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Sarah Jessica Parker returns to HBO in chilly new comedy 'Divorce'

Sarah Jessica Parker returns to HBO in chilly new comedy 'Divorce'
Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker are a couple uncoupling in the new HBO series "Divorce." (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Winter is coming to HBO, and I don't mean that show with thrones and the game and the dragons and wolves and whatnot, but a mordant contemporary comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as a couple whose marriage is clanking to a halt.

Set in an New York suburb blanketed in ice and snow, "Divorce," premiering Sunday, was created by Sharon Horgan, the co-creator/costar of the British series "Catastrophe" — carried domestically by Amazon — about a one-night stand that results in pregnancy and turns into a real relationship. This is like the opposite of that.

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Parker plays Frances, who works at some beside-the-point important-seeming job in a tall building in Manhattan, though she has dreams of opening an art gallery. She commutes to work by train, as did the male stars of film comedies in the '50s and '60s. Robert (Church), who made money on Wall Street, is less successfully developing property; he winds up living on a half-finished work site. The milieu, and the malaise, is 21st century Cheever  — white, Protestant, middle-aged, well-to-do, a little repressed, a little lost and unhip.

The title promises … we don't know what. We like our happiness ever after but are sophisticated enough, as a people, to regard divorce as not necessarily tragic and experienced enough — both in life and the uses of irony — to expect that a series titled "Marriage" might hold much misery. (Indeed, there was recently an FX series, "Married," that did.) It's an intelligent, if sometimes taxing or manipulative show, well played, often funny, here and there lovely; it improves as it goes along, letting us get to like characters who can first seem a little hateful.

The first episode lays on the bitterness, as Frances and Robert attend the 50th birthday of her friend Diane (Molly Shannon). "You see how much weight he's put on," she says of her husband, Nick (Tracy Letts). "He did it on purpose." Toasting Diane, Nick says, "I think we can all agree that Diane has never looked her age — 'til this year, sadly, when it all came crashing down on her," and then makes a crack about her childlessness. That she later takes a shot at him seems not unreasonable; it's the event that impels Frances to ask for a divorce.

Sterling Jerins, Sarah Jessica Parker and Charlie Kilgore are part of a family breaking up in HBO's "Divorce."
Sterling Jerins, Sarah Jessica Parker and Charlie Kilgore are part of a family breaking up in HBO's "Divorce." (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

There are times when Robert and Frances' situation seems predicated largely on their being characters in a series called "Divorce," their worse points arranged by the writers rather than arising organically from characters who conceivably might have lived before pen hit page (or finger pressed key). We get little sense of why Frances and Robert married in the first place, or what staying together for so long might have got them, apart from saving them the trouble of splitting up.

If the show doesn't exactly make you root for them getting back together — even their children shrug the whole thing off — it's satisfying when they do cooperate, or when one does something nice for the other. (Though each is liable to miss the gesture.) It's just enough warmth to go on with, as the calamity closes back in.

If one point of the series is not to look away from what's painful, and painfully funny, in separation, the couple's mandated antipathy does make it something of a relief when Robert and Frances go their separate ways, into scenes with other characters. (As Frances' other friend, Dallas, Talia Balsam makes an impression without having particularly much to do.) Incidental characters, like Geoffrey Owens' small-time lawyer, can seem more substantial just by virtue of having less weight to carry.

Although Parker and Church share custody of the plot, as it were, it is ever so slightly her show. It's Frances' request for a divorce that sets things in motion, and though she's cheating on Robert — Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords" is her deadpan lover — we credit her dissatisfaction more than Robert's lack of it, especially given a certain ungainly clownishness on his part. He burns his finger in fondue. Watching TV, Frances says, he "repeats the jokes right after they say them, instead of laughing." And she hates his mustache, "one of those old timey, Ye Olde bristly shoe brushes, but musty and damp."

Just as important, and not to discount Church's agile turns in "Wings," "Ned and Stacey," "Sideways" and the comedy at hand, Parker is the star attraction here, a key figure in the history of HBO and the medium, coming home. Whatever concerns her new series shares with her last one — Carrie Bradshaw's life might be the one that Frances feels she should be living — it would take some twisting to see "Divorce" as any sort of sequel to "Sex and the City."

It's probably too much, as well, to assign any kind of metaphorical intent to the abundant iciness, the white snow, the gray skies — it may just have been an accident of the weather — but it suits the mood, and the story: Christmas comes several episodes in. It gives struggling characters something extra, something palpable to struggle against, and in the bargain makes them and the world they inhabit seem more alive and actual and imminent.

'Divorce'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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