Critic’s View
State of the Union
ABC Plus, Tuesday 8.55pm and iview

In his suit and tie, middle-aged businessman Scott (Brendan Gleeson) looks uncomfortable and out-of-place from the moment he arrives at the “speciality coffee” shop, Mouthfeel. “It sounds like a sex club,” he crankily remarks as barista Jay (Esco Jouley) attempts to explain the meaning of the cafe’s name.

Patricia Clarkson as Ellen and Brendan Gleeson as Scott in State of the Union.Credit:Laura Radford/See-Saw Films/Sundance TV

Scott is due to meet Ellen (Patricia Clarkson), his wife of 30 years, before their first marriage-counselling session and he’s perplexed by the whole thing: where he is; why he’s there; and also by Jay whom, it emerges, prefers the pronoun “they”.

His discomfort is the springboard for the second elegantly crafted 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 the structure of the new season remain the same second time ’round, although the characters and setting are different. The 2019 first season (iview), set in Britain, saw another long-time couple meeting in a bar before their weekly marriage-counselling sessions. Over his pint of beer and her glass of white wine, unemployed music critic Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and gerontologist Louise (Rosamund Pike) revealed the issues that brought them to therapy. Each episode in the 10-part season played out in real time 10 minutes before the scheduled session.

It’s a simple and economical concept: largely a single setting; episodes that are 10 short-and-sweet minutes. And, here, it showcases pairs of accomplished actors delivering skilfully nuanced performances, smart writing and smoothly unobtrusive direction.

The recently arrived second season is set in America and the couple is affluent upper-middle-class. Although essentially it remains a two-hander, Jay takes a more prominent role than the anonymous bartenders of the first season, initially as an antagonist for Scott and an ally for Ellen. However, in a sign of one of the series’ strengths, that changes as it progresses.

Described as a “short-form romantic dramedy”, State of the Union is adept at shifting sympathies: there are no villains, although infidelity is an issue in the two seasons. However, there is a tangible sense of sadness about the possible dissolution of a long-term relationship that has its problems but also remains loving and devoted. And, in both seasons, it’s easy to believe in the couple’s history: the relationships have an authentic lived-in quality. The vignettes grow into a satisfying whole that illustrates the tensions and the tenderness that still exist, as well as the reasons for the rifts.

In the second season, which has slightly more spark than the first, Ellen challenges Scott with a line from a poem by Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” He’s perplexed by the question: “What is there to do?” he responds, “I already did it. I’m retired.” When pushed, he elaborates that he intends to play golf, go fishing on his boat, visit Civil War battlegrounds, eat and drink expensively and, well, and listen to jazz recorded before 1965. The response confirms to Ellen that their paths have, perhaps irrevocably, diverged.

These are not the types of characters that generally occupy front-and-centre screen attention. They’re not teens or twentysomethings in the throes of passion. This isn’t about first-date jitters, giddy romance, courtship or honeymoons. But there’s a lot of meat for drama on these middle-aged bones.

State of the Union could easily be overlooked amid the flow of noisier offerings, yet it’s an unassuming production that nimbly accomplishes what it sets out to achieve

Both seasons are available on iview, with the second now past its midway point on ABC Plus. It’s screening there in double-episode blocks that bump it up to a length more convenient for traditional network programming.

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