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At this moment, nobody on TV does family sitcoms as well as ABC.
It isn’t even really close. With a lineup that includes, at various times, The Goldbergs, Black-ish, Speechless, Fresh Off the Boat, the departing The Middle, the returning Roseanne and the desiccated corpse of what used to be Emmy-winning Modern Family, there’s a formula for interesting and inclusive family sitcoms that the network has cracked, at least temporarily.
AIR DATE Mar 27, 2018
ABC’s family sitcoms have generally helped each other, each amplifying what’s good and different from the rest. There’s a downside, though. American Housewife premiered with a misguided overemphasis on its main character’s weight, and the long process of finding its own rhythms and focus left that sitcom feeling out of place surrounded by shows that generally knew who they were from the pilot.
Another example of the downside premieres Tuesday in the form of Splitting Up Together, an innocuously slight show that, with more generosity, might stand out as, if nothing else, a worthwhile showcase for star Jenna Fischer’s ample and criminally underutilized-since-The-Office rom-com chops. Instead, plunked in the middle of ABC’s lineup and part of a midseason replacement brigade taking the place of far superior comedies now moved to the renewal bubble, what stands out is blandness.
Created by Emily Kapnek, the force behind ABC’s superb Suburgatory and canceled-too-soon Selfie, Splitting Up Together is the story of a fantastic Craftsman house that becomes the victim of the pending divorce between Lena (Fischer) and Martin (Oliver Hudson). Because of the housing market at the time the pilot was written, and because the house is too awesome to let go, Lena and Martin decide to split the house and, incidentally, their children Mae (Olivia Keville), Mason (Van Crosby) and Milo (Sander Thomas), because families in ABC sitcoms almost always have three children. That means that Lena and Martin will alternate weeks in the main house, which includes a bathroom with a squirrel-friendly skylight, doing parenting duties with weeks in the garage turned guest house, which allegedly has centipedes, a joke that hasn’t been paid off sufficiently in the four episodes sent to critics.
Why, exactly, are Lena and Martin divorcing? Well, it has something to do with the two years they’ve gone without having sex and that, in turn, has something to do with Lena’s insecurities and Martin taking her for granted and that, in turn, has something to do with Martin deciding he needs to take dance lessons, which in the world of Splitting Up Together is enough material for a lengthy story arc and also highlights what is probably the biggest problem with the entire series. Martin and Lena are going to get back together. At some point. Even if it’s temporary. Or you’re supposed to watch Splitting Up Together certain they’re going to get back together, even if the part of you that actually observes or studies human behavior is equally certain that they’d be much better off divorcing and moving a respectable distance apart, even if that “respectable distance” is simply “one block.”
The show is calculatedly and determinedly (though not all that successfully) bending over backwards to not overassign blame to either party and to make you think that it’s sweet the way they’re retroactively trying to change and become better spouses to each other in their new living situation. But at least one of them starts dating in the early episodes, and the show can’t balance its “Please root for reconciliation” and “Please root for our characters to get laid” emotions, and it all feels like infidelity to a relationship that, again, your rational brain will know is a bad idea. So the feelings the show generates toward its main characters are “inevitability” and “unpleasant puritanism.”
Those feelings are both much more demonstrable and concrete than anything you’ll get around the supporting cast. Like the premise, the world of Splitting Up Together feels decidedly thin.
One of the great non-secrets to ABC’s family-sitcom success has been the casting of kids, and Keville, Crosby and Thomas are fine and give indications that they’d be even better if they had more to do. So far, Mae is woke, Mason is hormonal and Milo is either stupid or just young, but they feel like they’ve come off the sitcom assembly line. The writing is perhaps even thinner for Lena and Martin’s group of Somewhat More Diverse Friends & Relatives, a pack that includes Bobby Lee, Diane Farr and Lindsay Price, each of whom is qualified to be much more than a sitcom sixth banana. Lee and Farr, by force of will, get a couple of laughs in their episode and Farr’s character, Lena’s sister, at least has an autonomous arc.
Really, the only character worthy of the actor playing them is Lena. Fischer is appealing and funny and totally doesn’t seem worried that Lena has been given all of the show’s available character traits. Lena is both the obsessive and micromanaging mother and the partner whose lusty sexual needs weren’t being met, leaving Martin as mostly sloppy and complacent. No fair guessing which one offers its actor more to play. So Fischer gets to embody all of the neurosis and also the butterfly-like emergence from a marriage-imposed cocoon, and Hudson gets to rely on earnestness and good-natured charm, which to his credit he does reasonably well. If this were presented as Fischer’s show and everybody around her was just providing support, Splitting Up Together would have its focus right. Instead, it’s an ensemble of not-quite-defined characters and performances, plus Jenna Fischer, who is a star.
Oh, and there’s also the house, which is fetchingly directed by Dean Holland in early episodes. You may not want to be friends with this couple or to spend time around their children, but you’ll absolutely want to live in their house and wonder what it would take to get such a house, because whatever problems Lena and Martin have, they spend virtually no time working. On a network with no family sitcoms, Jenna Fischer and a house would be kernels worthy of continued viewership. ABC’s bar is set high enough that, after four episodes, I need more.
Cast: Jenna Fischer, Oliver Hudson, Bobby Lee, Diane Farr, Lindsay Price, Olivia Keville, Van Crosby, Sander Thomas
Creator: Emily Kapnek
Premieres: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)
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