We live in an era where clever television for the sake of being clever is not only tolerated, but promoted (looking at you, Westworld). So, the idea of a low-budget, old-fashioned theater project is clearly an idea whose time has come. Into the space left by Waiting for Godot and recently created by Sundance TV comes State of the Union, a delightfully spiky look — in ten-minute segments — at a marriage on the brink.
First things first; the series is directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nick Hornby, probably best-known for their collaboration on High Fidelity. And this show feels like the spiritual successor to that one — imagine this as a check-in on Rob and Laura (High Fidelity’s main characters) fifteen years and one rocky marriage down the line. Except that, while High Fidelity is framed from Rob’s perspective, with frequent monologues that give the entire film a male gaze and make it inherently sexist; this series takes place in a much more egalitarian setting: The pub. Every ten-minute episode is framed as the couple meeting up before attending marital counseling sessions. You never see these sessions, nor any other aspect of the characters’ lives, apart from what they allude to (in a stroke of genius, one of the episodes features the characters musing about how they can’t really recall these sessions, or much of the rest of their lives outside of these brief pub-meets; it was a cool nod to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Most of the time is spent watching Chris O’Dowd (Tom) and Rosamund Pike (Louise) bickering and sniping at each other. Which would be depressing and boring, but Fawlty Towers-quality of zingers and the characters’ delightfully dysfunctional personalities are hilarious (I never knew I wanted to hear two people argue about why one of them is wearing an unnecessary arm cast, but the show delivers).
The show — or 100-minute film, depending on how you look at it — really serves as an intriguing retelling of what led to this point, and — on a more hopeful note — how to get out of it. The clever twist on gender roles is that Louise is the callous, sarcastic, cheater, and Tom is the overly-sensitive, insecure one. Over the 100 minutes, the pair fights, grows apart, bonds, and get closer, usually while discussing what their hypothetical lives would look like if they’d never met, or something had gone slightly different elsewhere. It’s something I’ve wondered myself; what would my life look like if I hadn’t rolled my car at age 17 (and subsequent CT scan revealed a brain tumor). As the characters eventually conclude, they would not be the people they are, and, entertaining as counterfactuals are, they don’t illuminate the way forward. In the meantime, you get to watch Tom move out (and, subsequently, move back in), hear Louise discuss why lack of physical intimacy is a problem in a long-term relationship (especially when that’s the starting point of the relationship), and hear a semantic break-down of when to say “I love you.” It may sound boring, but if you’re at all interested in human conflict and conflict resolution (as Tom puts it one point, “Those peace processes in the Middle East are usually about resolving one or two big griecvances; we have a thousand before we even walk into the counselor’s door.”) it’s fantastic. It also continues the grand British sit-com scenario of watching a minor lie become an elaborate ruse that then gets quickly binned for convenience.