About two-thirds of the way through the second season of Divorce, there is a scene that encapsulates the evolution of the show, which went from a darkly funny but bitter story about a couple getting divorced to a lighter, looser affair about what it means to start over:
After learning that her son, Tom, is having sex, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Frances, approaches him on the front porch of their house as he’s about to go for a jog. “We should talk about consent,” she says, as an annoyed and embarrassed Tom starts to run away. Chasing him down the street -- wearing pink stilettos -- she continues: “You know, ’cause consent goes both ways. You know, like, say for instance, ummm, say, like, a girl wanted to kiss your penis.”
“Mom!!” Tom screams, leaving Frances behind. The scene ends with a parental one-two-punch as she calls out back to him: “Alright, just no means no, you know, and tie your shoe!”
It’s a moment that’s both funny and relatable -- and more accessible to the audience. It’s also a familiar situation -- how many times have fans seen Carrie run the streets of Manhattan in sky-high heels? -- that plays to Parker’s strengths.
“The more physical I can be is my preference,” Parker tells ET over the phone in April, adding that she insisted that Frances should chase her son in heels. “People didn’t want me in that and I was like, ‘No, no, no. She should not know this is happening. It’ll be funny: her running in her work clothes.’ I think I added in that thing about his penis. I love all that stuff.” It’s also one of the more human moments that the actress relishes in playing. “The more human we can be on this particular show, the more funny and interesting it is. I love that,” she adds.
Twelve years after Sex and the City ended (the series turned 20 years old on June 6), Parker made her anticipated return to TV with the new HBO series created and co-written by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Motherhood), co-starring Thomas Haden Church as Frances’ soon-to-be ex-husband, Robert, and Molly Shannon as her high-strung friend Diane. Divorce premiered in the fall of 2016 to mixed reviews and an exhausting number of comparisons to her iconic turn as Carrie. But Parker stood firm, not wavered by pressure. “You can’t produce a show thinking, ‘How will I be different so people stop seeing one thing or another?’” Parker said ahead of the premiere in 2016. “You have to have the courage of your convictions -- and I’ve wanted to tell this story for a really long time.” Ultimately, the first season earned Parker her first Golden Globe nomination since 2006 (when she was nominated for her performance in The Family Stone) and a renewal for eight new episodes.
With Jenny Bicks, a former Sex and the City producer, at the helm as showrunner and writer of season two, Divorce shifted to “a season of hope after a season of battle,” Parker says, addressing concerns about the focus and humor of the show. (“Even though one could argue that there's always a new fight to be had,” the actress told me in January, “I just don't think that the actors or the audience would have the appetite for it.”) Bicks infused the series with new energy and enthusiasm -- “She took us to the next place we needed to be,” Parker says -- and was met by positive reviews by critics. “They truly found what it was they wanted to do with the show and it absolutely is what Sarah Jessica does best,” Horgan says of the show, now able to watch largely as a fan. To Horgan’s point, Parker is doing some of her best work on the second season of Divorce.
And what Parker enjoys most about being a performer is the challenge to do new things. Frances is very different from Carrie “in countless ways,” she has pointed out many times, and with season two, she was able to discover more about who that person is. “A lot of her life is unknown to me because, with the beauty of television, you only get to know somebody by playing episodes. So, with a new show, you’re learning that character right along with the audience,” Parker says, admitting that she’s still concerned about delivering her best -- even if comes off so naturally onscreen: “Everyone’s like, ‘You’ve been doing this for so long. You should be relaxed.’ I am relaxed. I love acting. When the camera’s rolling, it’s my favorite place to be. But you want all of it to be as good as it can be.”
When it comes to possibly being recognized by the Emmys, which has only awarded her one acting trophy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for the final season of Sex and the City, the actress says any nomination would feel like an acknowledgment of work. “For sentimental reasons, it’s very meaningful, and professionally, it’s gratifying. It’s nice that this season has been received so well,” Parker says.
As for season three, which has not been officially announced by HBO, Parker says they’re planning “big changes that are really exciting and unexpected. Frances is going to have new relationships that are really interesting and surprising to her. There are all these opportunities.” After the anger and the glimmer of hope, it seems, comes liberation.