‘Divorce’ EP and HUMANITAS Trustee Jenny Bicks on Stepping in as Showrunner for Season 2
On Season 2 of the HBO series Divorce, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) are learning to navigate the aftermath of their separation and rebuild their lives independently while they co-parent. Focusing on careers, new relationships and finding ways to be happy again, with some time apart, they can actually start to remember what it was that they liked about each other.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer Jenny Bicks talked about what it was like to step in as showrunner for Season 2, being back at HBO and reuniting with Sarah Jessica Parker after Sex and the City, the shifts in the series’ tone, selecting the writers and directors for this season, what she most enjoys about watching Frances and Robert together, and what the future of the series could look like. She also talked about whether she’s felt like her own voice has been heard, in this industry, and what it’s like to be a showrunner, with everyone looking to you for the answers.
Collider: How does it feel to be back at HBO and to reunite with Sarah Jessica Parker?
JENNY BICKS: You go away from something and you do all these other shows and you write movies, and then you come back and you’re like, “Oh, hi, you guys!” It’s like going back to camp and seeing all the people that you grew up with, and some of them are different. The beauty of HBO is that the ethos of it doesn’t change, so you feel like you’re back at home. And with Sarah Jessica, it’s similar. We had a shorthand and we knew each other at very different points in our careers, and then you come back together and it’s fun. I also ended up hiring a bunch of writers that I’d worked with on Sex and the City, as well, for the second season. You get to work with the people that you work so well and easily with, in a whole new situation.
Is it easier to come into a show as the new showrunner when you have already collaborated previously with your lead actress?
BICKS: Yes, totally! Sometimes that also complicates things because you both have worked together on a different show, many years ago. I still think, in the end, it’s better because you do have that shorthand, but you also have to acknowledge the changes, on both sides. This isn’t Sex and the City, and we aren’t trying to do another version of the same show. That was important for her and important for me, and no one said it should be. There wasn’t a mandate to make it that, which was nice.
Sarah Jessica Parker is not only your star, but she’s also a very hands-on producer. As the showrunner, how did you find your rhythm with her and what do you think works best about your working relationship?
BICKS: I also worked really closely with Alison Benson, who’s her producing partner, so the three of us worked together. What ended up happening, in a good way, was that everyone found their strength. Everyone took a part of it that they felt the most strongly about, and did it. Because we all respected each other and trusted each other, there wasn’t a lot of duplication of work. I think it took a lot of trust, on her part, to have someone knew come in, in the second season, who had a different vision of where the show could go. It was not necessarily a different vision of where she thought it would go, but it was gonna be different than the first season. I came in with a really strong track record of running shows and knowing what to do, plus I know her and know the writing. It became quite collaborative. She was very involved on set, and I was on set a lot. She became the captain of the actors, and I became the captain of the writers. She would care more about something visual and I would care more about something in the writing, and we would end up batting the ball back and forth.
How was the process of putting together the writers and directors that would tackle this season?
BICKS: I felt very lucky that I was able to hire all of these women from Sex and the City as writers, so that made a big difference. The first season was its own animal, but they didn’t have as many women and I wanted to introduce some more women into the process. There were some directors who had already been hired, who were terrific, and we had Adam Bernstein, who was our producing director. I had actually worked with Adam before, but he was brought on from the first season. So, we had some good continuity, and there was a good chance to expand on who was behind the camera. This was before the #MeToo of it, but we’ve been feeling the need, for a couple of years, to try to get more women involved, in every aspect. Any show that I run, I try, as much as I can, to keep us women at a parity that we should be at.
We’re finally talking about the lack of equality that still exists, and we know that it’s been an issue in the entertainment industry. Have you felt like your voice has been listened to and heard, in your career?
