On the surface, ABC’s new half-hour sitcom Splitting Up Together is about an unconventional family dynamic in the wake of a recent divorce. At its heart, however, it’s a romantic comedy that’s aiming to get its would-be love birds to fall (back) in love by taking the long way around. That way being, ending their marriage as a way to (unbeknownst to them) bring a little romance back into the relationship. It’s a farfetched premise that the pilot struggles at times to get across, as the episode falls victim to the whims of the exposition gods early on, leaving little chance for the audience to get to know or care about the characters beyond their sitcom-y set up.
The series stars Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson as Lena and Martin, a once happy couple who made the mistake of liking Coldplay and having children — two surefire relationship killers that the show goes to great lengths to encourage those watching to avoid. All joking aside, Splitting Up Together begins with a lengthy recap of Lena and Martin’s relationship, describing one that, given their deeply rooted character flaws (he’s a narcissist and she’s a control freak), wasn’t equipped to handle the many compromises that come from maintaining a marriage and raising three kids. They decide to separate, but, in a twist worthy of a 12-second elevator pitch, they can’t afford to get two houses so they agree to cohabitate in the same home, alternating weeks of being the parent in charge while the other lives in the garage they’ve converted into an apartment.
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Some sitcoms can make do with even the most convoluted of premises, and they usually do that on the quality of their writing and the chemistry of the cast. Take New Girl, for example. A fairly convoluted premise asked viewers to buy that Zoey Deschanel would move into a loft in Los Angeles with three thirty-something men as they figured out their lives, all of which were in a state of arrested development for one reason or another. It was a stretch, but you were willing to buy into it because Jess, Nick, Winston, and Schmidt were so much fun to spend time with. So far, Lena and Martin aren’t as much fun as the series would like them to be, and their kids don’t have much in the way of personalities to warrant any real interest in them early on.
Their daughter, Mae (Olivia Keville), is a smart, outspoken feminist, and the series clearly sees some potential there, but as is the case with most pilots, there’s not enough room to really figure out who she is as a person beyond that description. Still, Mae is served better than her two siblings, both of whom are kind of there as proof there’s a family at stake and that’s about it. Their eldest son, Mason (Van Crosby) winds up being the victim of a bizarre subplot where certain physical discomfort brought on by arrival of puberty results in his doctor prescribing masturbation, while at the same time flirting with his mother. It’s a peculiar, borderline discomfiting scene, one that leads to some well-meaning over-parenting on Lena’s behalf as she transforms a walk-in pantry with some mood lighting and a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsberg into Mason’s “personal space.”
The joke doesn’t just fall flat, it feels utterly misguided, but at least it speaks to who Lena is in a more interesting way than her complaints about Martin’s selfishness or her denials at being labeled a control freak. Similarly, the show finds a crack in Martin’s happy-to-be-divorced facade through an interaction with his friend Arthur, played by Love bit player Bobby Lee. Lee is not only objectively the funniest part of the pilot episode, describing his morbid plans for a “pool party for one” should his wife Camille (Lindsay Price) ever leave him, but he’s also the voice of Martin’s conscience, who has his eyes opened by a suspiciously on-the-nose wedding video. That video helps him see how self-centered he’s been throughout his marriage, and that the fault of it failing now falls on him more than he’d like to think.
It’s at that point the Splitting Up Together reveals itself to be a stealth romantic comedy, which is simultaneously sweet and a little disappointing. After all the heavy lifting the pilot does in order to make a convincing argument for this being a show, the episode can hardly wait before it starts teasing a possible reunion between the divorcees. The only problem with that scenario is Lena and Martin’s circumstances would be way more interesting to watch if it seemed like the show was as invested in them moving on with their lives, while living under the same roof as they initially seem to be. It would be interesting to see the two learn from their mistakes with one another to make a better go at new relationships, but that doesn’t appear to be what the show has in mind.
Despite a few wrong turns, Splitting Up Together displays a sweet temperament that subverts its premise from the start. This isn’t anything like HBO’s Divorce, which is essentially fueled by acrimony. Instead, this show seems to think, for better or worse, that there’s still something there between Lena and Martin. Time will tell if the series can convince those watching that it was right.
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Splitting Up Together continues next Tuesday with ‘Devil May Care’ @9:30pm on ABC.