everyone around her recognized a perfect fit.
“At one point, I said to Alison [Benson, Pretty Matches’ president], ‘Is everybody thinking that I’m playing Frances?'” smiles Parker, devoted mom to 7-year-old twins Tabitha and Marion and son James Wilkie, 13. “She was like, ‘Well, are you going to?’ I could think of everybody else playing that part — and I knew, too, what it would require of me, because I was executive producing it. I knew how much that required and how much I would want to give and how I worked with Michael Patrick [King, her longtime SATC co-executive producer/director]. It requires everything. That’s the only way I know, because that’s how Michael Patrick and I did it. We just crossed the finish line bloody. And I expect that of everybody else around me, as well.”
She committed anyway, then set about courting her ideal onscreen ex.
“I knew right away that I wanted him to play this part,” says Parker of coaxing Church, her costar in 2008’s Smart People, back to series TV. “I remember so well, I was sitting on the floor of the bathroom in our house, on the phone, and I was like, ‘I have an idea and I know everyone is going to say I’m crazy. I know you’re all going to tell me he’s never going to do this, but I love him and I’ve worked with him. He hasn’t done television in 20 years, but I think the person is Thomas Haden Church.'”
To her relief, her friend quickly signed on.
“We enjoy and respect each other as adults and as professionals,” says Church, who helped shape the droll Robert. “We just have fun together. I think we genuinely enjoy being together and doing these characters and telling these stories. … On the weekends, at night, days off, I’m constantly processing through the material and giving ideas and giving my views. S.J. is very much the same way. We’re very, very fastidious in making it as good as it can possibly be — without being annoying.”
Their efforts pay off deliciously — and honestly. Though it’s admittedly hard, in early episodes, to imagine what drew this pair together in the first place, every married person will recognize their language, spoken and unspoken, as wounds start to fester. Who among us has not raised an emphatic middle-finger salute to our partner’s back as they land a stinging remark then walk away?
“In the pilot, when I do that, I just made that up when he walked out of the room — but I do think it became their language to each other,” Parker laughs when I ask her if she indeed imported the gesture from her own marital interactions. “The rolling of their eyes. The intense annoyance. What is it that allows you to love somebody and actually hate them sometimes? Like really hate them. Why it all hurts so much is because you love them. It’s the love, and it’s the time spent and the commitments that have been made that kill you.”
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