When our favorite TV show couples break up, their stories often hit home. Perhaps we’ve lived through a similar situation, know someone who has–or simply can’t imagine. Often there’s a valuable insight or a cautionary tale. Whatever the reason, these 10 on-screen portrayals of separation and divorce have the power to stir insights and make us cringe, cry, and sometimes laugh.
This popular Emmy-winning show makes us glad separation and divorce no longer carry the social stigma they did in the 1950s. Yet some might still recognize the shaming, blaming, and pressure on Midge to “save the marriage” after her husband walks out. We cheer the biting revelations in her stand-up comedy routine, wince at every awkward family event–and laud Joel’s supportive speech in “We’re Going to the Catskills!” (S2). These hip young co-parents attempt to get along while moving on. (Mrs. Maisel Season 4 premieres in early 2022!)
This drama’s gritty realism and character dynamics ring true. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Antoine (Wendell Pierce) scouts gigs as a trombone player to support himself, his girlfriend and their new baby. His ex-wife Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) attempts to fix up the bar she owns while commuting from Baton Rouge, where she lives with her second husband and Antoine’s boys. At first their relationship is frosty–we can read their history between the lines–but underneath, affection remains. Her sardonic wit and his flirtatious charm make them a memorable pair of exes.
These jilted wives discover the power of friendship after Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and Grace (Jane Fonda) learn their husbands are romantically involved and want to divorce them. Anyone who has faced a life crisis knows the importance of leaning on a friend who knows exactly what you’re going through–a friend to listen, commiserate, cry, rage and laugh alongside you at every turn.
The 2015 series features a glamorous, high-powered couple who have been divorced for years. For reasons that become clear, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) seeks revenge against her shady entertainment mogul ex-husband, Lucious (Terrence Howard). Yet a mutual interest in the fate of their business empire keeps them bonded. Anyone fighting tooth and nail over division of assets during a divorce might relate. They also drag their adult children into the fray–maybe they should read Kids’ Top 10 Rules of Divorce. This fiery pair shares a passion that just won’t quit.
Speaking of power-couples, Chicago law and politics make for estranged bedfellows when mutual need prevents the pair from admitting they’ve split. Although living apart, Alicia (Julianna Margulies) stands by Peter (Chris Noth) for his sake and their kids, even as she builds a law career and new life out of the very public wreckage of their marriage. We see her struggle with betrayal, single parenting, and whether to give the marriage another try. To its credit, the show kept the two children central to the story for all eight seasons, alongside courtroom and campaign drama and extramarital romance.
Have to give their on-again, off-again romance an A for effort. Gaby (Eva Longoria) and Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) married in haste and for less than stellar reasons: she’s his trophy wife, he offered the status and stability she craved, and they both had skeletons in their closets. It reminds us how important it is to ask questions before tying the knot! But through a cascade of arguments, extramarital affairs, divorce, remarriage, a post-nuptial agreement and much more, eventually Gaby and Carlos know all of each other’s secrets.
The acclaimed drama aired in 1981 and ran for seven seasons, featuring a sprawling cast of complex characters anchored by Captain Francis Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti). Frank is dating public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), but maintains close ties with his ex-wife, Faye (Barbara Bosson), the mother of his child, who has a habit of dropping in on him at work. Do they need better boundaries? Maybe. But the messiness of their lives feels refreshingly real. We appreciate Frank’s patience with his anxious ex–and Joyce’s contrasting self-confidence.
Custody fights can get ugly. The legal battle between doctors Callie (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) in Season 12 explores how fear of losing a child might drive separated parents to take drastic action–disregarding the child’s best interests. While this long-running series is melodramatic to be sure and the plot twists might not seem realistic, we also know truth can be stranger than fiction.
The spark that led them to wed in Cheers continued in this successful spin-off, but now they’re divorced and co-parenting on opposite coasts. The hilarious banter between Frasier (Kelsey Grammar) and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) includes the sort of petty sniping, withering put-downs and irresistible one-upmanship of people who know each other’s weak points all too well. They push each other’s buttons in more ways than one–reminding us that for better or for worse, no one knows us better than our ex.
Is there a final straw that brings a marriage to its knees? Although head-shaking incidents were a regular occurrence on this show, the deal-breaker happened at the end of Season 6. In a plot twist apparently based on a true story, self-centered Larry (Larry David) finally does something too unforgivably callous for his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines). It says something about the importance of listening, demonstrating empathy–and whether we should ever expect someone to change their ways.
Honorable mentions: Derek and Addison Shepherd, Grey’s Anatomy; Maura and Shelly Pfefferman, Transparent; Carla and Nick Tortelli, Cheers; and Dorothy and Stanley Zbornak, Golden Girls.
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