For those who have missed the glory days of CBS’s The Good Wife, the SundanceTV drama (in a co-production with the BBC) The Split is a welcomed replacement. And unlike the 22 episodes of a broadcast series, The Split — which comes from Abi Morgan (The Hour) — runs an economical six parts. Like The Good Wife, The Split deals with both attorneys and families, but unlike Alicia Florrick, Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker) is fully established as a high-powered divorce lawyer when we meet her. She’s the eldest daughter of a family of lawyers, the DeFoes, but recently left the family firm to work alongside a recently divorced former flame, Christie (Barry Atsma), who is still enamored with her. Though Hannah loves her affable husband Nathan (Stephen Mangan), with whom she has three children, you already know that this love triangle will continue to simmer throughout the season.
That’s the thing about The Split — there’s not much about it that’s unexpected. In many ways its a pretty standard procedural, where the cases of the week (more or less) have some metaphorical bearing on the DeFoe women and their lives. For Hannah, it’s reevaluating her marriage in the wake of several emotional revelations, including the return of her father (Anthony Head) who abandoned the family 30 years prior. For her younger sister Nina (Annabel Scholey) it’s realizing the toll that working tirelessly for her mother has taken on her and her personal life, where she prefers dating unavailable men (or clients). Rose (Fiona Button), the youngest sister, is about the get married to the very sweet James (Rudi Dharmalingam), but is having doubts about the institution of marriage altogether. It all culminates, in many ways, with their mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), who taught them all from a young age that the only person a woman can truly trust is herself.
The caliber of the cast and Jessica Hobbs’ lush and active direction elevate The Split from being a little too soapy and predictable when it comes to the drama of the DeFoe’s personal lives. Each member of the cast brings an emotional honesty to their performance, particularly Walker, who has cycled through a number of recent UK series (including as a detective in Unforgotten, and a vicar in Collateral). Walker has a quick and easy smile, but one that can fade just as quickly. She brings a nervous energy to the screen, alongside a high degree of intelligence and vulnerability. It all makes Hannah exceptionally charming here, and easily likable as the rock that holds the DeFoes together.
For a series called “The Split” about divorce lawyers, one would expect more divorcing. But The Split is actually more interested in delving into an investigation of marriage that doesn’t necessarily disparage it. There’s hope here in a number of the first season’s arcs, but also hardship and disappointment. Hannah almost always counsels couples to stay together rather than getting a divorce, if only because “as I’ve heard it described, divorce is like open heart surgery that you’re awake for.” But if reconciliation isn’t possibly, she always makes sure her clients — many of whom are women, though not all — get exactly what they deserve in a settlement, working hard to keep them out of court. The Split is not interested in tearing down the institution of marriage, but instead, giving it a fighting chance against all odds.
Because of this, the series comes across as an immersive, layered kind of procedural, one where a love of family triumphs over any other trouble. There is a lot of forgiveness needed among the sisters and towards their parents, but it unfolds naturally and without too much sentimentality, accurately reflecting real family dynamics. It also highlights how work typically invades personal lives, especially when you work with family, and the sacrifices that have to be made to maintain them both.
There’s a casual glamour the The Split as well, thanks to offices with huge windows and big, airy kitchens with verdant back gardens. Everyone’s clothes are tailored and expensive, and most of Hannah’s clients are very wealthy (which is against reminiscent of The Good Wife — not to mention the central love triangle is startlingly similar). It gives the series an aspirational air, one where it’s only natural that the women featured here are strong, powerful, and bejeweled, where gender equality seems total (or that Hannah, through her client’s cases, makes sure that it is). In The Split, women are in control, and are left to decide what they want from their relationships. And yet, it’s still not easy. For better or worse — to tweak John Donne’s words — no woman is an island.
The Split debuts Wednesday, May 23rd on SundanceTV.