DIVORCE IN THE CITY
How ‘Divorce’ Creator Sharon Horgan Became the Master of Marital Discontent
Between Catastrophe and HBO’s new series Divorce—starring Sarah Jessica Parker (!)—no one portrays romance as realistically, or as brutally, as Sharon Horgan.
“I want to save my life while I still care about it,” says Frances, the married mother of two played by Sarah Jessica Parker (in a jarring but ultimately well-suited Carrie Bradshaw pivot) in an early moment of her new HBO series, Divorce. “I don’t love you. I want a divorce.”It’s a chillingly honest confession, effectively ending 18 years of marriage between Frances and her husband, Robert (an exquisitely mustached Thomas Haden Church), all while kicking off an unflinching—though often quite hysterical—exploration of a relationship as it navigates the shark-infested waters of the acrimonious divorce industry.It would be shocking to see marital discontent portrayed so candidly and realistically on TV—meet cutes, we love; passionless stasis is significantly less common—were we not already familiar with the work of Divorce creator Sharon Horgan, the Hackney-born, Irish co-creator and co-star of the Emmy-nominated Catastrophe.The romantic comedy has aired two seasons on Amazon in the U.S., startling viewers by completely eschewing the funhouse mirror through which we’re used to seeing love and relationships reflected. Instead the show confronts us with a recently Windexed one, reflecting back all the ugliness and pain that accompanies the joy and butterflies of a couple that has made the brave decision—or maybe fool’s errand—to commit themselves to love.It’s a talent that earned Horgan a lengthy and deservedly fawning profile in The New Yorker praising her in its headline as “The Brutal Romantic.” It’s a description that Horgan, clutching a glass of white wine while tucked in a booth at The Bowery Hotel earlier this week, bashfully giggles at.But then she demures a bit: “I didn’t feel I earned that title, because I don’t think I am a romantic at all. I think it’s the opposite, really. I’m quite the realist.”For an audience exhausted by pop culture’s false promises and aspirational lies—many perpetuated by the unattainable fabulousness of a certain plucky Manolo addict—it’s that realism that makes Horgan such a valuable voice on TV right now, not to mention so in demand.Horgan first broke out with the 2006 BBC comedy series Pulling, about three single, rather debaucherous women. But it’s Catastrophe, about the agony and the…slightly-less-painful agony of weathering a relationship, that really raised her profile. (She co-created, co-writes, and co-stars in the show with American comedian Rob Delaney, whom she met on Twitter. Really.)
There’s an exchange between Horgan’s and Delaney’s characters, voyeuristically named Sharon and Rob, on the morning of their third anniversary that is often used to illustrate the show’s unique, unsentimental approach to romantic comedy.
“I’m more proud of this than I am of the kids,” Rob says. “What’s to be proud of there? Who doesn’t want to take care of the kids.” He points at the two of them and continues, “Maintaining this…this is the slog.” Sharon laughs: “Thanks, lover.”People marvel at Horgan’s ability to write so frankly about the relationship discontent. And that’s because it’s really hard, and certainly, for some, uncomfortable to do.“I guess people maybe think it’s hard to find comedy in more realistic disappointment, but at the same time I think Catastrophe has a lot of positive feeling in there,” she says. “But it is harsh and it is tough and it is real.”
Divorce is about a marriage and a family falling apart. It doesn’t get harsher, tougher, or realer than that. But along the way, there are light moments (Molly Shannon is a co-star, for one), as well as moments of hope (this is the typically charming Sarah Jessica Parker, for two).“None of us live the Hollywood portrayal of a relationship,” Horgan says. “We’re all in the trenches just battling. So I kind of keep my ears open in my own situation and I use that.”She laughs again: “I guess I don’t know how healthy that is, because maybe instead of living in the moment I’m listening to the moment.”The burgeoning marriage of sorts between Horgan and Parker, who had not starred in a TV series since Sex and the City ended in 2004, began, like many relationships, with a blind date.
Parker’s production company had a first-look deal with HBO, and the actress had been wanting to make a series about a troubled relationship. Horgan had been developing scripts for HBO for years, none of which got made but a few of which got into Parker’s hands. They met, got along, and Horgan had the idea for Divorce, as well as one terrifying realization: “Oh my God. I think I’ve just been asked to write a show for Sarah Jessica Parker.”
