With ABC rolling out multiple new comedies this week, now would be a good time for a family (sitcom) meeting. The network’s reputation for shows centered around the home goes back to Ozzie and Harriet—a tradition kept alive by Modern Family—but the last decade has seen ABC struggle to keep any comedy afloat without at least two zinger-flinging moppets. Most of its more high-concept fare has ended up in the black hole that has been the Tuesday night spot in its schedule; the fallen series that succumbed to their labored structures include Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23, Trophy Wife, Selfie, and Manhattan Love Story. Even a classic series like The Muppets failed to find an audience upon its return to TV in a new mockumentary setting. And yet some of those tangents, like Happy Endings and Downward Dog, were worth the risk, even if their ratings and cancellations say otherwise. But the success of Black-ish, Speechless, Fresh Off The Boat, the Roseanne revival, and the departing The Middle proves that home is where ABC’s heart is.
The introduction of multiple new families in this week’s debuts suggest ABC’s seen what else is out there and is ready to recommit to more intimate storytelling. But with Splitting Up Together and Alex Inc., the network also appears to be keeping one foot out the door. It’s not that these single-cam shows aren’t wholesome, or that they lack a solid family dynamic. In fact, both series have the former lead of a beloved sitcom and charming newcomers in the cast. But Splitting Up Together and Alex, Inc. also suffer from, respectively, having too little or too much to do.
Splitting Up Together, which premiered Tuesday, is the “comedic” chronicling of Lena (Jenna Fischer) and Martin’s (Oliver Hudson) divorce. Adapted by Emily Kapnek from the Danish original Bedre Skilt End Aldrig, the series opens with the couple announcing their split to their friends with what may be a forced brightness. For economic and childcare reasons, they’ll continue to live together, though the new arrangements will see the sparring spouses make a temporary home of their garage. As for what’s driven them apart, Martin’s immature and Lena’s controlling—or at least, that’s how they perceive each other after 15 years of marriage. It’s the standard “she cares too much and he cares too little” setup; the scenes from their married life used to justify their break-up could just as easily pave the way to a reconciliation.
That uncertainty ends up acting as a binding agent for Splitting Up Together. This comedy isn’t so much an autopsy of Lena and Martin’s marriage as it is a twist on the will-they/won’t-they question—only here, it’s “can they once more?”—that Fischer rendered much more compellingly on The Office. We don’t want Lena’s heart to break, and Martin is just likable enough that we can see why she’s put up with him. The distance reliably provides perspective: Lena realizes she can be overbearing, while Martin acknowledges that not dancing with his new bride at their wedding was a dick move.
But rote characterization dulls the sparks that fly, romantically and otherwise. Even as Splitting Up Together sympathizes with Lena for being forced into the role of parent for the whole family, including her husband, it doesn’t offer her an imaginative way out of that rut. If this were a couples therapy session, her assignment would be “have more fun,” despite the ample evidence for why she became such a stick in the mud in the first place.
Despite the flat writing, Fischer’s nuanced performance makes it easy to root for her character, who might not be a receptionist-turned-salesperson at a mid-size paper company but is still a relatably beleaguered everywoman. And Hudson is deceptively smarmy as Martin, who learns to strive for selflessness in his self-improvement. As a unit, though, the family struggles to distinguish itself from other small-screen clans: There’s the shrill teenage daughter (Olivia Keville), the awkward and hormonal preteen boy (Van Crosby), and the still-developing-a-personality youngest child (Sander Thomas). The young actors aren’t experienced enough to transcend the scripts, so their sole characteristics just make a good case for why Lena and Martin would want to spend some time alone in the garage. Ultimately, Splitting Up Together doesn’t stray far enough from convention or the home; like its central characters, it only gives the illusion of wanting to break free.
Also chafing at the collar is Alex Schuman of Matt Tarses’ Alex, Inc., which premiered Wednesday. Luckily for his family (and himself), the routine he’s trying to break from is at work. Played by Zach Braff, Alex is a radio journalist who’s tired of producing feel-good stories at a “cuddlier” version of NPR. So, he rallies the support of his cousin (Michael Imperioli, who’s proving as adept at comedy as prestige drama), a smitten co-worker (Hillary Anne Matthews), and his wife (The Good Place’s devilish Tiya Sircar) to start a podcasting company.
If parts of that sound familiar, it’s because Alex, Inc. is based on Alex Blumberg’s StartUp podcast, which detailed the creation of said podcast and the founding of Gimlet Media. Tarses and Braff, both Scrubs alums and Alex, Inc. EPs, are now trying to spin single-cam gold from Blumberg’s rise. But life imitates art again, as they struggle to find a balance between the personal and professional. It makes sense that Alex’s desire for a career change will affect his home life, just as his desire to do right by his family will inform his choices in the recording booth. But his professional identity crisis is writ large over the series—Tarses and Braff are clearly trying to recreate the quirky workplace comedy of Scrubs while also expanding on that NBC sitcom’s more heartfelt moments, but early on, Alex, Inc. just looks scattered instead of ambitious.
Interestingly, the balance wouldn’t seem so far out of reach if the Schuman family weren’t so damn personable. Braff is agreeably goofy yet caring, while Sircar shines as his wife Rooni, a public defender who could easily become a “stock supporting wife character” if it weren’t for the depths the Master Of None actress is able to give her. Rooni is abiding, but she diplomatically pushes back when Alex’s new career threatens to completely topple their division of domestic labor. Audyssie James is perfectly prepossessing as their precocious tween daughter, but it’s Elisha Henig who threatens to steal the show as the magic-loving Ben. They work even better together, making up a believable family viewers will want to check in with every week.
The workplace situational comedy pales in comparison. The startup environment doesn’t yield the kind of big laughs the show is obviously hoping for; these scenes often play like sketches or even bad informercials that are incongruous to the warm family comedy happening elsewhere. Braff and Tarses are no scrubs when it comes to making and starring in TV; the former is a winning lead, who’s still given to flights of fancy, while the latter’s displayed a knack for office and family comedy while producing and writing for Sports Night and The Goldbergs. Despite their considerable combined chops, Alex, Inc. might not be able to have it all, which means ABC will have to wait a little longer for one of its big ideas to pan out.