Why you should be watching BBC One’s The Split
Ivan Radford | On 11, Feb 2020
“Do you enjoy watching other people tear themselves apart?” That’s the question asked early on The Split, Abi Morgan’s astutely written The Split. The drama, which returns for a second season this week, follows a family of sisters who happen to be divorces lawyers – and find themselves navigating the fallout of family fractures first-hand when they estranged dad (Anthony Head) returns to the fold out of the blue.
It’s a cracking premise, and not just because of the fun of the legal dramatics on London’s divorce circuit – nothing suits the small screen quite like a courtroom, with all its contrived revelations and unlikely last-minute legal loopholes. There’s certainly lots to sink your legal teeth into, as we witness a rich businessman being dumped by his wife (Stephen Tompkinson – enjoyably self-centered, Meera Syal – quietly resolute) or smirk and gasp at the gall of Rex (Matthew Baynton), a comedian who is being challenged over his new stand-up routine, which makes copious dirty jokes about his ex, who left him for his mate.
Hannah and her sisters can sleepwalk through such conflicts, and it’s as tough to predict who will win out in each battle as it is to work out who we want to come out on top. Abi Morgan (who gave us the excellent, and tragically cancelled, The Hour) writes them with a wonderful complexity. We spend as much, if not more, time with them in their houses, gardens and surprise parties than in front of a judge, and the drama is all the richer for it.
There is no end of personal drama to balance out the career clashes, A lot of that revolves around Hannah, who is drawn to her colleague Christie (Barry Atsma), an old flame who is after her once more – and she, only slightly reluctantly, after him. At home, she’s happily married to Nathan (the effortlessly likeable Stephen Mangan), whose kind, caring persona slowly segues into something more surprising.
Nina, meanwhile, is something of a wild child, with all the romantic entanglements – or even just the possibility of entanglements – that entails whipping up some awkward, intimate moments. Speaking of which, there’s always Rose on hand to have an encounter with a priest and put her own upcoming marriage in jeopardy.
Amid all of this, Anthony Head is excellent as their apparently well-meaning father, back after going out to “get the newspaper” 30 years ago. He’s both sincere and a teensy bit slimy, helping to cover up his real purpose of existing in the show: to force the sisters to reconcile their differences.
Indeed, Head gives the inimitable Nicola Walker a chance to be both vulnerable and suspicious, wistful and resentful. Walker’s central presence carries the whole show during the moments when contrivances get a little too much – particularly during the final episode – but she sets the bar for the ensemble’s natural approach, and it’s a treat just to see all the family members interact. A Nerf gun battle at night with Nathan and Hannah’s kids is a delight, just like a sequence that sees the sisters trying on their mum’s clothes.
At all times, these people behave and speak like actual people, with their naturalistic dialogue as full of throwaway gags and sisterly concern as it is exposition. Presenting the vagaries of human relationships through a female lens, the result is like Britain’s answer to The Good Wife – a welcome showcase for four actresses at the top of their game, making for engrossing and compellingly messy human TV.
With so much seething distrust and jealousy simmering under the surface, the fun lies in the intersection of their private and professional lives, as they use their clients as ammunition to snipe at each other as much as for money. The Split works because these characters are siblings first and lawyers second, and in either scenario, can’t resist tearing the others apart. Will Hannah do it? Won’t she? Season 1’s cliffhanger will leave you itching for a final verdict – when your cast and the script is this good, it’s always enjoyable to watch.
The Split Season 1 and 2 is available as a box set on BBC iPlayer until February 2022.