Horgan blushes when I tease her for the familiarity with which she now refers to Parker—“S.J.”—but pretending everything was normal while shepherding Sarah Jessica Parker’s much ballyhooed return to HBO after more than a decade was the only way Horgan got through writing Divorce’s 10 episodes with a semblance of sanity intact.
“Of course I know that she’s one of the most famous people in the world and I know she’s America’s Sweetheart, all those things,” Horgan says. “But I had to park it or else I would’ve choked. I would’ve been overwhelmed by it.”
It’s tempting to draw a line from Carrie to Frances, estimating that Frances’s divorce might be where Carrie finds herself all these years into a marriage with Mr. Big. But it’s a testament to both Parker’s range as an actress—Frances is centered and hard in every way that Carrie was gregarious and warm—and Horgan’s writing that it’s evident from the first scene that these characters and their shows are not the same.“Carrie could never have turned into Frances and Frances could never have a start like Carrie,” Horgan says. Frances didn’t get what she wanted, the way that Carrie always seemed to in the end. She had to do what so many wives and mothers do, which is not put themselves first. There’s no way Frances “couldn’t help but wonder…” because, really, who has the time?Horgan, as prolific as she is, hasn’t been immune to that burden, which is certainly evident in her very work. Horgan married husband Jeremy Rainbird in 2005, and they have two daughters together. When she and Delaney wrote Catastrophe, they had a rule that nothing could be made up, that every plot point was mined from their own marriages our someone’s quite close to them.
“I think I’m a therapist in my own work,” she says. “But that’s not healthy either because instead of talking things out I write things down and put them in a TV show…I’m very good at analyzing situations up there while they’re happening. I’m not great with actually dealing with them.”Horgan and Rainbird are still very much married, and so the “nothing made up” rule obviously does not apply to Divorce. But given the public knowledge of how much of her shows’ storylines are ripped from her own life, she’s very aware that there’s a fascination with how her husband reacts to watching unsavory moments from their relationship play out onscreen.“I mean I do get asked that question quite a lot,” Horgan says. “It makes me feel guilty because I don’t think about it as much as I should. I will say that watching Divorce with him last night was as uncomfortable as I hope it will be for any couple.” She hopes that people laugh and enjoy the show, but she also hopes that they feel that same sense of discomfort: “I wonder if that’s how my partner’s feeling?”
It’s a much different kind of escapism than the one Sex and the City, with its hopelessly romantic, endlessly stylish look at love in New York, provided.Molly Shannon’s fed-up wife pulls a gun on her husband. Frances admits that she once fantasized about shattering a laptop and using its shards to skin Robert’s scalp—or, perhaps even more brutally, that she ran out of meaningful things to say to him years ago. It’s the escapism of someone on TV saying out loud what we may think but be too afraid to say.“It’s like going to a therapist and telling them your worst problems and your therapist saying, ‘I’ve heard worse,’” Horgan says. “So you’re like, ‘OK! Maybe I’m not abnormal.’” Writing that kind of dialogue has always been cathartic for Horgan, an experience that became a little more painful while penning Divorce.
“Even watching it last night I felt uncomfortable knowing that those things came out of my head, and now they’re coming out of someone’s mouth and other people are hearing them,” she says.But if anything, she surmises that people will watch how extremely off-putting Frances and Robert’s divorce is and, in a way, the show could serve as a cautionary tale. “I’m trying to save people,” she laughs.Horgan has said in the past that she’s joked to Delaney that she, if not everyone, would get divorced if it wasn’t so damn hard. Writing about the process has scared her off it even more, “Not that I’m a one-woman crusade to help lower divorce figures,” she adds.
After spending time with Horgan, one might say, to put it in Sex and the City terms, she’s a Miranda intellect with the Carrie spark, who writes with Samantha candor but carries herself with Charlotte poise. It’s no wonder, then, Divorce seems more truthful to the real world than Sex and the City, for all its groundbreaking takes on women, friendship, and love, ever was.Midway through listing the dizzying number of projects she has in the works right now—a new series, Motherland, just picked up by the BBC; The Circuit just wrapped on Britain’s Channel Four; season three of Catastrophe set to start shooting November 7—she apologizes for her hangover from the previous night’s premiere party, worrying that she’s spent the interview sounding incoherent. Hardly, but that confession does make her shrewdness all the more impressive, and Horgan seem all the more fun.“I feel like I look mental,” she says after naming off those projects, “like I look like some sort of ridiculous beast just like, ‘Make hay!’ But I’m not.” Certainly not. And what about “the brutal romantic”? Well, actually, just maybe.