Each of the ten episodes is only ten-minutes long. What they lack in length, they make up for in nuanced dialogue that shifts between profound poignancy, inane banter and heartfelt humour.
Set in real time, in a non-descript north London pub, the story follows unemployed music writer Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and gerontologist Louise (Rosamund Pike) as they grab a drink before their weekly marriage counselling session.
The idea is for them to agree an agenda for what they’re going to tackle during the session, but they rarely stay on track. The pub’s proximity to the therapist’s office provides plenty of opportunity for the pair to analyse other couples emerging from their appointments. When they’re not guessing who’s to blame in those marriages, they’re bickering and sparring about their own, reminiscing about what drew them to each other, and blaming one another for their current predicament.
They talk about their kids and careers, where things went wrong (spoiler: one of them had an affair) and why. They talk about their sex life (or lack of), their shared love of crosswords, and the size of Tom’s balls – metaphorically speaking.
He derides Louise for enjoying Call the Midwife and Scandi noir novels; she reveals her embarrassment about his unemployment. Amid the hurt and cutting remarks, there’s genuine affection, and they still make each other laugh.
“Right at the beginning, Chris said it’s often weird if you have a comedy and the characters are funny, but they don’t ever find each other funny, so we sort of let that feeling come out. They were funny for each other at times when it was appropriate, and Chris genuinely made me laugh and that was joyful,” says Rosamund, who’s known for more dramatic roles, such as Gone Girl, and wasn’t sure her co-star would get on board.
“I didn’t know whether Chris would think my comedy credentials were kind of up to the mark. You hope that someone is going to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to jump into this with her,’ but you never know. It’s like putting yourself on the line in the dating game, but in a professional sense.”
As it turned out, Bridesmaids star Chris had no qualms about diving in, and recalls how the pair would stay in the pub after they’d finished filming for the day. “We’d get through a bottle of wine while we were testing each other on the next day’s lines. Doing 13 or 14 pages of dialogue every day is something you just never encounter in a normal working job. And we shot it like that. You’d just get into your costume in the morning and you shoot for 12 hours, just sitting opposite each other.”
The only time we see Tom and Louise outside the bar is when they walk across the road to the therapist’s front door just before the credits roll. We never see the therapist, but there are brief interactions with the husbands and wives they’ve been observing, as well as a run-in with friends, which involves a cameo from Aisling Bea. It’s a brilliantly awkward moment, even before Tom decides to overshare.
First shown on SundanceTV, State of the Union has earned Emmy nominations for its two leads, as well as one in the short-form comedy series category. Rightly so. There are echoes of shows like The Royle Family and In Treatment, where not a lot happens, everything transpires, and it’s all in the detail.
State of the Union is not just a relatable scenario and script. It offers subtle indicators of how the characters are feeling and evolving each week. It might be what they choose to wear – look out for Louise’s sartorial reaction to Tom telling her she’s not sexy – or the briefest of looks or gestures, or just the way they choose to sit at the table. At the end of the ten weeks, there is no neat conclusion or clichéd happy ending. Instead, Tom makes an unexpected announcement and they decide to get drunk. From start to finish, it’s a delight to watch. The investment might be little, but the reward is great.
A double bill of State of the Union is on BBC Two this Sunday, 8th September. The entire series will be available on BBC iPlayer immediately afterwards.
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