BICKS: That’s a really good question. I started in the mid-90s, in sitcom. At that time, they were still doing these huge sitcom rooms of 15 people, and it would literally be 14 guys and me. It was good training ground for me, in that you have to understand what their misconceptions are about women and you have to learn to fight it. Nobody is going to fight that battle for you, so you have to fight it and stay in it and hope to change it. At that point, were people listening? No. But, I was a staff writer and I was just trying to get my jokes in. They had to realize that I wasn’t gonna cry. There was that thing, especially back then, of, “Whatever you do, don’t cry in the room ‘cause that’s the end of you. Don’t draw attention to yourself, in any way. Play along.” And then, as I got more credentials, my voice was heard, but Sex and the City had a lot to do with that. That show was very female-driven. Michael Patrick King ran it and he taught us all to have our own voices, and we came out of that feeling pretty confident. We all really learned a lot from that show. Had I not had that credential, I don’t know if people would have listened to me, in that way. It’s still a huge problem. In movies, it’s a huge problem.
As the showrunner of a TV series, you’re responsible for everyone and everything, and you’re ultimately the one who gets the credit or the blame for the finished product. What do you remember about the first day you were on set as the showrunner? Was there a sense of knowing it’s what you were meant to be doing, or did you feel like you had no idea what you were getting yourself into?
BICKS: What an interesting question. The first time I ran my own show, I created a show in 2000 that was on after Friends, called Leap of Faith, and it was only on for six episodes. It was a great cast (Sarah Paulson, Lisa Edelstein, Regina King and Ken Marino) and, at the time, it got more viewership off of Friends than any other show after that, but it was 91% and they said that wasn’t enough. By the time you’re on set, you know who you are. You’ve had to be in production meetings, and you’ve had to convince the actors to do the show and deal with them, so by the time you’re there, you know who you are. When I stepped onto the set, I tried my best to not let them see my fear, but that’s whether you’re male or female. It was my baby, but they gave me a lot of money to make my baby, so my baby had to look really pretty in the clothes, or they’d never let me have another baby. I was always good at managing. I’m a good manager, so I knew I could do that. I could make people feel heard, but it’s a whole lot. I’ve learned a lot, over the years, about what to care about. At that time, I didn’t feel like I could give jobs to other people and I didn’t feel like I could trust other people. Now, I’ve learned that you have to hire good people and let them do what they do.
Was it ever scary to have everyone think you had the answers to everything, that you couldn’t possibly have the answers to?
BICKS: And I don’t have all of the answers. Those so much power in saying, “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you,” and, “I’m sorry.” As the showrunner, sometimes you’ll make mistakes and it’s okay to say, “I made a mistake.” For me, as a growing writer, if I’d heard that from more showrunners, I think it would have meant a lot to me. To just have someone say, “Hey, you know what? Learn from this. I messed up on this, so now you don’t have to,” it would have meant a lot., but I think that’s a hard thing for people to say. In life, it’s a hard thing to say, “I’m sorry,” but it can be really powerful. By the way, maybe if I’d said that then, I wouldn’t be a showrunner. I was very aware that I was young and I was female. Now, I wouldn’t be young because they’re giving shows to 22-year-olds. I’m also short, so I’m aware, when I walk onto the set, that I’m not 5’10”. When I’m staring at a DP, I’m 5’1,” so I have to be bigger. I have to be aware that I’m a blonde girl, walking onto a set and I’m 5’1″. You have to bring it. It also helps to be a New Yorker. I was like, “Here’s the deal. Here’s what we’re gonna do. If there’s a problem, I’ll try to solve it.” You don’t mess around. There’s no passive aggressiveness.
The first season of Divorce got pretty dark and intense, at times, and this season is not like that. Did you make an intentional pivot away from that, or did the story tone just naturally become lighter?
BICKS: No, it was important to me, and not because I felt that anything was wrong with that first season. That was the explosion of their marriage. It got very dark. That’s what happens when you get lawyers involved and you get frayed like that, but where do you go from there? We wanted to find the next part of the journey and the movement forward. If you got into that rabbit hole for too long, it would just be too dark, and you’d just be revolving around the same anger and hatred. Let’s learn some more about these people, as the aftermath dissipates. What happens now? Now, it’s the calm after the storm.
What do you most enjoy about watching Frances and Robert, as characters, and what do you most enjoy about watching Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church bringing those characters to life?
