The will-they-won't-they storyline has been a crucial part of many iconic sitcoms: Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long) on Cheers, Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends and Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) on The Office. Even today, fans are waiting with baited breath to see if New Girl's Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson), and The Good Place's Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) will make it.
Romance and comedy are a natural fit, and while the format has worked on cable (See: FXX's You're the Worst), broadcast networks have struggled to make sitcoms that are just about the will-they-won't-they quandary where the central premise revolves around a couple getting together rather than it being a prevalent plot line. ABC tried and failed in 2014 with Manhattan Love Story. NBC officially killed its Thursday night "Must See TV" comedy block after A to Z failed to find an audience later that spring. The CW fell under the same curse with No Tomorrow in 2016 and the statistics only get worse when looking at romantic sitcom pilots that never made it to air (even Shonda Rhimes couldn't get it to work with her company's first comedy The Toast, which ABC passed over last pilot season).
Enter Splitting Up Together, which unites The Office's Jenna Fischer with Rules of Engagement's Oliver Hudson on ABC as freshly divorced couple Lena and Martin, respectively. Thanks to a crappy housing market and the decision to co-parent three children together, Lena and Martin decide to still live together. They rotate "on duty" shifts, with one taking care of their three children and household chores for one week while the other lives the single life in the detached garage.
It's not hard to see how Splitting Up Together could fall into the same trap as its short-lived romantic predecessors. The series comes from Emily Kapnek, whose darling romcom Selfie could have broken the broadcast curse if the initial marketing hadn't been so misguided. Kapnek plays it smarter with Splitting Up, which is an adaptation of a Danish series. The series manages to avoid the initial pitfalls and tropes of the genre by starting the series at the end of Lena and Martin's relationship. They have an established rapport, but they couldn't be emotionally farther apart. They haven't had sex in over two years and function more as roommates who barely tolerate each other rather than people once madly in love.
Starting at the end gives the writers a lot more material than charming meet-cutes and awkward misunderstandings to work with story-wise. They can explore not just where Lena and Martin are going with in their new lives, but also mine the unseen years of their marriage to inform their current day choices.
Do you root for the couple to get back together? Yes, but after the first four episodes screened for critics, it's clear their implicit reunion is not a prerequisite for the series to succeed. The divorce forces Lena and Martin to own up to their flaws that lead to the dissolution of their marriage. The series is more an exploration of them getting to know the new versions of themselves and learning to grow before they can seriously be involved with anyone else, let alone each other. The pitfalls of adjusting to life without each other, while still living in close proximity, is where Splitting Up Together's magic comes from. It's a romantic sitcom about two people who realize they shouldn't be together, at least not right now.
That's not to say the show doesn't tease the audience with the idea that their marriage is fixable. Martin spends the early episodes cooking up a grand romantic gesture to prove to Lena that he's not the thoughtless man she assumes he is. If this were a movie, the misunderstanding of his antics would be the comedic fodder, but in the end he'd sweep Lena off her feet and all would be well again. Splitting Up Together plays that comedic note, but even when Martin's motives become clear, it doesn't automatically pave a way for the marriage to be repaired. It's replacing one brick in a demolished foundation and the show clearly understands that it needs to take its time rebuilding the rest. If the writers are shrewd, they could play with the will-they-won't-they of Martin and Lena's marriage for at least multiple seasons.
The issue with sitcoms focused only on a couple's romantic end game is that there is no mystery in seeing two leads — that you already know are endgame — meet for the first time. The hi-jinx in the middle might be funny or charming but you can't build tension when you already know the outcome. Splitting Up Together is different because Lena and Martin don't have to find their way back to each other. There is a will-they-won't-they question at the center of Splitting Up Together, but Marin and Lena's respective journeys of self-discovery are the actual story.
Splitting Up Together allows itself to grow beyond the limited confines of the genre: It's not just about a couple, but two people trying to find themselves and at the same time raising their family in an unconventional way. Which we can all admit, is what ABC is better at than any other network.
Splitting Up Together airs Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.