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The second season of Sundance TV’s State of the Union made me miss Quibi.
No, it didn’t cause me to lament the actual short-lived, much-maligned digital platform with its inconsistently applied horizontal and vertical orientations, nor did it make me miss any of the individual programs that lived on Quibi and, in some cases, have migrated over to Roku TV.
State of the Union
Airdate: Monday, February 14 (Sundance TV)
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Brendan Gleeson, Esco Jouléy
Writer: Nick Hornby
Director: Stephen Frears
It did, however, evoke nostalgia for the core idea behind Quibi, one that I still believe wasn’t inherently flawed even if the execution tended to be — namely that sometimes programming in “quick bites” is actually really appealing and a good way to tell a story.
The first season of State of the Union, from writer Nick Hornby and director Stephen Frears, was a run of 10 ten-minute episodes focused on a married couple (Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd) meeting at a bar ahead of their weekly counseling session. It was instantly delightful, a smart bit of medium experimentation elevated by clever dialogue and two tremendously likable performances.
The appeal of the second season, however, isn’t as instantaneous. Season two of State of the Union begins with a few rough episodes whose problems stem from the not wholly successful selection of the season’s new focal couple and their initial presentation. The season gets better as it goes along, and by the end, thanks especially to the appeal of stars Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson, it has a lot to recommend it — and nothing so much as how easy it is to coast past a stretch of so-so episodes when they’re only 10 minutes apiece.
The hook of the first season was that as much marital strain as the main characters were under, the chemistry between Pike and O’Dowd made it very difficult not to root for them to reach some sort of rapprochement.
In reimagining the format, Hornby and Frears surely could have found any number of points of demographic differentiation, but went once again with a straight, white couple of some economic means. The action has been moved to the United States, but a pretty generic version of the United States. Where things have changed, though, is that our new couple is at a different stage of their life and their marriage, and there’s more likely to be a split among viewers as to whether or not they’re worth rooting for, yielding very different energy.
Scott (Gleeson) and Ellen (Clarkson) have reached their 60s. They’ve weathered past marital strife — his infidelities decades earlier, mostly — and now, with their kids finally out of the equation and retirement looming, they’re ready for reexamination. Or at least Ellen is ready for reexamination. A progressive to the point of initial caricature, she’s thinking about her faith and she’s thinking about her future, especially opportunities for activism and altruism. Not politically conservative, but a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to social issues, Scott is thinking of fishing and travel, and the idea that Ellen is considering divorce stuns him. Their weekly therapy sessions force him to ponder his personal entrenchment.
Adding an additional wrinkle is Jay (Esco Jouley), manager of the coffee shop below the counseling office where Ellen and Scott hold their weekly pre-brief. Jay uses they/them pronouns. Jay is asexual. Jay is a well-acted writers’ contrivance, existing exclusively to help expand Scott’s horizons and expose certain aspects of Ellen’s liberal privilege. Jay, unfortunately, is a poorly conceived character with very little initial interiority. But like everything else in this season, they grow in effectiveness as the season goes along, especially once the two primary characters — you never, for a second, are allowed to think of Jay as anything other than a narrative accessory to Scott and Ellen, which is a pity — can interact with them as a person and not a collection of attributes that stereotypically make boomers uncomfortable.
Much more so than the first season, which had the specific yet timeless rom-com elements of his most popular works, this run of State of the Union feels like Hornby acknowledging and working through his own aging and disconnection from shifting cultural mores. This is his therapy session as much as therapy for his characters, and that results, unavoidably, in State of the Union becoming Scott’s story much more than Ellen’s. The show knows Scott requires growth and maturation, and never doubts that he’s capable of that change; at the same time, there’s far less empathy for Ellen’s own journey other than admitting that she probably could use one.
This puts the season’s energy in a bad place to begin with. Scott and Ellen are too often cartoons, him with his exasperated hand-wringing about “they” and “them” being plural pronouns and therefore inappropriate — a conservative ideological chestnut that somebody different gets dunked on for expressing on social media every week — and her with her pink pussyhat as if it were 2017. This is where the quick bit format has its downside: Hornby has to work in shorthand to get his points across, and this shorthand is broad and coarse.
But when the season hits its midpoint — if you’ve made it through the opening 30 or 40 minutes — Hornby stops having to underline his character details, and Gleeson and Clarkson are able to bicker and flirt and generally interact in a way that accentuates many of their strengths, including her eye-crinkled warmth and wisdom and his more relaxed, but still exasperated, bluster. It’s here that you remember all of the wit that drives Hornby’s dialogue and how adroitly Frears is able to stage scenes in the single location, using camera positioning and character staging and framing to prevent claustrophobia and to maintain momentum.
When it becomes clear that the problem in this relationship isn’t his frustration with wokeness — I can report with some relief that nobody mentions cancel culture — or her somewhat under-explained new interest in Quakerism, but rather something deeper in the 40-ish years of their relationship and their respective personalities, State of the Union settles into being the kind of pleasurable, fundamentally theatrical exercise I so enjoyed the first time around.
Were this a traditional cable or streaming series and I had to write one of those, “Yeah, you have to sit through three or four hours of bad TV, but it gets better,” I wouldn’t bother. But the great thing about the State of the Union format is that it’s all over in 100 minutes, so the pairing of Clarkson and Gleeson plus the promise of an emotionally satisfying last third is much easier to justify. Quibi didn’t work, but quick bites still can.
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