HBO

Divorce Is Way More Interesting Than Westworld

Jordan Veilleux's not a crackpot. He just thinks a so-so comedy about divorce is better than another show divorced from reality.

HBO's latest opus, Westworld, is an expensive bet that's paying off -- but as it burns through beats and hits marks like one of its own "hosts" while social media erupts in the background, I have to ask whether it's writing itself into a Lost hatch sooner than expected. So, while everyone loses their collective shit over Westworld and throws theories, praise, and misgivings against the wall until something sticks, I've been losing sleep over a different, by turns more intriguing and promising new HBO series: Divorce.

It might seem ridiculous or unfair to pit a well-orchestrated (read: mechanical) hour-long drama against a half-hour comedy, but given HBO's track record, it stands to reason one built around a well-mined subject and co-created by Sharon Horgan of Catastrophe should hold its own against Jonathan Nolan and his genre drama -- apples and tear-soaked Kleenex. And Divorce -- a show that should, in theory, work way better than it does -- is, like its namesake, a mess; or is it? If prestige is measured in terms of exclamations and theories as to what's going on during and after its consumption -- and our reactionary culture says it is -- then Divorce's relative failure is more interesting for me to think about than Westworld's polished and consistent success. It's insane to me that nobody's talking about Divorce, so I'm going to start.

Let it be known: I am not a crackpot!

Title Sequence

Both adhere to their genre's conventions. Westworld, like Game Of Thrones and House Of Cards before it, announces itself by literally building its world before our very eyes; horses and Vitruvian Man imagery abound.
By the same token, Divorce opts for a wry smash cut to its opening title card, keeping in the tradition of Girls and Broad City. However, its fuchsia Kate Spade phone case styling is somewhat at odds with its content, and it bungles its delivery; or does it?

Looking at the "O" in its title -- which is split down the middle and quivers to boot -- I'm constantly trying to wrestle a diamond on top of it in my mind. The image doesn't quite work as an engagement ring or simple wedding band. Nor does it really work in its attempt to evoke a separation of something otherwise whole. What we're left with is something that would be right at home in the credits to Masters Of Sex or a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition -- which might be the point.

If slightly tweaked, the MOS credits would work well on Divorce. It's also worth noting that, eight episodes in, one of the only things we really know about SJP's character Frances is that she has passion for art. It's not unreasonable to view it as a sly nod to her character's eventual sexual/economic liberation and O'Keeffe's -- and now that I'm thinking about it, Mark Rothko's work -- as well. But that implies the show knows what it's doing, and I'm still not sure it does. Either way, it's already off to a more interesting start than Westworld.

Time Period And Setting

Like Westworld, Divorce vacillates between periods. Unlike the former, though, I don't think the latter's is intentional.

Assuming the opening sequence is smarter than it seems -- in that it's holding O'Keefe's early 20th-century modernism against Rothko's mid-century abstract expressions so they're separate entities at war with, and in conversation, with each other -- then its anachronisms and conceit start making more sense. It's an interesting approach even if doesn't quite work, or get noticed in any particular context. In fact, I'm only noticing it now.

For weeks I thought the show was just being sloppy trying to create a separation between Frances's life in Westchester and her life in New York City. Looking closer, the blurring of period and contrast of setting is subtler than expected -- especially for a comedy. Remove the Apple products and odd sartorial choice or musical cue -- the already disorienting line from the most recent episode insisting it's been "14 years" since 9/11‬ has to go too -- and Divorce could comfortably fit into any period over the last 60 years. But it seems most preoccupied with the '60s and '70s, when its lead characters came of age, and from which it takes nearly all of its (frankly, jolting) closing musical cues.

By contrast, Westworld wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants you to remember that's in a nondescript but ornate future, as well as in a nondescript but ornate past. It titillates with well-lit clavicles and sweeping aerial shots, but it's ultimately as afraid of the outside world as Hopkins's Dr. Ford. Except for when it abandons its immersive genre conventions to speed things along by including a delightful or emotionally fraught piano arrangement of a modern song, that is.

Tone

I'd argue that Divorce's extreme inconsistencies make it the more interesting one of the two shows here. With respect to Horgan, the series feels like a child left on UCB's doorstep during its third week of life. The series, like its subject, is slippery and volatile.

There are moments the series flirts with greatness, all of which typically involve mania. I'd like to see it approach the wicked tone the pilot establishes, but perhaps the point is that since that speed is what sets Frances and Robert's "journey" into motion, it can't or won't be recreated. Still, this is a comedy...right?

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Divorce springs to life whenever Molly Shannon or Talia Balsam's characters enter the fray, while Westworld's side characters slow it down considerably. Without Diane and Dallas, everything else reflects the muted winter palette of the show's suburban setting, and the jokes -- which are too few and far between -- feel like crumbs stuck in Robert's gross mustache. There's so much potential, and it's already been renewed for a second season -- ahem, Vinyl -- but the opening of a gallery in the suburbs on a block where businesses come and go is a pretty apt metaphor for everyone involved.

However, I will say -- for better or for worse -- that Divorce's "too many cooks" vibe holds my interest. Sure, I'm often ripping my hair out when I think it should go left and it takes a hard right instead, but I genuinely love that it's somehow the most maddening scripted half-hour comedy on cable.

What We Know Versus What We Don't Know

Sure, there's the mystery of Arnold's figurative and literal endgame, as well as Hopkins's Dr. Ford and Thandie Newton's Maeve, those deliciously magnetic characters and the crackling performances they allow -- but is it enough? Can the action of a show built around a mystery here and power play there and that's hurtling towards its season finale sustain itself over time? Will it still be engrossing three years from now when Dr. Ford is trapped among his creations with nowhere to go? Or will it abruptly devolve into something resembling Alias's final season? (Abrams is involved here too, you know.)

I used to think knowing Shannon and Balsam's peripheral characters better than Parker and Church's leads was a huge misstep, as comedy is borne from character. In retrospect, there's something appealing about not knowing anything notable about a show's leads. For one, I'm interested in seeing how things continue to shake out as they question how much they know each other and themselves, and wonder whether they ever really knew each other at all.

Of course it's not ideal to sit around waiting for character development, but it's more promising than the alternative. Frances just learned they're in debt in the most recent episode. It's hard to believe, but I'm going with it because her responses to the news were so great. Which makes me optimistic that her growing frustration and Robert's use of hormones to boost his testosterone will tip the scales toward that manic energy I deeply crave. If we're to learn anything concrete about these characters and their shared history, I want it to arrive exclusively in the form of hurled insults and cutting asides.

Will It Suffer A Sophomore Slump?

As a gripping drama, Westworld's future reminds me of something Maeve says in the most recent episode: "I've been to hell, and I know their tricks." On the other hand, as a comedy, Divorce has nowhere to go but up. Interested yet?

Discussion

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