“Splitting Up Together” is not strictly a sitcom. It looks like one, for sure — a half-hour, family-centric show about life in the suburbs, punctuated with humor about kids, marriage, and home ownership. But sitcoms typically present a family (or some other group of characters) going through daily adventures and experiencing incremental change; the character work is incidental to the hijinks. “Splitting Up Together,” from inventive showrunner Emily Kapnek, presents the opposite scenario: a heavily serialized story of a family in transition, with showcased hijinks along the way. Kapnek developed the idea from a Danish show (“Bedre Skilt end Aldrig,” from Mette Heeno, Hella Joof, and Mie Andreasen), and on ABC, it’s a slightly offbeat addition to slate full of more traditionally structured sitcoms.
But the novelty of the approach doesn’t quite carry the show. “Splitting Up Together” tells the story of Lena (Jenna Fischer) and Martin (Oliver Hudson), a couple deciding to divorce while living in the same house. They divide up their time into “on-duty” and “off-duty” weeks; the on-duty parent lives in the main house and cares for the kids, while the off-duty parent sleeps in the converted garage and tries to have a personal life. Technically, this is because Lena and Martin are drowning in an underwater mortgage. But after that first reference, the concerns about finances practically disappear. In the first four episodes, neither has a discernible job. And in the fourth episode, during an already quite hip dinner out, Lena sends a meal home to her son via Postmates — with blitz pricing! This is not exactly the behavior of the financially strapped.
“Splitting Up Together” wants to be a film — a ‘90s-ish rom-com, probably, with the attendant self-absorption of the upper middle class. So while the attention to the ongoing arc for Lena and Martin is sweet and at times heartfelt, the week-to-week comedy — which focuses on their three alliteratively named children, Mae, Mason, and Milo — falls flat. There are inklings of good ideas in there, such as Lena’s pride in how to properly wipe down a counter, and the kids’ discovery that they can get out of doing their chores if they put them off until it’s dad’s week. But it’s a household strangely devoid of warmth or charm, perhaps because the kids rarely have enough space to fully emote. The children are leads, but they are mostly props for the adults’ growth, not characters in their own right. And though their foibles are amusing — Mae (Olivia Keville) is obsessed with feminism, which clashes with Mason (Van Crosby)’s interest in buying a poster of Kate Upton — they aren’t given enough attention to feel inhabited.
If viewers do find enjoyment in this show, it will be because of Fischer and Hudson’s performances. What’s intriguing is that despite arcing like a rom-com, the show doesn’t present their happy reunion as a foregone conclusion. It’s a possibility, but the dynamic between the two is more complicated. There are a few lingering glances, but the two are also devoid of chemistry at times, with Martin reverting to an overgrown teenager persona as Lena becomes the harried nag. “Splitting Up Together” has a few interesting things to say. It would have been a better show if it didn’t try to be a family sitcom, too.