Sarah Jessica Parker explains the big tone shift in season 2 of HBO’s ‘Divorce’: ‘I don’t want it to seem like we have no backbone’

Divorce season 2HBO

  • Sarah Jessica Parker explained why she and the writers brightened up the dark tone of her show, “Divorce,” for season two, which premieres Sunday night on HBO.
  • The actor and producer said that it was important to show a divorced couple that actually gets along.  
  • She’s confident in season two, but still wonders if they made the right narrative decisions by doing a time jump, which skips over a major event at the end of season one. 
  • Parker also discussed the benefits of working with a female showrunner, and on a more diverse set featuring more female directors. 

When Sarah Jessica Parker starts talking about her current HBO show, “Divorce,” you can instantly tell she loves it the same way many of her fans love her iconic HBO show, “Sex and the City.” 

But it hasn’t exactly reached that status for the general public. The first season had its moments, but even with a wealth of talent, the show hadn’t found its voice yet. But in season two, producer/star Parker and company figured it out — so much that the season left me wanting more. And when I told Parker how much I loved the season, she lit up.

HBO’s half-hour comedy “Divorce” follows of Frances (Parker) and Robert Dufresne (Thomas Haden Church), a couple living in the picturesque New York City suburb of Hastings on Hudson as they go through a tumultuous divorce. They have a son and daughter together, both teens.

The first season, which premiered on HBO in 2016, got mixed reviews. It was a little darker than people were expecting, and a bit superficial in its portrayal of a couple that hates each other. And it ended on a sour note in its season finale: Frances, who cheated on Robert and tells him she wants a divorce in the first episode, plans to take their children away for the weekend amidst arguments over custody. While Frances is driving on the highway, she gets pulled over and arrested for kidnapping her own children, who are in the car. Robert is the one who called the police.

But “Divorce” is a story that Parker really believes in, and her passion shows in season two. It’s a vast improvement from season one. It’s more pleasant, funny, and takes advantage of its talented cast, which includes Molly Shannon, Tracy Letts, and Talia Balsam. It also surpasses the superficial elements that brought down season one by showing a divorce that works because the characters care about each other. 

Business Insider sat down with Parker at HBO’s New York office in January and discussed the narrative choices for season two (and whether or not they made they right ones), changing the tone of the show without losing its voice, and the benefits of working with a female showrunner.

Season two of “Divorce” starts on HBO Sunday, January 14. 

Carrie Wittmer: Season one was a lot darker than most people expected, and ended on a very dark note. I loved season two because it’s more comedic than season one, but feels like the same show.

Sarah Jessica Parker: Ok, good. I’m so pleased.

Wittmer: The tonal shift wasn’t stark, which can happen when other shows change things up a bit. What was it like adjusting to a new, lighter environment on set? 

Parker: I think we all knew even before Jenny [Bicks, who replaced Paul Simms as showrunner when he left over creative differences] came on, that we couldn’t be completely entrenched in battle, that this had to be this season of hope. We looked at it as promise: Why do you liberate yourself from a marriage when it’s that painful? What is the point? It’s because you expect that there are other opportunities. My only concern was the very thing that you said: I don’t want to do a bait and switch, because it’s gonna look like we have no backbone. It would look like we didn’t trust ourselves the first season, which I did. I still like that darkness — I personally love that, because it felt so cinematic to me and it felt not like television in a lot of ways. I’m hopeful that just even hearing you say it that we found a way to marry the two without sacrificing the things that were important.  

Wittmer: Definitely. Season two shows that Frances and Robert, who were hostile toward each all through season one, are still kind of in love, and always will be in some way, but they had to move on. What’s your favorite part of their relationship?

