“What I am going to do with my life?” That seems to be an implicit refrain in both of HBO’s new comedies, Divorce and Insecure. The hour-long block of (somewhat) lighter fare airs right after Westworld, as the premium channel’s latest effort to add another set of mirth-makers to its ever-expanding library of exclusive content. One series features a return to television for one of HBO’s biggest stars, Sarah Jessica Parker, while the other aims to introduce audiences to Issa Rae, an exciting and talented performer best known for her webseries The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. As dissimilar as the shows are individually, they actually do make for a good pairing. Both series offer a distinct narrative primarily focused on women at different points in their life facing very specific kinds of uncertainty.
In a sense, then, Divorce and Insecure are not so much examples of HBO’s efforts to bring in new comedies worth pairing with its expensive and ambitious new hour-long extravaganza, as they are illustrations of how the premium placed on specificity and voice have become an interesting byproduct of television’s increased saturation. In this the age of Peak TV, the drive to create content by so many outlets has resulted in the nichification of many shows, particularly those on cable – premium and otherwise. The need for more content has been a windfall for creators, as the inevitable shift to more-specialized programming capable of targeting particular interests and points of view, means more unique voices not only have an outlet, but actually serve to meet a certain demand.
Divorce and Insecure come from women who have established their own unique point of view, ensuring the shows they are a part of adopt that perspective as well. Insecure is co-created and written by its star Issa Rae and former The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore. Meanwhile, Sharon Horgan, the co-creator and co-star of Amazon’s terrific dysfunctional comedy Catastrophe, conceived of Divorce and serves as its lead writer. The result is two remarkably different comedies (well, comedies in the current mutable sense of the word) that despite the disparity in tenor and approach to story and humor nonetheless boils down to the specificity of the creative voices guiding them, and the sense that the two share a common thread of uncertainty about the future.
For its part, Insecure is the stronger of the two series, and much of that has to do with how well it establishes the series’ narrative around Issa and its drive to offer an astute consideration of the lives of black women. The pilot episode – which HBO made available well ahead of the series’ official premiere – repeatedly uses the device of Rae speaking to herself in her bathroom mirror as a way to visually establish its focus on the character’s inner workings and the innumerable possibilities represented by each choice she makes. During these mirror montages, Issa embodies any number of opportunities and desires as she applies different shades of lipstick, each seemingly emphasizing a different aspect of her personality. These aspects are further underlined when she works on rap lyrics or fashions lines of dialogue meant for work, her boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), BFF Molly (Yvonne Orji), or potential dates – hence the uncertainty.
The strength of Insecure comes from Rae’s performance and the willingness to take its time, first establishing the push-pull of the various elements in her life. It begins with an uncomfortable opening sequence wherein Issa attempts to shrug off a series of personal questions asked by an unruly group of school kids, and then another series of awkward exchanges at her predominantly white workplace, before returning home to deal with a romantic relationship that has stagnated to the point Issa wonders if she’s wasted her twenties. The thread of uncertainty carries through the premiere as Issa fashions a girls’ night out with the intention of running into an old flame, only to alienate Molly and discover the man she’s pursuing isn’t interested in anything more than a fling.
Though less devoted to the perspective of a single character, Divorce presents a similar and perhaps more outwardly funny focus on uncertainty and relationships. This time, though, instead of stagnating, the relationship in question is simply toxic. A star vehicle for Sarah Jessica Parker the series also has plum roles for co-stars Thomas Haden Church and Molly Shannon, along with appearances by Talia Balsam (Mad Men) and Tracy Letts (Homeland). But beneath its flashy exterior, an undercurrent of toxicity, to the point of being outright venomous, marks Divorce from the beginning.
As a writer, Horgan has a knack for finding the emotional lining in the difficulties faced by couples in relationships that, by conventional standards anyway, shouldn’t work. That’s the appeal of her series Catastrophe, co-created by and co-starring comedian Rob Delaney. At its heart Catastrophe is a story about a couple that ultimately wants to be together even though the circumstances that gave rise to their relationship also comprise the forces straining it to the point of breaking. Part of what makes Catastrophe fascinating is how its two main characters keep circling back to one another and persevering despite what seems to be an intrinsic incompatibility. It works to make the sometimes-irrational conflict between two people charming in the sense that it takes an incredible amount of passion to get as worked up, for better or worse, as those two characters constantly do.
There is a similar sentiment on display during the early parts of Divorce, as though the inevitable dissolution of the show’s central relationship – it is called Divorce, after all – is driven by an unseen force that speaks to a more tender truth about the couple in question and their feelings for one another. After the first few episodes, however, it becomes clear that Horgan isn’t interested in exploring a similar certitude that the show’s couple, the wholly and seemingly deliberately unlikeable Frances (Parker) and Robert (Church), will circle back to the place they were when the show began. Instead, it seems Horgan is more interested in pushing forward into the uncertainty of what happens after a couple that has been together for a very long time begins the contentious process of separating. There is something compelling about this in the long-term, even if the first few hours consist of comedy that revels too often in the unpleasantness of its characters.
The result, then, is an hour-long block of programming that shares a common thread, but couldn’t be more different. Divorce is fueled by its love of conflict and swings at humor derived from the animosity between its two leads. There’s a hoary cynicism embedded in the show’s DNA that can be grating but further distinguishes Divorce from its Sunday-night counterpart. Whereas Insecure uses the uncertainty of its characters’ lives and relationships to emphasize the allure of self-improvement and self-actualization, Divorce goes full in on its conceit, almost to the point of moving in the opposite direction, even though its end goal is ostensibly the same.
Divorce and Insecure air Sunday nights following Westworld on HBO.
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