There was a time when any storyline with a divorce was taboo on television. Divorce was considered by many as a moral and religious failing and any depiction on television too stigmatizing for audiences and to risky for any corporate sponsorship.
The most popular and most profitable sitcoms of the 1950’s and 1960’s included the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. These early era shows presented a glossed over version of family that audiences longed for in their own lives. Families of divorce were considered broken and imperfect and not suitable for prime time.
Later sitcoms such as the Andy Griffith Show, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Julia, The Partridge Family, That Girl, and the Courtship of Eddie’s Father featuring single woman or men or single parent households in the 1950’s through early 1970’s, gave us the back story of widowhood or fiercely independent feminist or content bachelor too busy or complacent to settle down for marriage.
One of the most revered families of the 1970’s, The Brady Bunch, was a blended family with no mention of Mr. or Mrs. Brady’s previous relationships. The only clue came from the iconic theme song which simply revealed the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three lovely girls and a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own. One day the lady met this fellow and they knew it was more than a hunch that this group must somehow form a family and that’s the way they became the Brady Bunch. Now imagine if the show remained the same for all purposes however it was revealed that Mr. and Mrs. Brady were recent divorcees and became a family under those circumstances. Their seemingly idyllic life would have seemed more accessible and attainable to those divorced children of the 1970’s who hoped that their mothers and fathers could fall in love again and redefine and expand beyond the traditional nuclear family unit.
It was only later in the 1970’s that divorce entered prime time with the original version of the TV sitcom One Day at A Time. This was a portrayal of the daily struggles of a single-parent-divorcee parenting her two teenage girls. The superintendent of the Romano family’s apartment, Schneider became the family’s surrogate father figure filling the void left by a largely absentee father. Redefining the concept of family became emblematic of sitcoms during this era. Work families depicted on shows such as the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Bob Newhart Show were a source of support, love and stability for workers who did not otherwise have families of their own. On the Mary Tyler Moore Show the WJM Newsroom became Mary Richard’s family and in the last episode Mary thanks her coworkers for being her family by making her feel less alone and loved. Divorce still remained largely absent on the small screen making occasional guest appearances on storylines.
HBO Redefines Divorce
HBO has taken divorce mainstream with its new series Divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker, presenting divorce from the perspective of each spouse, Frances and Robert DuFrensne, their two children Tom and Lila, capturing its affect on their family, extended family and friends with an authenticity and boldness rarely seen in television programming. Divorce is neither glamorized nor demonized in Divorce. The show documents the ending of a marriage and the beginning of a new way of life that viewers can relate to on many levels for we all know someone who has been impacted on some level by divorce or themselves been impacted directly by a divorce.
Divorce, is one of the first sitcoms to focus on how divorce profoundly impacts each spouse by exploring unapologetically and without judgment the unraveling of a marriage and what it actually feels like to go through divorce. This voyeuristic depiction of divorce places the audience the mind of Frances and Robert as they grapple and confront the dissolution of their marriage and their individual struggle to redefine their self and hold their ground when life as they know is crumbling around them. In this sitcom we feel the sadness, resentment, loss, anger and fear of Frances and Robert without judgment for we all know someone maybe even ourselves who have been there. And in this sitcom we are encouraged to find the humor and the humanity of divorce. We ride along with Frances and Robert, as they navigate uncharted road of divorce. We can empathize with their hopes, concerns, fears, and dreams and in doing so their divorce is at once normalized and easier to accept. This presentation of divorce is at times uncomfortable to watch because the emotions are so raw and cutting. We feel the pain of Frances and Robert as they confront the unraveling of their union and we feel the aftershocks felt by their children, extended family and friends. However for those viewers actually going through a divorce this show can make them feel less alone because they can relate in some way to the what this family is experiencing.
1 out of 2 Marriages End in Divorce
Statistically, about one out of two marriages end in divorce so divorce is not uncommon in our society. Its acceptance less so and so more depictions on television will help destigmatize divorce in our society and encourage more honest and thoughtful conversations about it. It is not easy to witness what a family may have to confront and the issues a family must work through during a divorce. However, it is in this unease that the dignity of divorce can emerge.
HBO’s Divorce also challenges the myth that divorce is necessarily a bad thing for families. In fact, as Frances and Robert discover, divorce may be the best thing to happen to their family as their divorce ironically brings them closer as a family than their marriage ever could. Frances realizes that she is not happy in her relationship with her husband and while Robert does not feel the same way he must learn to accept this. Moving physically apart is one of the first steps they each must make to live independently. Living apart they must also learn to communicate and work together to co-parent their children. The challenge they face is how to separate and work together as parents without hurting their children and each other in the process. They can be easily influenced to fight against each other by litigating their divorce or their can choose to work with each other to reach a resolution in a mediation. The choice is theirs to make and their journey.
Ultimately, Frances and Robert each want some of the same things for themselves and in their quest for personal happiness and independence they are united. They may have fallen out of love with each other however they both to not want their failure at marriage to define them. They both want to find love again and both want to continue to love, protect and nurture together the greatest asset of their marriage – their two children.
Divorce – the End of a Marriage yet a New Beginning for a Family
There is a humanity and hopefulness underneath the angst of divorce and TV is beginning to scratch the surface. Divorce is at once an ending of a marriage and the celebration of a new positive beginning for a family. HBO is paving the way for future programming on television challenging our notion that divorce is necessarily a bad thing for families. It may even bring families closer together…..