Parker: My favorite part as an actor is just being with Thomas [Haden Church]. That’s the truth. The hardest part of season two was being separated from him. To have Thomas taken away was really hard for me because the irony of divorce is that the person you’re trying to separate from, you need the most to complete this. You need the person to work alongside you. So for me, the best part of their relationship is the time that we got to be together in new ways. We had to figure it out and experience it for the first time just like the audience. I like that they are good together. I like that they have an involuntary kind of chemistry, and a strange, inexplicable affection. 

Divorce season 2Parker and Thomas Haden Church in season two. HBO

Wittmer: You opted to skip the divorce proceedings. The second season has a slight time jump, which opens with Frances and Robert signing divorce papers. Just like that, they’re done. It’s very been there, done that. Was there a lot of debate over whether or not to show the proceedings?

Parker: Oh, yes. So the first question was: Where do we pick up? Is it 20 minutes later? Is it two weeks later? Is it two months, six months? My great concern I had was that we had to figure out a way how to address what happened on the side of the highway. [In the season one finale, Frances takes the kids away on a trip. Robert calls the police on her, claiming the kids have been kidnapped. Police pull Frances over and arrest her on the side of the highway with the kids in the car]. To not do it, it felt lazy, almost like we couldn’t figure out how to do it, that it was too complicated, that we had painted ourselves into a corner. I kept assuming we were going to. So there was that to hash out, and really have some very robust disagreements about. And then there was, how much are we showing and telling? And how much is necessary? None of us wanted a procedural.

Wittmer: I think it was the right decision. So many films and shows have covered divorce proceedings. We already know what happens.

Parker: I’m still not sure if we did right by the highway. Like, we didn’t really deal with it. 

Wittmer: I liked how it wasn’t directly addressed. It was a huge theme throughout the season that Frances and Robert love each other so much that they put this horrible thing so far behind them that we never even hear them mention it. Frances could use it against him, but she never does. The decision to leave it alone helped me understand their relationship, I think. 

Parker: Ok, good. I was so worried

Wittmer: Don’t be. I really liked that. I love it when shows don’t feel the need to address everything. It’s just something that sits with you.

Parker: I just wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were just looking scared.

Wittmer: I didn’t get that impression at all. I know that you, as a producer on the show, and HBO in general, are trying to get more female directors and more diversity on set. I think there were more female directors on season two than season one.

Parker: Yes, there were.

Wittmer: Was there a different vibe on set compared to some other projects you’ve worked on?

Parker: This has been something our company [Pretty Matches] has been trying to do, not arbitrarily, because I don’t think it’s very helpful when you put out the call, like … “all women and people of color and diversity!” But we really just want to look for the people that deserve to be storytelling with you. And that means in all departments across the set, from mixers to set dressing to the production office. It’s just good for everybody. Personal experiences are shared in lots of ways: they don’t just have to be shared in the writers room. It does change the environment, it changes the climate, the tone of the set. I’ve spent a lot of years in my career with women. And it’s very pleasant, you know? And I think it’s good for us. It’s very interesting when Jenny [Bicks] came on, I had never worked with her as a showrunner. I’d only ever worked with her as a staff writer on “Sex and the City.” But she came on and I was like, “Damn, things just got done.” It’s so interesting to see a woman running this show this way, because it was like the way I work — we get it done! Get it done!

Wittmer: In this season, Frances had more scenes with her friends. There’s not many shows that tell the stories of middle aged men and women with lives outside of being mothers or grandmas. 

Parker: Right, right. You’re right.

Divorce season 2Parker with co-stars Molly Shannon and Talia Balsam in season two. HBO

Wittmer: Was this something you wanted to showcase in season two? I would honestly watch a show just about Frances and friends. 

Parker: Yeah. And we wanted even more. Not to the exclusion of Thomas, but to find a way to let those stories unfold a little bit more. I was SO happy — I love Talia [Balsam] so much and I love Molly [Shannon] so much and that was definitely an enormously joyful part and I selfishly would’ve liked more.

You can watch the trailer for season two of “Divorce” below. If you haven’t seen the first season, you can stream it on HBONow or HBOGo.

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