“Discussing a malfunctioning marriage is depressing and time-consuming,” Rosamund Pike’s Louise tells her husband, Tom (Chris O’Dowd), late in Sundance’s excellent and experimental new series State of the Union. The show, reuniting the High Fidelity team of writer Nick Hornby and director Stephen Frears, aims to prove her wrong on both counts.
Each of its 10 episodes runs only 10 minutes(*), taking place entirely in and around the pub where the estranged spouses meet to pregame their weekly marriage counseling. And the installments are lightly comedic at least as often as they are probing about all the problems — including, as Tom describes Louise’s transgressions, a “spot of infidelity” — that brought them to this inflection point.
(*) Because the structure and format are relatively novel, Sundance is offering a couple of ways to consume the series. Starting tonight at 10, one episode will air per weeknight through May 17th. The Sundance Now digital subscription service, meanwhile, offers two episodes a day starting today at 5 p.m. I binged the whole season in a day and still enjoyed it that way, but it feels built to play out in a slightly less compressed time period.
This is Hornby in his relationship-dramedy wheelhouse: Tom is even an unemployed rock journalist, and is frustrated that his gerontologist wife doesn’t share his pop culture passions. Each episode manages to feel both leisurely and dense, as Louise and Tom banter and bicker before digging deep into where their relationship went awry. (It’s clear quickly that these are their real therapy sessions, while Tom is putting on a show once they cross the street to the office where the official version takes place.) There are running gags about Brexit and the couple who have the weekly appointment before theirs, but also sharply-observed and generous comments about how time changes people who’ve chosen to spend a life together. One moment, Tom can be comparing their hiatused sex life to “Usain Bolt with a groin strain,” and the next they’re onto cancer and death. It’s all remarkably nimble, given the constraints the creative team has placed on itself.
O’Dowd recently starred in the movie adaptation of Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, so it’s no surprise that he does so well in another turn as a well-meaning man-child with a lot of thoughts about music. Pike’s a treat playing more against her usual steely type — strikingly funny when the moment calls for it, but also appealingly vulnerable in the moments where the marriage seems to be edging towards a cliff. Though Hornby made his name back in the day with his portraits of men with Peter Pan complexes, he’s become very good at writing women. He and Frears effectively keep the scales balanced in terms of who’s getting laughs and who’s most deserving of sympathy in a given moment.
This spring has seen several promising shows that take their structural cues from web series, including Netflix’s Special and I Think You Should Leave. With the talent on hand in front of and behind the camera, this series easily could have gotten away with something closer to the In Treatment model, where Tom and Louise argue for close to a half-hour each time. But in a TV landscape where episodes and seasons can overstay their welcome, State of the Union turns out to be the perfect length.