Can Jenna Fischer and Zach Braff remake TV comedy magic in ‘Splitting Up Together’ and ‘Alex, Inc.’?
Spring is here and family comedies are blooming this week on ABC. Most notably, “Roseanne” begins its super-belated Season 10, but the network has also fielded two new series that feature beloved stars of hit sitcoms past. “Splitting Up Together,” with Jenna Fischer of “The Office,” starts Tuesday, and “Alex, Inc., " starring Zach Braff of “Scrubs,” premieres Wednesday.
The shows are more or less wholesome, depending on where one draws the lines of wholesomeness. Neither is without charm; both are less than fatally flawed. You may find it in your heart to love them; I would not call you wrong to.
“Alex, Inc.,” created by Matt Tarses (also a “Scrubs” veteran), makes situation comedy from “StartUp,” a real-world podcast in which former “This American Life” and “Planet Money” producer-personality Alex Blumberg meta-nonfictionally detailed the creation of his podcast network, Gimlet Media. “Alex, Inc.,” a television show about a podcast about a podcast, incorporates various details and stories from “Startup,” including an appearance by venture capitalist Chris Sacca as himself, schooling Alex, now Schuman (Braff), in the art of the pitch.
The writing is determinedly old-fashioned and includes the thousandth variation on Two Dates for the Prom, in which Alex runs between meetings lying outrageously; a visit from a judgmental mother-in-law; and the line “Tell me you didn’t touch the 401(k).” Notwithstanding Alex’s stated desire to do some hard reporting after 16 years at a radio program called “Cheer Up!” (“like NPR on Prozac”), he winds up pitching “a show about a guy like me with a family like them.” (“And now I’m pouring my coffee,” he records himself saying.)
Braff, who also directed the pilot, is 42 now, and middle age sort of suits him. But he is still the King of Winsome; he has a way of coming at you like a whole litter of puppies. As Alex’s wife Rooni, the very fine Tiya Sircar, literally devilish in “The Good Place,” is constrained to chuckle indulgently a little too much. It’s good-natured almost to a fault, a giant dimple of a show.
The humor can seem oddly muffled, like voices in thickly carpeted room, but there are nicely odd lines. “Naming stuff is hard — this is why I never buy plants,” says business partner Eddie (Michael Imperioli), in an episode about … naming stuff. “When I was a kid I named my imaginary friend Fuzzybottom and now I feel silly calling her that,” says Alex’s pathologically doting producer Deirdre (Hillary Anne Matthews).
Oddest, and nicest, of all is Elisha Henig as Alex’s son Ben, who is introduced trying to get his father’s attention at breakfast by telling him, “I met this girl on the internet; her name’s Steven and she wants to meet in a van in the woods.” An aspiring magician, to Alex’s chagrin (only so chagrin may later become delight), he steals scenes pulling streamers from his mouth or producing balls from behind his father’s ears. If this show were all about him, I would be all about this show.
Developed by Emily Kapnek (“Suburgatory”), “Splitting Up Together” is based on the Danish sitcom “Bedre skilt end aldrig,” which Google renders in English as “Better Sign Than Never.” Fischer and Oliver Hudson play Lena and Martin, a divorcing couple who for reasons of economy decide to keep living (nearly) together, trading off weeks in a big house with their kids and a half-converted garage apartment out back. “The divorce will give the whole thing some structure,” they tell their friends.
As an estranged couple possibly finding their way back to each other, they are one third of the way through the old formula, “Boy/Girl Meets Girl/Boy, Boy/Girl Loses Girl/Boy, Boy/Girl Gets Girl/Boy” (to state it inclusively). Their breakup may lead to the self-knowledge they will need to make up — just a few episodes in, we see that happening — though that will be a different show, and so the writers will also find reasons to keep them apart.
She is controlled and controlling, in a sort of adorable way. He is a pile of dirty laundry with (muscular) legs, in a less adorable way. They do not seem to have had 16 years of shared experience, but it is a big world and one can certainly find their seemingly mismatched married life in it. Here is their pre-divorce dynamic:
He: “I was just going to go for a quick run before work.”
She: “I was just going to do the laundry, vacuum, plunge the upstairs toilet, call a guy about the broken sprinkler, go to work, come home and make dinner.”
He: “Cool. What’s for dinner.”
He: “It kills you that I don’t parent the way you do.”
She: “And yet here I stand, not dead.”
Though the mathematical arrangement of the characters — including Diane Farr as Lena’s sardonic sister and Bobby Lee and Olivia Price as the former couple’s aggressively married friends — leads to some mathematical writing, the performances are good. Best of all is Fischer, who was the normal soul of “The Office” and has a satisfying way of commanding attention without asking for it, of seeming not to act, which is of course … acting.
Of the two shows, families considering watching might want to know, “Splitting Up Together” is the marginally less wholesome, given that it is about people who have stopped having sex with each other and might now have it with other people — “He’s so young and cool and edgy, like the Fonz,” Lena says of someone she might be seeing — and because the older son is having what might be called issues of adolescence. (The kids, all well played, come in a familiar assortment of flavors: Olivia Keville as the bookish, dour daughter, who calls her father “a cisgender sexist”; Van Crosby as the older son, with the above-mentioned issues; and Sander Thomas as the gnomically precocious younger.)
But it is comparatively modest and prudent, prudish, about these matters. This, in itself, is refreshing.
‘Splitting Up Together’
When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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