Screen Test

TV review: HBO's Divorce plumbs marital failure for tragi-comic laughs

Divorce takes a look at the common but somehow taboo subject while Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories delivers fascinating characters

In Divorce- a show about the slow-motion car crash that is a messy middle-aged divorce - Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) yells at husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church) during an argument: "I'm not pretending everything's normal, I'm divorcing you - that's not normal!"

But if one thinks about it, it is kind of normal - with the high divorce rates in many countries, it is hardly unusual to see married couples breaking up these days.

Yet the dissolution of marriage remains somehow taboo and thus infinitely fascinating. And, it turns out, pretty entertaining, too, if it is plumbed for its full tragi-comic potential on screen.

This is where HBO's new comedy derives much of its power, which is bolstered by the fact that it is more common for Hollywood to examine romantic unions than break-ups.

Sarah Jessica Parker (above) plays a woman experiencing marital failure in Divorce while Kaoru Kobayashi is the Master who will cook anything his customers want in Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. PHOTO: HBO

Honest postmortems of failed relationships thus still feel radical. That is why Divorce creator Sharon Horgan's previous series about a marriage gone off the rails, the British sitcom Catastrophe (2015-present), is a sleeper hit.

Horgan has a knack for finding the funny in the maelstrom of human frailties involved when marital bliss curdles - that lethal mix of selfishness, desperation, pettiness and, ultimately, hope. As Frances explains when she says she needs a fresh start: "I want to save my life while I still care about it."

But those same frailties can also explain why some couples get together in the first place, and this is where Divorce is at its most devastating: shining an uncomfortably bright light on the nature of romantic love and how fleeting it is, not to mention how transactional it can be.

The show also captures how hard it can be to pinpoint when it starts to go wrong. Asked this question by Robert, Frances is genuinely perplexed. "I don't know - perhaps when you grew the moustache?" she says.

The five episodes previewed show Frances already unhappy with the marriage; she is at best indifferent to Robert and, at worst, openly contemptuous, his very presence grating on her last nerves.

She is also having a steamy affair with an academic named Julian (Flight Of The Conchords' Jemaine Clement). But when she tells him she is thinking of getting divorced, he grows frosty - suddenly their saucy little fling feels bourgeois and pedestrian.

The rejection catches Frances off- guard and she starts having second thoughts about ending her marriage. But Robert discovers the affair and demands a divorce.

Panicking, Frances tries to talk him out of it. Suddenly, her mid-life marital malaise seems a little frivolous and calculating, with honestly observed details like these that are rare in relationship stories.

Divorce's preferred style of comedy - exaggerated and farcical - occasionally blunts some of its insights, though.

Robert, for example, is consistently presented as a buffoon, which gets cheap laughs, but undercuts the show's admirable attempts at even-handedness.

Marital misery is examined through the couple's married and divorced friends, but this seems to be devolving into a cliched battle of the sexes as her girlfriends rally around her and Robert's misogynistic male lawyers, around him.

Still, the series has plenty of room to develop. A pitched battle looms over the divorce and division of assets and, in a War Of The Roses (1989) way, you want to see how bad it gets, even if that is the somewhat predictable route.

Sarah Jessica Parker plays a woman experiencing marital failure in Divorce while Kaoru Kobayashi (above) is the Master who will cook anything his customers want in Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Based on a best-selling manga series and subsequent late-night Japanese TV drama (2009-2014) and film (2015), Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is set in a modest Shinjuku diner that opens from midnight to 7am daily.



    HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Mondays, 10am and 10pm; HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602), Anytime On Demand

    3/5 stars



    3/5 stars

The only thing on the menu is miso soup with pork along with beer, sake and shochu, but the diner's accommodating owner, who customers call "Master" (Kaoru Kobayashi), will cook anything you want if he has the ingredients.

For his regulars - an assortment of night owls that includes office workers, entertainers, escorts, taxi drivers and gamblers - the diner serves as a refuge and a confessional, and the unflappable Master is not just a cook, but also a therapist, matchmaker, referee, philosopher and even a babysitter.

His diner is an elegant frame story for vignettes from his customers' lives, each episode named after one of the simple comfort-food dishes - noodle soup, fried pork chops, corn dogs or omelette rice - that they request.

We meet characters such as the laconic female cabby trying to shake off her past as an actress playing a ninja on TV; a bitter old comedian who resents his protege's success; a physicist who falls in love with an escort; and a naive real-estate agent who knits sweaters for men she pines for, but has no chance with.

Their stories run the gamut from subtly humorous to slapstick and melodramatic to spooky; the common motifs offer a bittersweet meditation on loneliness and love, laced with that uniquely Japanese sensibility for the impermanence of life and experiences.

And while some of these stories are more successful than others, which suffer from being a little over-simplistic and trite, each never fails to engage on some level - if for no other reason than the delight of watching Master prepare his dishes, which will trigger a lovely Proustian sense memory for anyone who has ever enjoyed simple, hearty food in good company.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'Engaging slice of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe