Saturday, April 21, 2018

Somebody Needs a Hygge: ABC's Splitting Up Together

Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson in Splitting Up Together. (Photo: Eric McCandless)

“When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” complains Billy Eichner in the second season of Julie Klausner’s recently-canceled Hulu show Difficult People . It’s a question that tends to come up more often in the context of half-hour-long shows on cable and streaming services, which have long been outlets for writers and showrunners to test how much serious material, in terms of both content and tone, they can get away with incorporating into a format that’s traditionally skewed towards delivering relatively uncomplicated laughs. I’ve found myself thinking of that question a lot as I watch the early episodes of ABC’s new sitcom Splitting Up Together, a comedy (ostensibly) with a decidedly downbeat premise and some baffling tonal issues.

At the risk of indulging in national stereotypes, it’s not entirely surprising that progressive-minded but subtly bleak Splitting Up Together is based on a Scandinavian original. ABC’s version, run by Emily Kapnek, is an American remake of the Danish sitcom Bedre skilt end aldrig, and it follows that show’s premise: ex-husband-and-wife duo Lena (Jenna Fischer) and Martin (Oliver Hudson) can no longer live with each other, and therefore divorce. However, they decide that they also can’t live without each other, both for practical reasons (they don’t want to have to argue over who gets the kids, and it’s too expensive to find their own places to live) and emotional ones (they both secretly wonder if their marriage is truly over and, again, they don’t want to have to argue over who gets the kids). They arrange an elaborate system: one parent will have a week on, during which time he or she will live in the house with the kids, while the other will live in the converted garage on their property, free to abdicate his or her responsibilities and live the single life until the next changing of the guard.

I’m not going to pretend to know how the original plays with audiences over in Denmark, but, judging from the first four episodes, Kapnek can’t find a way to make this set-up work in the context of a network sitcom. She’s got a history of taking on projects that are more ambitious – albeit far less successful – than standard comedy fare on a channel like ABC. Suburgatory ran for a few seasons and attracted some positive critical comment, while Selfie brought two talented performers (Karen Gillan and John Cho) together with an intriguing premise (an update of Pygmalion for the era of social media) but ended up disappearing after one season. Splitting Up Together’s attempt to take on a serious subject like divorce makes it seem like Kapnek’s once again aiming higher than the ambitions of the typical network sitcom showrunner, but I’m not sure there’s a version of this show that works – at least, not on ABC.

In many respects, Splitting Up Together fits the template for its network’s recent run of critically and commercially successful sitcoms. It presents viewers with an unconventional family that’s portrayed in a fairly familiar style: we’ve seen variations on Lena and Martin’s unexceptionally clean, comfortable suburban home and photogenic family on countless shows, while the episodes’ stories hit familiar narrative beats, punctuated by the sort of light, inoffensive background music that’s meant to signal most network sitcoms’ fun, unthreatening quirkiness. The supporting characters present varying degrees of caricatured hilarity: Lena and Martin’s daughter Mae’s (Olivia Keville) po-faced feminism comes off like a parody of woke teenagers, while Lena’s sister Maya (Diane Farr) dispenses sad stories of her romantic misadventures, which afford occasions for comic flashbacks.

Van Crosby and Olivia Keville in Splitting Up Together. (Photo: Eric McCandless)

The fundamental problem with Splitting Up Together is that Kapnek and her writers haven’t figured out how to reconcile the familiar trappings of what might be described as ABC’s house style with the darker, more painful aspects of the divorce that lie at the show’s center. The opening scene of the show features a montage of Lena and Martin’s home life, accompanied by what’s essentially an explanation of the show’s premise. That explanation is then revealed to be the windup to a jovial announcement of their divorce, in the middle of a dinner party, to their family and friends. You can understand why Kapnek and Co. would want to skip over the initial beats of the story and just throw us into the new status quo while saving some of the heavier emotional stuff for later, but it just adds to the sense that they’re not giving this family’s pain enough weight. I found myself wondering how much the family’s members, particularly the kids, really cared about one another, given how cool they all seemed to be with this new state of affairs.

There’s a paradox at the heart of successful dark comedies, such as FX’s You’re the Worst: they’re more effective when there’s a sense of tonal unity between the jokes and the genuine pain that the characters are feeling. That means the humor often has to go to some dark places, and occasionally walk up to (or over) the line into mean-spiritedness. Instead, Splitting Up Together keeps its jokes within a more familiar, less daring range, which screws up the requisite balance between light and dark. It seems fundamentally afraid to alienate its audience by eschewing amiability, even when, as in recent episodes, it begins to dawn on Lena and Martin that, their creative solution notwithstanding, the end of their marriage really might be a permanent, irrevocable thing with painful long-term consequences.

At least the show gives Fischer and Hudson some decent material to work with. Fischer’s well-cast here as the mom and ex-wife who gets to rediscover who she is outside of the context of her home life. Within three episodes, Lena’s started an affair with a hot, sensitive young guy, and it’s fun to watch Fischer show us moments where her character surprises herself as she begins to realize that there are long-neglected sides of her personality for her to rediscover and indulge. She and Kapnek are definitely trading on viewers’ association of Fischer with her wholesome, long-running role as Pam on The Office, but it works. As for Hudson, I’m not sure if it’s the writing or his performance, but his Martin comes off as more earnest and serious, albeit in an appealing way. He’s the cool dad who’s also surprisingly effective and knowledgeable when it comes to caring for his kids, despite his dawning awareness of how inadequate he was as a husband. Fischer and Hudson are giving two good performances; the problem is that each is in a different, more effective version of the same show. As a whole, Splitting Up Together might have been better off if it had stayed in Denmark.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory

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