This story on “State of the Union” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Chris O’Dowd has a succinct way to describe “State of the Union,” a collection of short episodes that premiered on SundanceTV in May. “It’s inside the sausage factory of a marriage,” he said of the series, which stars O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike and was created and written by Nick Hornby.
And this particular sausage has some messy ingredients. O’Dowd and Pike play Tom and Louise, a couple whose marriage is on the rocks after 15 years. He’s a former rock critic whose life has been aimless since he lost his job, she’s a gerontologist whose brief affair led to their separation, and to their weekly trips to couples counseling.
But we don’t see those sessions. Instead, “State of the Union” is set in a pub across the street from the counselor’s office, where Tom and Louise meet every week to prepare for the session. They bicker, they uncover old wounds and they mix small talk with lacerating insights and plenty of pop-culture references — a given, since the series was created by Hornby (author of the novels “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” and the screenplays to “An Education” and “Brooklyn,” among others), who always knows how to capture the various obsessions that drive us all.
“I wanted to write about counseling without writing about counseling, because once you get in the room it can get quite stilted,” Hornby said. “The time before struck me as much more chaotic, and it let the character of the marriage emerge.”
He’d come up with the original idea and the characters of Tom and Louise years ago but put them aside until he came up with the idea of 10-minute episodes at a moment when he had just enough free time.
“I was stuck between things, and I didn’t have enough time to start on a book,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I’m gonna try and write a couple [episodes] and see how it feels.’ And it all got out of hand.”
The key, he said, was to give the marriage a life of its own. “The thing I really wanted to get across was that a marriage is an independent character,” he said. “It’s created by two people, but every day you spend with someone you add another knot or layer of complication, until you’re left with this thing that you can’t explain or understand.”
Most of the scenes take place at the same table in the pub across the street from the therapist’s office, and only rarely does anyone other than O’Dowd and Pike say a word. “Just as an exhibit ion of memory, it was kind of difficult,” O’Dowd said, adding that he and Pike established their own ritual over the course of shooting.
“We rehearsed for a week. And then we shot an episode a day, and we got into a great routine where we’d shoot one episode, and then we’d get a bottle of wine and do the lines for the following day,” he said. It meant that we had a good rapport and were very easy around each other.”
It’s a delight to see these articulate, funny people work through their wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, over the course of the 10 episodes. Director Stephen Frears does just enough to keep the setting from feeling repetitious, and things emerge in conversation that send the relationship in different directions.
“It’s revealed that I voted for Brexit and she didn’t, and that changes the dynamic of the relationship,” O’Dowd said with a laugh. “She feels, ‘Well, if you’d do that, what wouldn’t you do, you cretin?'”
Nothing is resolved over the course of the 10 episodes, though it’s safe to say, as O’Dowd did, “it’s left in a slightly hopeful place.” But it’s also clear that these two will find ways to torpedo the relationship no matter what the state of their union is — which might make it fun to spend more time with Tom and Louise.
“I’d like to check in with them every few years to see what horrible things they’ve done to each other,” O’Dowd said. “I think that both of them have a touch of self-destruction in them.”
Hornby, though, has other thoughts. “I’ve been asked to write a second season,” he said,
“which I would do with different characters. I’d very much like to franchise the format, as it were. And I’ve approached an actress who I’d like to work with, who’s at a different stage in life.”
But O’Dowd, who also starred in last year’s “Juliet, Naked,” which was based on another Hornby novel, thinks he’s inextricably tied to the writer now. “I like to think of myself as his muse,” he said. “I’m waiting to see what sexy situations he will write me into later in life.”