State of the Union ★★★½
ABC Plus, Tuesdays 8:55 p.m. and iview
In his suit and tie, middle-aged businessman Scott (Brendan Gleeson) looks uncomfortable and out of place as soon as he arrives at the “specialty coffee” store, Mouthfeel. “It looks like a sex club,” he remarks grumpily as barista Jay (Esco Jouley) tries to explain the meaning behind the cafe’s name.
Scott is due to meet Ellen (Patricia Clarkson), his wife of 30 years, before their first marriage counseling session and he is puzzled by everything: where he is; why he is there; and also by Jay who, it seems, prefers the pronoun “they”.
Her unease is the springboard for the elegantly crafted second season of the series created by novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education, Brooklyn) and directed by Stephen Frears (A Very English Scandal, Quiz). The pair previously worked together on the 2000 film adaptation of High fidelity.
The premise and structure of the new season remain the same the second time around, although the characters and setting are different. The 2019 season premiere (iview), set in Britain, saw another longtime couple meet in a bar ahead of their weekly marriage counseling sessions. Over his pint of beer and glass of white wine, unemployed music critic Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and gerontologist Louise (Rosamund Pike) reveal the issues that led them to therapy. Each episode of the 10-part season played in real time 10 minutes before the scheduled session.
It is a simple and economical concept: largely a one-time setting; short and sweet 10 minute episodes. And here, it features pairs of accomplished actors delivering expertly nuanced performances, clever writing, and understated, smooth direction.
The recently arrived second season is set in America, and the couple are well-off upper-middle class. Although he remains essentially two-handed, Jay takes on a larger role than the anonymous bartenders of the first season, initially as Scott’s antagonist and Ellen’s ally. However, a sign of one of the strengths of the series, this changes as it progresses.
Described as a “short-lived romantic comedy-drama”, State of the Union is adept at shifting sympathies: there are no villains, though infidelity is an issue in both seasons. However, there is a tangible sense of sadness at the possible dissolution of a long-term relationship that has its issues but remains just as loving and devoted. And, in both seasons, it’s easy to believe in the couple’s story: the relationships have an authentic lived experience. The vignettes morph into a satisfying whole that illustrates the tensions and tenderness that still exist, as well as the reasons for the breakups.