This review contains spoilers.
Hitmen. Mob bosses. Al Capone. Nazis. TV drama has humanised them all. Abi Morgan’s The Split though, has an even taller order: making us feel sorry for someone earning 100k and living in a detached London four-storey with off-road parking.
While almost exclusively the remit of period drama here in the UK, the US is well-practiced at the ‘rich people have problems too’ TV genre. Networks over there are crammed with beautiful types whose lives play out against a backdrop of palatial villas and Tiffany-blue swimming pools. Those dramas are unembarrassedly aspirational, which is partly why Brits don’t really do them – embarrassment is our natural mode. As a rule, we prefer our loaded TV characters either historical or the butt of the joke.
The Split, then, is a bit of an experiment. Wisely, this experiment has cast as its lead Nicola Walker, an actor so approachable that she could probably play Stalin and make you see things from his perspective.
Here, Walker plays the less despotic Hannah Stern, a London law firm senior partner with an excellent professional reputation, a similarly high-achieving husband, and three young kids you just know are going to have top-notch UCAS applications. Outwardly, by any measure you care to use, Hannah’s life is a success. Why then, is she unhappy?
The Split’s first hour does a thorough job of answering that question thanks to Walker’s reliable performance, despite a script that lays on the exposition in dollops (“That’s what happens when you walk from the family firm!” says Hannah’s hubby Nathan in the opening minutes. A couple of scenes later her sister tells her mum, “Hannah’s still pissed off because you didn’t step down and let her take over as you promised,” just in case it had escaped her mind).
Hannah, we learn, is pissed off because of that and a few other things. One is that she’s in possession of a conscience while her new firm targets rich, celebrity clients in order to turn their divorces into lucrative public performances (“I don’t do circus,” Hannah tells her avaricious boss). Another is that her younger sister and mother are ruthless professional competitors. Yet another is that her new colleague is a former lover who’s throwing temptation in her path. And finally, the biggie: her dad walked out on the family thirty years ago and has just sauntered back onto the scene.
The male mid-life crisis is already well-documented in fiction, so it’s novel to see a different slant on the tale of the unfulfilled professional. Hannah hasn’t bought herself a sportscar or a toyboy, but to judge by the wardrobe full of expensive new gear and the much commented-upon hair restyle, she’s undergoing a kind of reinvention. It’s refreshing that Hannah isn’t troubled because—tragically!—she chose a career over kids or love (she has all three, though her asking colleague Christie whether he “dodged that bullet” may point towards a complicated ambivalence towards parenting). Thrillingly, she’s also among the vanishingly rare female TV leads to be shown as having depth and ambition without the addition of a sexual assault backstory.
More refreshment comes from writer Abi Morgan’s choice of family rather than criminal law. It’s an area with rich dramatic pickings not only for Hannah’s ongoing case—cheating millionaire David (Stephen Tomkinson) who springs surprise divorce proceeding on his unsuspecting wife Goldie (Meera Syal, who has some of the episode’s best scenes)—but as we’ve seen in long-running US legal shows, also for case-of-the-week potential.
Looks-wise, in scenes of Hannah striding across the Millennium Bridge in expensive-looking heels, director Jess Hobbs and co. have achieved the same glossy, aspirational sheen as The Split’s US counterparts. The celebrity divorce stories too, have a transatlantic feel. The next few weeks will tell if there’s enough emotionally revealing drama underneath that shiny cladding, but early signs are promising.
Structured over the course of a single landmark day—Hannah’s “doyenne of family law” mother’s seventieth birthday—Abi Morgan gives us a introductory grip on her characters’ various emotional conflicts. Yes, Hannah is privileged, but after an hour in her company, she turns out to be also human and therefore, like Syal’s character, easy to root for. Rich people, it so happens, do have problems too.
The Split continues next Tuesday the 1st of May at 9pm on BBC One.