Editor’s note: Watch an exclusive clip from State of the Union below.
Personally, I find short-form TV a little jarring much of the time, hard to get into. That wasn’t the case with the 10 episodes of State of the Union. The series is a lot of things—sharp, realistic, a two-person character study written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears. What it claims to be, and really isn’t, is comedy. Or, it is comedy in the literary definition of not having an explicitly tragic ending, but it’s not funny. Honestly. Witty, yes. But you won’t really laugh. So if you go into it expecting comedy, you’re going to be a little confused.
It’s the kind of scenario you’d expect from a stage play: Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O’Dowd) are a fortyish couple going into marriage counseling for the first time. She’s had a brief, ill-advised affair. He (understandably) feels betrayed and (understandably but to be honest annoyingly) is too focused on that to ask himself how both of them got to that point. Any suggestion that relationships never fall apart on only one person’s watch is construed as victim-blaming, defenses are high, and a laundry list of disappointments and frustrations and resentments bob under the surface of the conversation.
You never see the therapist’s office: The entire scope of the series is the few minutes before the session, where they meet for a drink at a pub across the street and manage their nervousness by gossiping about the other couples they see coming out. There are a few, very minor, characters—not many at all and none who exist for any plot-related reason. In fact, honestly you’d be hard pressed to locate a plot. State of the Union is a sketch of a mid-life marriage in crisis. It doesn’t need to be anything else, and perhaps this is where the short form is working in its favor; an hour-long vignette of this kind might be asking a lot of viewers even given the clever dialogue and engaging performances. In 10-minute increments, it stays punchy and trenchant and reasonable.
Over the course of 10 episodes, the relationship moves quite a lot, and in a way that will make you pretty wistful if you have been through a divorce, because probably you wished what happens to these characters would have happened to you. They slowly overcome their baggage, at least a bit, because they are both motivated to do so. Posh, professional Louise admits she feels embarrassed and resentful about financially supporting Tom, a scrappy music critic. Tom admits he feels the same way, and it’s probably pretty directly related to why he stopped being interested in sex ages ago. She feels bad about the infidelity but a bit defiant about wanting more than she’s getting. He decides to get over himself a little and occasionally ask her how her day was. She realizes she’s judgmental. He realizes he’s way too complacent. They both realize they love each other and that getting stuff wrong in relationships isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Slowly, they evolve away from deliberately antagonizing each other and putting up walls.
It’s a classic, almost archetypal kind of partnership dynamic in which many of us will be able to see ourselves, so it doesn’t entirely matter that there are aspects of the characters we never really learn about. We recognize the power dynamics, the longing for validation, the constant tension between the human cravings for familiarity on the one hand and novelty on the other. The characters are well-rendered and pronouncedly human and full of blind spots and they both have the wonderful redeeming impulse to face them. I wondered here and there what would have had to happen for the script to get even deeper into the characters, and I’m not sure the answer isn’t “more minutes per episode”—and more minutes per episode would hit a pacing wall at a certain point, so I think it’s safe to posit that State of the Union is the right iteration of what it is, a marriage of form and function that is at least as functional as the marriage it depicts.
State of the Union premieres Monday, May 6 at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV. Read our interview with Nick Hornby and Chris O’Dowd here.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.