Prestige TV. We hear the term a lot, but what does it actually mean? Is it a big, lavish production led by a Hollywood A-lister? Something that’s been well-reviewed? Or a mixture of both? There was a time, probably over a decade ago now, when the majority of television was dominated by quiz shows and police procedurals – by contrast, a drama led by an A-lister who’d been briefly tempted away from a movie set was a real event.
Now though, it's an everyday occurrence, and it is almost becoming routine for big networks and streaming services to commit budgets of $100 million plus to single seasons of television. Shows without that budget, and without a big executive producer and a big splashy marketing campaign, can be forgotten. And today I’m here to tell you about one of them that's as good as anything HBO Max and Netflix have produced in 2022.
The Split first aired in the spring of 2018 and chronicled the lives of the Defoe family, who all work in divorce law for the family firm, with the exception of their youngest member. It stars Nicola Walker, who might be best known for her role in gutsy police drama Unforgotten, and Stephen Mangan, Fiona Button, Annabel Scholey and Barry Atsma.
Created by Abi Morgan, the writer behind BBC drama The Hour and screenwriter of political period drama Suffragette and Steve McQueen’s dark drama Shame, The Split is an eviscerating, heart wrenching look at love in middle-age and what family really means. It is one of the best dramas of recent years, and, I attest, if it had been made by HBO or had the same marketing budget as Netflix gives to Bridgerton, it’d be talked about in the same breath as Mare Of Easttown and Succession.
Why has The Split gone under the radar?
Partly, it arrived quietly, with its third and final season sneaking onto BBC iPlayer in its entirety at the start of April, with the show’s second season arriving in the same way. For US readers, two episodes of the third season arrived on Sundance Now and AMC+ on Thursday (June 23) and season three will kick off on BBC America on June 27.
Another factor is the reviews, which have been good, but not great. It’s got a solid 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, (opens in new tab) but, interestingly, the show’s audience ratings for each of its three seasons are in the 90s. People who love The Split, really love The Split.
Mostly though, it’s the lack of a big campaign and the big marketing push only a streaming service can provide. And, with so much ‘prestige TV’ out there already, some dramas get squeezed and forgotten about.
Why is it so compelling?
The Split is very much a grown-up drama. Walker plays Hannah Stern, one of London’s top divorce lawyers; she is married to Mangan’s Nathan Stern, a barrister who acts in many of her cases. Her sister Nina is also a family lawyer, as is their mother, only Rose, the youngest of the three isn’t in the family business, she’s struggling to get life together. Hannah has just left the family firm, to join a big rival, something that has ruffled many feathers.
Amid all this, Hannah and Nathan’s marriage is on the rocks, the pair have been together for a long time and have three children, all on the cusp of growing up and no longer needing much parenting. Christie, a former flame of Hannah's, is back in town, Nathan's eye is wandering too. The whole thing feels like it's falling apart.
Three seasons of the show play out, each with a high-profile divorce case, one not involving any of the key characters, unwinding through six episodes, all while the characters' own lives continue to unravel.
Morgan's writing is brilliant and the casting is pitch-perfect, with every episode packed full of drama and twists and turns. Somehow it manages to be visceral, nasty, heart-swelling, gutsy and completely and utterly compelling in every episode.
It's the kind of drama that stays with you, the kind of drama that raises big moral dilemmas and big questions of its audience. It doesn't rely on controversy or flashy set pieces, all of its power and intensity comes from the writing and from the performances.
It has yielded three perfect seasons, but little discussion and a glaring absence from any 'best of' lists for any year it's been released in. That needs to change in 2022 and you need to watch The Split. It is brilliant.