Boxset Monday: State of the Union (season one) (US: SundanceTV; UK: BBC Two)

Marriage once the drama is taken out of it

Chris O'Dowd and Rosamund Pike in State of the Union
Chris O'Dowd and Rosamund Pike in State of the Union

In the US: Aired on SundanceTV May 16-19 2019
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Two

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. If so, you’d think that SundanceTV’s State of the Union would be a little bit more exciting, given that its 10 episodes are just 10 minutes long, so it should be able to cut about just about everything dull in life. Alas no.

Despite its US name and US network, State of the Union is virtually all British and Irish talent in front of and behind the camera. Written by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and directed by Stephen Frears, it sees Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Get Shorty) and Rosamund Pike playing a not so happily married couple London couple. Each episode is set in the pub where the two meet before heading over the road for marriage counselling.

And that’s it. We never see the counselling sessions themselves and for the most part, the only other characters we see are two couples Pike and O’Dowd observe coming out of the preceding sessions, usually in a state of emotional shock.

Although Aisling Bea does turn up for about three minutes in one episode. That was a highlight in a show that is for the most part, all the bits of life left after the drama is taken out.

State of the union

We intuit from the dialogue and the couple’s manner exactly what ‘the state of the (marriage) union’ is during each episode, with time marching on speedily between each 10 minute slice. We learn very quickly that the two have been married for 15 years and they have kids, but Pike was bored and slept with someone else. Over the next few episodes, we then see how O’Dowd decides to react and how their lives evolve, before everything reaches a conclusion (of sorts) in the final episode.

We also learn a lot about their backstories. O’Dowd, since this is a Nick Hornby tale, is an unemployed music critic. Pike, meanwhile, is a gerontologist; we learn how they met, why they decided to date and, of course, what led to the adultery. We also learn how each voted in Brexit. And why Brexit is a bad idea. I think Brexit might have got more lines than Aisling Bea did, in fact.

Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd in State of the Union © Parisatag Hizadeh/Confession Films/SundanceTV

Economy of writing

It must be said that Hornby is very good at creating these little verbal pictures of the characters. O’Dowd and Pike are believable together as a couple and both rise to the emotional challenges the script calls upon when needed. There are also funny lines for both to mine.

However, the big surprise of State of the Union is how theatrical and artificial it all feels – and not in a good way. While the situation certainly feels real, the dialogue is very dense and very arch, as though Hornby’s decision to concentrate every scene into just 10 minutes has allowed the novelist inside him to decide to paint with words, even while Frears is trying to do naturalistic direction. To be honest, the whole thing would have worked better as a theatre production, where that level of artifice in speech wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

Similarly, the fact we never really see fighting or real discussion of issues, as they’re all reserved for the counselling sessions, means we’re left with what’s left of a lot of marriages after the drama is removed: sitting around doing a crossword together, making up stories about couples they spot across the pub, in-jokes and reminiscences, but nothing much of note.

A lot of it is O’Dowd and Pike reflecting on the nature of counselling and making tired jokes to hide their nerves, rather than dealing with real depth of feeling. O’Dowd never even seems angry at what Pike’s done, never hurt – although we hear he is in the sessions, at least. Fights about the kids don’t happen, because they hardly even realise that O’Dowd isn’t around any more, apparently.

Even when they do start to deal with the deeper issues, oops – time’s up. Off to the sesh.

Chris O'Dowd and Rosamund Pike in State of the Union
Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike in State of the Union

Funny treatment

State of the Union does present a reasonably nuanced portrait of a marriage that evades most of the stereotypes, and Hornby’s choice to fill the dialogue with trivia and the mundane is a realism of sorts, even if it’s not an exciting one to watch. It gives us some warm characters and doesn’t really take sides, allowing us to get to know them and like them – and to hope everything works out. It has a few moderately amusing situations and observations, as well as some thoughts about growing old together and the nature of marriage itself (although Pike’s statements on older adults’ sexual activity might not win her many friends with the health education community).

But its format works both for and against it, making it more interesting than it should be but never letting it become truly insightful. Hornby’s desire to always pull his punches means that no one ever lands a knockout blow. It’s too flippant when it should be serious, too implausible when it needs to be realistic, wry, but never hilarious, emotional but never powerful, and too contained when it really needs outside perspective.

It thus lacks the raw power of even one episode (or a third of an episode) of In Treatment.

State of the Union is nevertheless an interesting and memorable experiment and watching it in short bursts, rather than boxsetting it, would probably help, since it certainly lacks as a 1h40 movie. If you think of it as fringe theatre, you might enjoy it too and call it an ambitious failure. But with the talent on show, you’d have hoped for something far, far better.

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