TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new Sundance TV series "The Split," made with the BBC, explores the world of marital breakups as revealed through the lives of four women in one family whose business happens to be family law. Our critic at large John Powers says the show tiptoes along a fine line between fantasy and emotional truth.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Zsa Zsa Gabor once joked that diamonds aren't a girl's best friend, it's divorce lawyers. Of course, for those of us with more sedate lives than Zsa Zsa, who racked up nine husbands over her long marital career, divorce is no laughing matter. The price and permutations of breaking up are the theme of "The Split," a sleek new British series showing on Sundance TV. Created by Abi Morgan, who wrote "The Iron Lady" and "The Hour," this six-part show centers on a family of female high-end lawyers specializing in marital issues, whose own private lives are, don't be shocked now, as furtive and messy as the cases they're handling.
It stars Nicola Walker, best-known here for "Last Tango In Halifax." She plays Hannah, a principled but still high-billing divorce lawyer, who's the eye of the show's many storms. Married with kids to a likable husband, that's Stephen Mangan, Hannah is the eldest of the three Defoe sisters. Next in line is Nina, played by Annabel Scholey, who's also a lawyer but a boozy, hot-to-trot one. Both look after the youngest sister, Rose. That's Fiona Button, who's engaged to an incredibly nice finance guy, played by Rudi Dharmalingam, that everyone, even Rose, thinks may be wrong for her.
The three were raised by a controlling single mother Ruth, played by Deborah Findlay, a pioneer in family law who raised them to believe that it was, quote, "us four against the world." As Episode 1 begins, that credo is crumbling. For starters, Hannah has left the family firm to go to work for a glossier outfit whose partners include ultrahandsome Christie Carmichael, the Dutch actor Barry Atsma, a former beau who still hopes to win her - and to whom she's still attracted. Soon, Hannah and her family are arguing opposite sides of a big-money divorce in which a rich businessman callously dumps his loving wife of many years. As if that weren't unsettling enough, the sisters' father Oscar, played by Anthony Head of "Buffy" fame, suddenly pops up 30 years after walking out on the family.
Even as Hannah and her sisters struggle with their volatile family dynamic, the high-profile cases keep coming. Here, Hannah explains the reality of divorce to an enraged politician whose husband has been caught doing the hanky-panky.
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NICOLA WALKER: (As Hannah Stern) Divorce is a process of redrawing all the boundaries - emotionally, psychologically, economically. I've heard it described as open-heart surgery whilst you're still awake with no reassurances that everything will be put back in the right place. I'm not saying this to alarm you, but I want you to be clear.
Leaving any marriage is frightening. You've built a life around a person. And when that breaks down...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm not frightened of leaving. It's staying I can't stomach any - it's the lies.
POWERS: It says a lot about the male domination of modern movies that our most famous film about divorce is still "Kramer Vs. Kramer," where Dustin Hoffman plays a father who wins custody of his son from his ex-wife who's portrayed as a selfish narcissist. In contrast, TV has more time for women's point of view. Written, directed and produced by women, "The Split" is a series whose major male characters, from the sexy Christie to the charmingly wayward dad Oscar, are largely defined in relation to the female ones.
Although Morgan's script is no more faithful to actual legal procedure than most lawyer shows, she fills "The Split" with storylines about romantic breakdown that neatly echo, mirror and supplement one another. At work, we watch Hannah tackle a range of cases - a famous comedian's child custody squabbles, prenup negotiations between a soccer star and his fiancee, an Oprah-like VIP fighting with her ex over frozen embryos. At home, the Defoe women confront the aftershocks of Ruth and Oscar's split decades earlier, a split that shaped how each feels about marriage, an institution about which this series is actually a bit sentimental.
Now, if you're being harsh, you might accuse "The Split" of being little more than a soap about privileged people in a comfortably multicultural London who dress in well-tailored clothes, live in enviable houses and work in chic offices whose immaculately clean windows offer glorious views - all true. Yet this fantasy aspect is one of the show's pleasures. So was the superb acting, be it Findlay's theatrical mix of bullying and coyness as the abandoned wife-turned-crack attorney Ruth or Mangan's subtle turn as a decent man who fears that his wife no longer finds him sexually attractive.
The show is held together by Walker, one of Britain's best and most popular TV actors whose pale, tea-colored eyes burn like lasers. Her emotional transparency turns Hannah's big-time lawyer into something of an everywoman who wants to do the right thing yet finds it harder and harder. We spend "The Split" wondering if, for all her sanity and goodwill, she, too, is going to wind up needing a good divorce lawyer.
GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ronan Farrow. We'll talk about lots of things, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on how Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted actresses and about attempts to suppress the story by threatening Farrow as well as those actresses. We'll also talk about Farrow's formative years, and we'll discuss his new book "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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