TV review: Divorce (Sky Atlantic); Your Face Says It All (Channel 4)

A new brash US sitcom about divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker fails to impress 

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The Independent Culture

The Americans have an expression, you may have heard of it, about trying to make one thing into another but failing miserably: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”. By the way, it was most famously used by Barack Obama about his political opponent Sarah Palin, a now forgotten act of (arguable) political misogyny way overshadowed by The Donald, but we won’t labour that point. 

The phrase leapt back into my head towards the end of the second episode of Divorce, an HBO production showing on Sky Atlantic. In case you didn’t know, the premise of this show is a novel one; instead of exploring the standard romcom delights of courtship, laughter in the rain and bittersweet moments in restaurants, this one concentrates, as the title suggests, on the end-of-married-life phase, when the moments are more bitter than sweet, and the “courtship” takes place inside a court room as the relationship is legally euthanised. 

Created and co-written by Sharon Hogan (PullingCatastrophe), who is not American, I know, it is a fine exemplar of the pig-lipstick phenomenon thingy. Let me explain. All the usual elements of the standard American sitcom are still very much in evidence. Wholesome family, albeit broken. Cute dog. Nice clapperboard house, photogenically glistening in the New England snow. Wisecracking lead couple. Pearly bright teeth. Friends. “Friends”. Ex-friends. And yet, in keeping with the general trend in US comedy in the past decade or two, these essential traditional elements (the pig) are served with a drizzle of irony, coarseness, toilet humour, swearing and sex (or at least sexually explicit descriptions of sex). Maybe they’re trying to be more British.

Anyway, the attempt fails. Divorce remains an ineradicably schmaltzy affair, right down to the gratuitous music sequence at the end. It represents an unbearable experience for those of us brought up on Steptoe and Son, Bottom and Peep Show. I almost forgot to mention that Sarah Jessica Parker appears as the unfaithful wife, who forsakes her builder husband (Thomas Haden Church) for a Columbia University professor who “makes his own granola”. Old builder guy – all plaid shirt and granite work tops – asks whether “make your own granola” is “a euphemism for butt play”. So the lipstick, if you will, is quite lively, which I did appreciate. I even found myself inclined to find out more about the professor chap, as we seem promised in the next instalment. Nonetheless, Divorce is a bit of a pig. I’ll stop there. 

The first face that you see on Channel 4’s new documentary series Your Face Says It All is Lesley Ash, she of the trout pout and, thus, a face that really does say it all. Actually, that’s unfair on her and on the show, which made a much better job of doing telly science than it had any right to. I learned things. Quite the novelty, eh? I found out, for example, that the way that just two dots and a couple of lines can be seen by your brain as a “face” is called “pareidolia”. So that accounts for all those people who see the face of Jesus on a slice of toast, Elvis on a cloud or Hitler in the configuration of a house’s door, windows and slope of a roof (just Google “Hitler Houses”). 

I also learned some other handy stuff. For example, there is “some evidence” – well, one small study – that suggests gaydar is for real, and that homosexual males tend to have: wider and sharper faces; smaller and shorter noses; and longer and rounded jaws, what the narrator describes elegantly as “a mosaic of feminine and masculine features”. My personal gaydar has been broken for a while and I’ve been waiting for an engineer to come round and fix it, but apparently they can’t get the parts any more. So that little checklist will have to do for next time I need to work out someone’s sexual proclivities from looking at them (though I suppose that could work in a number of unexpected ways). 

More depressingly, seeing as I don’t think I qualify, is the set of features perceived as being “competent”. Such faces are less round, there’s less distance between eyes and eyebrows, they have higher cheekbones and more angular jaws. In that case, though, perceptions of competence have no correlation with actual competence. But that doesn’t stop us voting for them or promoting them at work. So now you know.

There’s lots more too; poker faces, “resting bitch” faces, botox, dating apps, selfies, racial stereotypes, coppers who spot villains on CCTV – all in a sort of facial overload, I suppose. I’d rather have had just a half-hour of that dumped on me than the full 60 minutes, but it made me smile, anyhow.