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‘Divorce’ review: Sarah Jessica Parker stars in sullen comedy

Thomas Hayden Church and Sarah Jessica Parkerare splitting

Thomas Hayden Church and Sarah Jessica Parkerare splitting up in "Divorce." Credit: HBO / Craig Blankenhorn

THE SHOW “Divorce”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) are a married couple who live in a tony suburb along the Hudson. One night, they go to the 50th birthday party of Frances’ friend, Diane (Molly Shannon), who gets bombed, and pulls a gun on her husband, Nick (Tracy Letts). In the immediate aftermath, Frances makes a decision — time to dump her husband. Her friends, like Dallas (Talia Balsam) approve. But will the kids — Tom (Charlie Kilgore) and Lila (Sterling Jerins) — be alright?

MY SAY Sarah Jessica Parker: She’s your obvious reason why “Divorce” arrives Sunday, or perhaps arrives at all.

The reason is an absolutely compelling one, too. Among the most important comic actors in HBO history, Parker hasn’t headlined a series since “Sex and the City” ended in 2004. The “why not?” has to be one of those questions without an easy or obvious answer, because Parker is a wonderful actress, and is good in this, too. Maybe she just needed the space to make the “Sex” movies, then extricate herself from Carrie Bradshaw once and for all.

Carrie is gone Sunday but a little bit of her remains in Frances: The longing, the self-involvement, the libido. Frances may or may not have a closet full of Manolo Blahniks, Louboutins and Jimmy Choos — but it would be funny if she did, no?

Parker began developing this four years ago, then Sharon Horgan signed up as producer, and if HBO had any doubts up to that point, they must’ve been erased. Like Parker, Horgan — who wrote “Divorce” — is a gifted comic actress and star of the Amazon gem “Catastrophe.” (She does not appear in this.) An excellent cast then followed, including Church, Shannon, Balsam and Kilgore (“Moonrise Kingdom”).

So what — you are asking by this point — is the problem? Unfortunately, that would be the show. Watching two people agonize through the demolition of their marriage is hard enough, but watching them in an ongoing series is certifiable torture. Robert and Frances don’t reinvent the process, either. In them, you still get the familiar 12-step guide to divorce, along with the acrimony, jealousy, anger, fear and bitterness. The kids find out by the third episode, her parents by the sixth. The lawyers arrive around the fifth.

You almost forget this is supposed to be a comedy, although there’s scarcely room for humor. Even its acrid and — under these circumstances — perfectly understandable by-product, contempt-fueled sarcasm, fails to make an appearance.

Instead, Frances and Robert are strangers thrust into your midst, and as a viewer you’re forced to catch up with them. “Divorce” is intimate but without any emotional investment in the leads, the intimacy feels hollow, rootless and often airless.

In a sense, that’s the whole point. “Divorce” does begin at the end, so to speak, then goes on from there because it wants viewers to see a little bit of themselves — or their own marriage — in Robert and Frances before they actually get to know Robert and Frances. It does offer a glimmer of healing, perhaps hope, but slogging through everything else is what makes “Divorce” so sodden.

BOTTOM LINE Parker’s good, but otherwise “Divorce” is sullen and sodden.

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