Unromance is everywhere on TV at the moment – and that’s a good thing

Sometimes you need to see the flipside of love to enjoy the soppy stuff

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Romance is alive and well. There’s plenty of good television around to fill our hearts with sighs and strew rose petals around the sofa. But without sounding like a heartless brute, I want to look the other way for a bit.

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So let’s wipe the Vaseline off the lens, tear the needle off the record and celebrate the opposite, the unromantic television out there.

Because we’re currently seeing a mini-boom in unromance. By which I mean shows that aren’t boy-meets-girl so much as man-splits-with-woman-and-they-mud-wrestle-through-the-aftermath.

Take Divorce (Tuesday Sky Atlantic), Sharon Horgan’s sitcom with Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church on killer form as Frances and Robert, a New York couple whose marriage has run out of road. The picture it paints of marriage (and parenthood) is enough to put a generation off pair-bonding.

But although it’s unflinching and unfluffy, Divorce is not by any means cynical, it just notes the painful ways a husband and wife end up seeing things differently – and does so with a sparky edge that reminds you of Woody Allen, back when he was good.

In one scene this week, Frances and Robert are at a session with their marriage counsellor. Their break-up is driven by the fact that Frances had an affair, and as Robert explains in high dudgeon, he could have had an affair with a friend he got very close to, but although they discussed it, he resisted the temptation to go further.

At this point, it’s Frances’s turn to be outraged: “So basically, you had an emotional affair?” Robert’s horror that this “emotional affair” is then held in the balance against her physical one (“What are you talking about?”) becomes hilariously desperate and etches another crack in their union. Maybe I’m a bad person but I find something cruelly funny about two people looking back on their shared, now ruined, past and competing over whose lumps of rubble matter more.

A similar idea fuelled a terrific sitcom pilot on BBC2 last month called Our Ex-Wife, written with 90mph wit by Julie Thacker Scully, formerly of The Simpsons. It opened by cutting straight from a shot of newlyweds Jack and Hillary being showered with confetti… to the pair ten years later fighting in their front room with broken wine bottles. Nope, no misty-eyed romance there.

I know dwelling on this kind of break-up TV looks a little sour, but in an odd way these un-romantic highlights do celebrate love, just from an awkward angle, from the opposite of the Richard Curtis angle. From the far end, if you like.

And there’s a lot of it about. As it happens, this week’s Ordinary Lies(Tuesday BBC1) dwells on the ruins of a relationship, too, this time between office-worker Holly (the always good Kimberley Nixon) and an ex-boyfriend who split from her seven years ago. When Holly learns he’s back in town she takes to stalking him and starts living a lie in the hope of winning him back. We know this will end badly, but the scene where it does took me by surprise with how throat-constrictingly sad it was.

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There are similar threads elsewhere. In fact, once you start to look, unromance is everywhere – in Cold Feet recently for instance. We wouldn’t want a diet only of bitter break-up-type stories, God forbid, but a scattering of them is, I reckon, healthy. Then, hopefully, after a slap-in-the-face of realism, we can enjoy the tender, feel-good stuff all the more.