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Finding the Funny Amid the Pain in HBO's 'Divorce'
January 14, 2018  | By David Hinckley
In HBO’s Divorce, funny doesn’t come easy.

The dark comedy moves into its second season Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, and it starts with Frances Dufresne (Sarah Jessica Parker, top) and Robert Dufresne (Thomas Haden Church, top) signing their official divorce papers.

The humor runs toward wry and ironic. The Dufresnes' lawyers, who have just finished one final round of tossing barbs at each other on behalf of their clients, leave the room together making convivial jokes about a legal function at which one of the judges is expected to get drunk.

Frances and Robert, meanwhile, have been tossed into the “what happens next” stage.

In the first season they were busy with Robert discovering Frances’s affair, then everyone else finding out, then the actual divorce cranking into motion.

Now they have to move into the next phase of their lives, for which they seem markedly unprepared. Probably like a lot of people in that situation.

That includes the kids, Lila (Sterling Jerins) and Tom (Charlie Kilgore). In contrast to the grownups, they don’t pretend to have everything under control. Their world has been ripped apart and, unlike the adults, they don’t have a library full of pop psychology books to distract them for as long as it takes to figure out the magical solutions aren’t solving anything.

Beyond the emotional unraveling that divorce usually triggers, money also became an issue back in Season 1.

The genesis of the problem, ironically, lay in both Frances and Robert pursuing their professional dreams.

Before we met them, they were successful professionals making lots of money in New York, which explained why they had their nice house in the suburbs.

But Robert had already left his financial-industry job to pursue his real love, which was flipping houses. At the time, they could afford it, so why not?

As the divorce wheels started grinding, Frances got downsized out of her job, too. At one time that might have been fine, since her real goal was to open her own art gallery.

She’s now done that. Except that the housing market has tanked, so neither of them now is bringing in the kind of income they need to support two homes.

It’s not an unrealistic or unfamiliar divorce scenario. The trick is presenting it in a way that makes viewers shake their heads and smile instead of wincing.

There’s plenty of wincing in the scenes with the kids, as Robert tries to explain how he has no house for them to visit and Frances must cope with the fact that she has become the solo bad guy, the one who has to tell them “no.”

Her desperate one-shot attempt to create some family fun will definitely make viewers wince, and its aftermath gives Parker a chance to let some of Frances’s bottled-up anxiety and frustration bubble to the surface.

The writers work hard to balance the painful moments with absurdity, exasperation, and other off-center situations that in theory lead to laughs.

For viewers, as for the characters, that takes work.

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