Regular readers of unpopcult will know we have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with British drama, so it won’t be a surprise that I didn’t pay much attention to the BBC’s legal/family drama The Split when it began a couple of months ago. Some weeks after it finished though, with hearty recommendations from a couple of friends who knew better than I did ringing in my ears/pinging in my email inbox, I was eventually persuaded to give it a go, the result being that, although I’m very late to the party, I’ve spent the past few days mainlining the six episodes that made up the first season and thoroughly enjoying myself in the process.
It helped that The Split pushed a number of my favourite buttons. Nicola Walker is an actress I absolutely love for her years of brilliant work as the quietly devoted, resolutely unglamorous Ruth in Spooks, so I was delighted to see her taking centre-stage here in flashier but no less terrific form as Hannah, high-powered divorce lawyer-in-impossibly nice clothes who’s recently left the prestigious, ancient firm run by her indomitable mother Ruth. Hannah’s now working for a big, glossy, modern firm in an office where the rent is probably higher than the country’s GDP, and her friend/ex/etc is one of her co-workers. And he’s still really into her.
To complicate matters further, Hannah’s ostensibly rock-solid marriage is stuck in something of a rut; her estranged father suddenly pops back into her life, having left her mother thirty years earlier; her sister Rose is engaged to a man she seems to have nothing in common with beyond the fact they both cycle a bit; and her other sister Nina is kind of mean. Which might be a very simplistic way to describe a multi-layered, bold and spiky character (with great hair), but while multi-layered, bold and spiky (with great hair) on tv is good, it doesn’t mean I would like to hang out with her in real life.
The basic premise of the show is of course among the oldest: lawyers whose job it is to solve the problems in other people’s messy lives, struggle with the problems in their own equally messy ones. The Split is compelling for a number of reasons, though. The cast is one – as well as Nicola Walker, Deborah Findlay as Ruth, Meera Syal as client Goldie and Stephen Mangan as Hannah’s husband Nathan are particular stand-outs, but everyone’s excellent. Some initially clunky dialogue aside, Abi Morgan’s cleverly-plotted, occasionally devastating writing is another – by the end of episode 6, my impressions of just about every main character had changed significantly from the end of episode 1 (except maybe Christie who was pretty single-mindedly all about being in forbidden love with Hannah throughout, but fair enough) and I was a lot more invested in several of them than I thought I’d be. The beautiful clothes and beautifully-shot locations are a draw as well, even if I can’t quite fathom how these folk can apparently trek across London every day, work long hours with little to no rest, and have their designer clothing still look completely pristine and smudge/crease-free when they get home at night. And I don’t really want to say “last but by no means least” but I’ve kind of backed myself into a corner here so, yes, last but by no means least, this is a show about a group of complicated, clever, confident women, the work they do and the unshakeable bonds between them. Regular readers will not be surprised that was a big part of the reason I really, really liked The Split. I’m looking forward to season two.