State of the Union is a short form TV show about a married couple who meet at a pub before their weekly therapy session. Available to binge on ABC iview, it has a unique approach to storytelling.
In the 2019 comedy State of the Union, a small table in an unremarkable English pub serves as a stage. There are only two players. In this pub, a story unfolds about a wife who cheated, and a husband broken by it and worn down by his unemployment and numb indifference, and the struggle of their failing relationship. Every week, they meet and share a drink before their weekly session with a marriage counsellor, to compare notes.
The show aired on Channel 10 earlier this year, but I only found it on ABC iview a little later. It was easy to miss, flying under the radar, I think due to its unique and possibly alienating format. It’s perhaps better suited to a web series, with each episode being only 10 minutes long. It’s a TV series with a unique approach to storytelling, and its format is faithful to its source material: a 10 chapter conversation focused book by Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, High Fidelity).
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State of the Union approaches a dissolving and difficult marriage with a degree of pathos and careful portrayal that allows its characters to be raw, and almost unforgivable. This is a show about people who used to be in love, and who might still be, but are dissolving and fragmenting through miscommunication, apathy, inertia and a sad, quiet withdrawal into their routines and patterns.
Enter Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike
Chris O’Dowd manages his depression and inflexibility with just enough room for approachable indignation at his wife’s infidelity, without ever becoming a protagonist in his own story. He is a man to whom life is happening, whether he wants it to or not. He makes no independent move towards anything at all.
Rosamund Pike is clipped and almost painfully reasonable as the long suffering wife, who shows guilt at her infidelity, and confusion about how to return from and solve it. The strongest part of her portrayal is the skill with which she accomplishes the role of mother, friend and frustrated guidance counsellor for her wayward and adolescent middle-aged husband.
The humour is subtle, never a blunt instrument, always hinged on a word, or a look, or a simple quip. State of the Union is a comedy, but there is nothing of the sitcom to it. There is no slapstick, there are no easy jokes, and the laughs that we’re given are uneasy and uncomfortable. The show itself was rarely billed as a comedy, and has been marketed as more of a drama about a couple in crisis; but like many of Nick Hornby’s novels, and indeed the films based on them, the comedic tone overrides the drama.
Relationships are fragile. And they require people to consistently and carefully work at them; enough that they can average out to a level of functionality and affection that gives them both fulfillment. In State of the Union, we are given an honest glimpse at the painful crossroads of every long term relationship.
As with most moments of crisis and pain, it is unremarkable, and unromantic, and even undramatic. It is normal and hum-drum, and it fits into short conversations at a pub, as well as visits to a marriage counsellor in coordinated slots throughout a working day.
The villain in this show is time
The villain of the relationship is neither the cheating wife, or the spurned yet directionless and self centred husband. It is time. Time has come between the two of them, and time has made them tired. Time has taken their romance and physical attraction and left them with companionship and wry conversation, and a glint of friendship – but little else.
State of the Union is a show about Englishness, with its calm cruelty, manners and dry humour. It is also about Brexit: a looming existential crisis referenced throughout the series’ arc and a the basis of a recurring argument between the couple. Every time it comes up, it’s hard not to read high level political metaphors into the two players and their quiet debacle. Their dysfunction and lack of meaningful decision-making or action in the face of disaster seems like poignant commentary. But it’s important to remember that State of the Union is still a story about a marriage.
And it’s a simple story.
One that is played out in households and – yes – in pubs throughout the world. A story of two people who once loved each other very much, who are no longer sure that they do, and feel sad, lost and quite broken. When that kind of story is told well, and told without artifice or pretension, great TV is made. State of the Union is great TV.