British television was well ahead of its American counterpart in its early willingness to embrace abbreviated runs — something that’s only now become common this side of the Atlantic. And now, they’ve come up with a welcome innovation for prestige dramedy: A series whose ten-episode run totals a little under two hours.
Sure, short-form TV is not new. But few entries in the category have as prestigious a pedigree or, likely, as crystalline a central premise as “State of the Union,” a SundanceTV series airing this spring after premiering January 28 at the Sundance Film Festival. Written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, the show’s ten-minute installments — representing stolen moments in the lives of an estranged couple as they meet for a quick drink before their weekly joint therapy session — brim with shrewd and twisting wordplay as well as hard wisdom about long-term relationships.
Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike play the couple who are less at the center of the show than its universe; we only fleetingly see anyone who is not them, and hear only banter and recriminations about their relationship. They’re parents, in an inequitable setup whereby Pike’s Louise is both the breadwinner and chief homemaker. (Both actors deliver excellent performances with divergent levels of surprise: O’Dowd’s Tom is a familiar type for him, pleasantly hangdog and underachieving, while Louise reveals a looser, quippier side of Pike than we’ve lately seen, one fueled both by annoyance and affection.) And they’re recovering both from Louise’s infidelity — debating in the first episode whether her short-lived affair was a series of mistakes, or just one mistake made four times — and from the climate that made cheating seem, to Louise, like a good idea.
“State of the Union” pulls off a neat trick; given both its short running time and its fleetness of dialogue, we never get tired of hearing this couple’s arguments, which could in other contexts be tiresome and circular. And both partners’ minds are so wide-ranging that — with an assist from Frears’s fleet direction — the show never grows claustrophobic. Both Louise and O’Dowd’s Tom, like so many of Hornby’s characters from “High Fidelity” to “An Education,” love language, and are fun to listen to. (Tom’s comparison of passion as not something one depletes, like gasoline, but something one outright loses, like keys or a pen, is met with a witty and believably off-the-cuff comeback by Louise.) They also manifestly love each other. Their lowest points together are fueled by a believable and compelling confusion that they can’t get things right; their best moments announce themselves suddenly and startlingly, as, in the midst of an ongoing crisis, they’re still able to find humor in their situation.
Some of their best rapport comes, for instance, in the running commentary they deliver on whichever couple whose therapy session precedes theirs. When, one week, it’s an elderly pair, Louise muses, “God, why bother. If we’re still having trouble at their age… Well, we won’t be. I’ll be long gone.” “State of the Union’s” success lies in the fact that even as we laugh at Louise’s dark vision of the future, we never believe it. This show’s short run reveals characters whose humanity, wit, pain, and joy are revealed through their evident commitment to the long haul.
“State of the Union.” SundanceTV. Comedy, 10 minutes. 10 episodes (all screened for review).
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Chris O’Dowd
Crew: Executive Producers: Jamie Laurenson, Hakan Kousetta, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Nick Hornby, Stephen Frears
Written by Nick Hornby
Directed by Stephen Frears