BICKS: I think those two are very different characters, so it’s fun to put them in a room together. What was fun for us in the second season was to explore why they were together, to begin with. That’s a question that viewers had, the first season. They got so separated from each other that you wondered what she saw in him and what he saw in her. Once the dust cleared, you could see how they complimented each other. He calls her on her shit because she can be full of shit, and she helps him be more of a grown-up, which he needs. Somewhere in there was a good marriage, and we wanted to explore that more. Because they compliment each other, they can also fight really well. There’s a fondness, even when they’re fighting, which is a lot of fun. And they’re both fun actors, so you can give them material and they’ll take it to the next level when you put them together. Those characters both think they’re right, all the time, so when you put two people together who think they’re right, but they’re actually both full of shit, you can have a lot of fun, as writers. When it all dissipated, you could see that they had something, so there’s also a bittersweet quality to them together. It’s typical. You get together with somebody, and then years later, you can’t remember why you liked each other, and then you do and maybe it’s too late.
Are they dealing with life after divorce better than they dealt with divorce?
BICKS: Yes, I would say that. As we wrote it, there are a lot of twists and turns to that, but at least they’re kinder to each other and to themselves. We did a lot of research into divorce and spoke to a lot of divorce attorneys and people that were going through it, and the one thing they say is that, when you’re in the middle of it and you’ve got these attorneys whose job it is to skin you because they make more money that way and they want to create this feeling of hatred, it really doesn’t help anything and you end up with two people who are the worst versions of themselves. Now that they’re divorced, they can start to see their future. That doesn’t mean they’re better people, it just means that they can breathe a little and start to imagine who they can be again.
When you have two leads who are such great actors, is it a challenge to bring in the right new faces that can find their place among that?
BICKS: Yes, for sure. To play off of each of them in the right way is important. The beauty is that we shoot in New York and we have such a plethora of amazing actors here. That wasn’t the issue. It was more about, okay if we’re gonna give these people new people to act against, character wise, these characters have to really matter. And we were lucky that we got Amy Sedaris as Thomas’ sister. You couldn’t ask for a better comedic, bizarre person. Becki Newton is the perfect love interest because she’s so different from Frances, in the best ways. You could see how Frances would be jealous, and you could see why Robert would like her. We had to spend a lot of time thinking about who we could put up against them that would feel different and take them to a new place.
Sarah Jessica Parker has said that she wouldn’t be disappointed if Frances and Robert got back together, but that that’s something that would be a long way off. How do you feel about the possibility of that ever happening? Are you personally rooting for Frances and Robert to give it another go?
BICKS: It’s funny, she said that in an interview in the middle of the season, and I was like, “What?!” If they organically got back together, I would get it, but I would never write this show for that. It’s called Divorce. It’s about what happens when two people come apart. If they’re gonna come back together, you better be really sure that you’re not shoe-horning that to try to get a happy ending for something that doesn’t have a happy ending. It could be that they’re both single and it’s okay. I don’t want to tell a story that says you have to be in a relationship. That’s not what the show is. So, if they organically got back together, great, but if they found a new life apart, I could see that, too. As a writer, you don’t want to have to try to find a way to that. Organically, they work really well together, but maybe that means they’re good friends and they help each other along the way, or they sleep together but shouldn’t be married again, or maybe they find a new place. There are so many modern ways of having relationships now that would be interesting to explore. I think they would probably fall back into their old patterns because they run so deep, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. It’s something you leave open, and you see where the characters take you.
Do you have a pretty good idea for where things could go in Season 3?
BICKS: Yeah, I think we have some ideas to explore. What’s nice about a story like this, especially as we explore not just their relationship but the other relationships, is that you can see so many storylines and you can have so much fun with it. There’s stuff I’m interested in exploring, staying tonally with where we’ve landed in the second season, and finding ways to put them into even more predicaments. Frances is somebody who’s always wanted to live in the city. What would happen, if she moved to the city, now that she’s single? What does that look like? What does Robert’s success look like, now that he has money? He’s never had money. He’s a complete fuck-up. For him, money is a challenge. Even though this is a topic that’s very painful, it was a lot of fun to write. I’m a big believer in hope, and I feel like there’s still a lot of hope. Even as you have a relationship coming apart, whether you’re married or you’re breaking up with someone you’ve been dating, there’s still always potential for something new. What was fun about Season 2 was that potential. The word seems so final, but there’s nothing final about divorce. It never stops. So, it’s a show called Divorce, where you’re just exploring the realms of relationships.
Divorce airs on Sunday nights on HBO.