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HBO series Divorce offers up original, demented comedy

In the annals of the popular culture's journeys into the matter of divorce, the work of the inimitable Tammy Wynette stands out: "I love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for me/Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E."

It's actually a fun song, Tammy's rendition of D-I-V-O-R-C-E, a heartbreaker in which the about-to-be-divorcee spells out words such as "divorce," so that Joe, the innocent son, doesn't grasp what's going on. That is, it's fun if you find ultrasincere tearjerkers to be eminently laughable.

Divorce (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) is a brilliant, caustic comedy but a fair warning is necessary – not everyone is going to find it really, really funny. At. All. Even in advance, it has divided critics and reviewers. Me, I believe it's a work of coolly casual genius. But a review in a San Francisco paper said: "There's a very fine line between funny-annoying and annoying-annoying, and Divorce crosses it."

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There's the problem – it's about obnoxious people. Eventually, they grow on you, I guarantee, but from the start it's clear that searching for nice qualities in the main characters is in vain.

The show marks the return of Sarah Jessica Parker to TV and if you're looking for hints of Carrie Bradshaw now grown up and married and fulfilled, you're not going to get it. Sex and the City was about optimism. Divorce is about selfishness, pragmatism and the emotionally destroying act of uncoupling.

In Divorce, Parker plays Frances, a woman of a certain age, cozy with business success and comforts, who decides that she can't stand her husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church) any more and wants out. When he discovers something about her, he wants out, too.

It's not that Robert is an awful man. He's irritating. He's unhappy to be middle aged and given to the kind of blunt talk that is refreshing at first and then irritating. The viewer might look at him and say, "He's only annoying, not an obnoxious jerk!" Thing is, both Frances and Robert are selfish . They're viable as a couple for a few minutes and then you want to shake both of them out of their narcissism.

Divorce was created by Sharon Horgan, writer and co-star of Catastrophe, and she brings the same fine, dark, deadpan sense of comedy to this one. It uses language as a weapon and a boundless fount of humour. The show is remarkably bawdy, sometimes scurrilous, a genuinely original, slightly demented comedy about a middle-aged couple enduring the emotional see-saw of attempting to stick together through therapy while knowing they both want escape from the marriage.

Often it is truly, blindingly hilarious, an absolute classic of premium-cable, pushing-the limits comedy. But, as I told you, it is sometimes so lowdown dirty that you'll be shocked. And feel the better for it. If you watch it after the second, hotly anticipated U.S. Presidential Debate (Sunday, multiple channels, 9 p.m.), you might well relish its scathing freshness.

Airing this weekend

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Ice Guardians (Saturday, 9 p.m. on Super Channel and available on Super Channel On Demand on Sunday) is an excellent, gorgeously made documentary about the enforcer on NHL teams. It probes the issue of fighting in hockey with wit and sagacity and never loses the connection with the men who do the fighting and enforcing.

It asserts: "Very few understand this position and even fewer appreciate what is involved in becoming one." True. And as the excellent interviews reveal, there can be enormously powerful poignancy in the stories of enforcers who, to their surprise, ended up in the role. The legendary Dave Semenko (I'm old enough to remember the chant of "Cement Head!") says: "I didn't sign up for this." And he's rueful about the reputation he garnered.

Others say bluntly: "I like fighting. I see that guy and I just want to punch his face in." And then there are the painful stories of guys who knew, some with bitterness, that their only hope of making it into the NHL was by using their fists. They were better than that, but it was the role they had to take. No matter how reluctantly.

It is, of course, a role that's under greater scrutiny now. Some know that and see the end coming.

Brilliantly written and directed by Brett Harvey, the doc features interviews with Clark Gillies, Eric Godard, Nick Fotiu, Dave Brown, Gino Odjick, Zenon Konopka, Kelly Chase, Scott Parker, Derek Boogaard, Mitch Fritz, Wendel Clark and others. A must-see in prep for the NHL season.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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