Irish writer and actress Sharon Horgan’s breakthrough HBO series Divorce stars Sarah Jessica Parker in a jaw dropping comedy drama that’s unlike anything else on television. Cahir O'Doherty checks out the first three episodes and charts the rise of the Co. Meath-raised Horgan who is making a major name for herself in America at last.
Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, but others come from turkey farms in Co. Meath and they just make it up as they go. Actress and writer Sharon Horgan, 46, is more of the latter.
She lived on one for 19 years until she moved to London and -- to cut a long story short -- eventually found herself becoming one of the most sought after scriptwriters in the world.
Divorce, her latest, is Sarah Jessica Parker’s comeback for HBO, finally putting the Sex and the City monster and Carrie Bradshaw to pasture and tackling a much more complex, hard edged character in a show that is equal parts comedy and horror.
Horgan’s tough as nails shows fascinate us because they give their female leads such richly detailed characters to play, flawed and floundering women who are rarely good and never sainted, who make mistakes and lose their path and yet somehow find their way back toward life.
Real women, in other words. No wonder there’s such a long line of Hollywood A-listers lining up to play them.
In Divorce Parker plays Frances, an upper middle class mother raising two children with her likeable but checked out husband Robert. Seventeen years of marriage have utterly transformed her, noe she's panicking that’s she lost touch with who she was or what she wanted. “I want to save my life while I still care about it,” she tells her stunned husband.
But divorce isn’t a magic cure all that makes everything that went wrong become right. Horgan mines all the anguish and uncertainty for comedy, but there’s a chaser of regret and sorrow to leaven all the laughs.
It was Parker who got the ball rolling on the show in the first place. A huge fan of Horgan’s U.K.-produced comedy series Pulling, like Horgan she started out on the road to Divorce because there were other scripts out there she wanted to star in. (Reese Witherspoon has also wisely employed Horgan to write her a new vehicle for a feature film, having also grown sick of scripts where she was someone’s girlfriend or wife).
For Parker it’s about as far away from the glamour and romanticism of the last HBO show she starred in that set fans and critics alight. Recall too that it’s been over 10 years since the last episode of the groundbreaking Sex and the City wrapped. It was time for a new direction.
Divorce is certainly that. Set in an upscale suburb of New York where the snow and ice are a constant, reflecting the emotional temperature of the warring couples, it’s a reminder that she has leading lady charisma and superb comic instincts.
What makes Horgan’s writing so formidable is that she zooms right in on the conflicts and questions that most people want to avoid. She also has an appreciation of absurdity that at times echoes Irish writers like Beckett. On her 46th birthday earlier this year she wrote on her Instagram page, “I love being closer to death and an eternity of nothingness,” then played a cheerful video clip that showed her grinning.
What’s interesting right away about the new show is how much it packs into every scene. Is it a feminist dramedy, or an offensive throwback where woman the sexes behave in stereotypical manners calculated to win our respect or inspire our contempt?
What makes Divorce so compelling is its deliberate blurring of the traditional lines: men aren’t paragons, women aren’t heroines, rather they’re all a heady mix of good and bad, and often from moment to moment.
“I’m just kind of lucky that I have one of those brains that looks at the bad side of things all the time whilst living a lovely life,” Horgan told the press recently. “Being a glass-half-empty kind of person and a bit of a pessimist and a loon has totally informed the way I write.”
There’s pessimism and insanity all over the pilot episode. Within minutes we -- and Parker -- are watching a long married couple (the wife is played by the gifted Molly Shannon) who are eaten alive with resentment for each other. They throw a disastrous party that comes to a sticky head when Shannon’s character pulls a hand gun that results in her husband’s heart attack.
It’s daring in itself to think that these train wreck marriages could be the stuff of comedy, yet the darkness that Horgan brings to the proceedings has you laughing one minute and deeply moved the next. The tone is both realistic and slightly heightened, allowing you to pull back a bit from the very real heartbreak to focus on the sheer insanity on the screen.
Like Beckett, Horgan seems to think that nothing is funnier than unhappiness. So we watch through our fingers as these well-meaning but out of control characters make a mess of their lives.
Thomas Haden Church is note perfect as Parker’s hangdog-faced husband, the man who vomits into his wine glass when she announces that she’s leaving him. That scene in itself is sure to startle diehard Sex and the City fans, who may be wondering what happened to the freewheeling Carrie?
Well, things just end comes the hard won reply from Divorce, or do they? What’s remarkable about the show is that we can’t tell if this is a particularly volatile mid life crisis or an actual, unstoppable ending. To make matters even more complex we start to care about Parker and Haden Church’s characters just at the moment they are jettisoning it all away.
If this all sounds like something you’ve seen a million times before, I dare you to watch it. Hogan brings a riotous Irish sensibility to what is an over familiar genre, shaking the audience out of its complacency.
Parker is sensational in the new role, playing a much more financially strapped woman whose money worries keep her up at night and raise the stakes of this already unsettling break-up.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that an actress this famous and rich can play someone with a fraction of her bank balance. After all, Parker spends some of her summers in Donegal and is as comfortable in a local chipper as she is at the annual Met Gala where she is still a fashionista to be reckoned with.
If you haven’t seen Divorce yet, give it a whirl and catch Horgan’s acidly funny script writing skills before she steps back in front of the camera again soon in pursuit of her own first love, acting.
“It’s fantastic to be someone else, and writing is a pain in the h--e,” she told the press recently, though there are no plans for her to appear in a new season of Divorce herself yet. With her star in the ascent, she can chart her own course now.