HBO’s “Divorce” and “Insecure” Offer Very Different Takes on the Lives of Women

Posted on October 10, 2016

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With the premiere of Sarah Jessica Parker’s new joint Divorce and “Awkward Black Girl” creator Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” HBO is to be commended for offering such disparate takes on women’s lives, not only in their programming, but on the same night. But we question whether the programming block makes much sense, given how different each series is from the other.

One is the story of an upper-middle-class suburban middle-aged white woman whose cold and sad marriage has reached an endpoint. The other is the story of a Millennial urban black girl who wants to figure her shit out before the dreaded 30th birthday peeks over the horizon. Together, they don’t fight crime (unfortunately), but they do make up an unusual programming block for the network, simply because it’s hard to see an overlap of interest in their respective audiences. Not that the average audience member couldn’t handle the differences in each character’s background. There’s no reason to believe that the audience for the story of a marriage ending can’t also be the audience for the story of a young woman finding her way. But going from one show that’s practically defined by depression and disappointment, to another one that’s equally as defined by optimism and even a sort of tempered joy is a tough transition to make. Then again, given how the modern viewing audience tends to construct its own block of programming for itself, through the use of streaming and on demand video, there’s no real reason to think each show needs the other’s audience at all. But for purposes of discussion and dissection, they do tend to make a fascinating juxtaposition. One is about youth, beginnings, and race. The other is about aging, endings, and class. Both tell stories that have been told many, many times before, but only one of them manages to make their story seem fresh.

In many ways, it’s impossible to look at Sarah Jessica Parker in an HBO drama about an upper-middle-class white woman in New York state dealing with sex and relationship issues and not see it somehow as a continuation of the story of Carrie Bradshaw, the lead character in Sex and the City. We struggled with the idea of whether or not the comparison was unfair to her as an actress, but after seeing this first episode, we don’t think it is at all. As much as we like SJP as a performer, she’s not bringing anything new to her portrayal of Frances except a sort of weary depression that doesn’t play to her strengths. Fair or not, she’s playing depressed, middle-aged Carrie Bradshaw. It didn’t have to be that way, although getting away from the comparison would’ve required Parker to deliver a performance unlike any we’ve seen from her.

But Divorce has issues, and Parker’s performance, which is generally quite good (if unsurprising), isn’t really one of them. It just tends to make a decent stand-in for discussion of the series’ overriding problems: it’s stale and it’s depressing as hell. The tale of a well-off, educated white couple’s divorce is not a tale any of us are unfamiliar with. The worlds of cinema and television have been mining that particular vein for a good fifty years now. In order to get the public to tune into a prestige cable series centered around the topic, you better have a damn good hook. Showtime’s The Affair managed one excellent season and one only okay one by formally upending the audience’s expectations of how such a story would be told, but Divorce doesn’t come close to doing anything like that. It’s almost as if the series grits its teeth and decides to get on with the grim tale. We won’t deny that there are times when the darkness of the script nails the emotions of a relationship several decades old; the exhaustion and the constant fight to stay emotionally engaged with something that feels like the hardest job ever. What it fails to do is find any humor or wit in the situation. And that would be fine if this was a dark and serious drama, but the show is clearly trying to present itself as a dark comedy. The opening scene, at Molly Shannon’s character’s 50th birthday, is supposed to come off darkly funny, but instead comes off deeply bitter and winds up setting the tone for the rest of the episode. In short, it was tough to even sit though this one. The cast is good but the story, at least as it was laid out in this first episode, is anything but.

Insecure, on the other hand, is a total delight. Like Divorce, it’s not telling us a new story. The “young women in the city, talking about their dreams and their plans, looking for romance and professional fulfillment” series is a tale as old as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which practically created the genre that was later advanced and built upon by Sex and the City and Girls, among many others. What makes it fresh is that these women aren’t white. That may seem like a facile point to make, but consider this: when lead character Issa listens to her best girlfriend Molly run down the limited emotional options she’s allowed to have after three dates, it’s a conversation we’ve seen play out on countless TV shows. But as many times as we’ve seen the “Do I call? Do I wait? Do I say it first? Do I wait?” monologue of the frustrated single woman, we’ve never heard one end with a line like “Motherfucker, no! I’m a grown-ass woman! I didn’t sign up for that shit!” We’re miles away from the perfectly witty little white-lady brunches of Carrie Bradshaw & Co or the neurosis-fueled narcissism of Hannah and Marnie.

Which isn’t to say Issa and Molly aren’t balls of insecurity (hence the title) and neuroses themselves. Issa is stuck in a job she’s had since she graduated college, but it doesn’t fulfill her and has her actively questioning whether it’s even morally right for her, leaving herself open to situations like a classroom full of African-American children questioning her blackness and a conference room full of white people fetishizing it. She’s also stuck in a going-nowhere relationship with a guy who doesn’t seem to have left the couch in about 5 years. Molly is crushing it on the career front (“White people looooooove Molly”) but fears she’s put herself through so many bad romance situations that she’s been left with nothing to show for it but a “broken pussy.” Except for the dialogue and the racial politics, most of this could be an episode of Girls or even Broad City. What makes it different – and this would, not coincidentally, be the moment we fell in love with the show – is when Issa allows herself to be pushed into picking up the mic at a club and freestyling a rap called “Broken Pussy,” which winds up infuriating Molly because Issa used her own pain to impress a guy. It’s both hilariously funny and sadly poignant at the same time. The chemistry between the two women is flawless and when Issa shows up at Molly’s door in the middle of the night with Cheetos and Cool Ranch Dip by way of apology, it’s hard not to come away from the end of the episode without thinking you just met your two favorite TV girlfriends. Insecure may not necessarily be blazing trails in its storytelling, but it’s hard to deny the freshness of its style. We can’t say we’ll be back for Divorce‘s next episode, but we wouldn’t miss Insecure’s.

 

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