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‘State of the Union’ Season 2 Review: Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson Explore a Marriage on the Rocks

The Emmy-winning short-form series is back with a new couple under marital pressure

This Valentines’s Day aptly marks the return of SundanceTV’s Emmy-winning short-form series “State of the Union,” written and created by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears. In the first season three years ago, we followed Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike’s characters, Tom and Louise in the 10 minutes before their marriage counseling session (with the season counting as 10 weeks of sessions). Season 2 uses the same approach with a new couple, Scott and Ellen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson. But Scott and Ellen have 30 years of marriage and baggage to contend with as they weigh the pros and cons of a potential divorce, and their sessions take place above a Connecticut hipster coffee shop, not across the street from a pretty empty U.K. pub.

The first season of “State of the Union” won the Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series, with both O’Dowd and Pike taking the respective Actor and Actress awards in the same category. Expect similar recognition for Gleeson (an Emmy Award winner and BAFTA Award nominee) and Clarkson (an Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee). While the second season lacks the immediate charm and humor of the first — instead building slowly over the course of the 10 episodes — there is no denying the power of Gleeson and Clarkson’s performances. And with a show like “State of the Union,” that is the key: Because 10 minutes can feel like an awfully long time when the performers aren’t as compelling as this duo.

In the official synopsis, Ellen is described as the “liberal campaigning” wife to Gleeson’s “traditional, self-made” husband. Basically, in 2022, she finally has the language and tools to explore who she really is, while he increasingly feels that the world is passing him by. And in the early episode, Hornby seems to be learning the language of 2022 himself. There’s really not too much new left to say about the Boomer mentality and its confusion over pronouns and (seriously) pussyhats. Hornby’s writing is still sharp — as he demonstrated in the first season — but even the most quick-witted can fall into the same generational traps.

Luckily, all of that turns out to be table-setting, shorthand to let the audience know what kind of people Scott and Ellen are — but it’s not all these characters are. And Gleeson’s Scott, a dinosaur and relic of a certain time, delivers many surprises as we get to know him and question our initial impressions that suggest Ellen is the one to root for. We become aware that Ellen’s white feminist leanings don’t exactly make her the “good guy” and that Scott’s many jokes about her turn to Quakerism mask some genuine heartbreak.

While “State of the Union” is obviously a two-hander, the show’s secret ingredient is Jay (Esco Jouléy), the person who runs the coffee shop where the couple meet each week. Gleeson’s interactions with Jouléy sometimes threaten to upstage his scenes with Clarkson’s — and her reactions to becoming the sudden outsider create an interesting new dynamic to their relationship.

At one point, Ellen simply asks Scott, “Why do you want a wife who wants to bend you out of shape?” Scott’s answer is an even simpler: “Because she’s the one I got.” It’s an exchange that leads to the season’s best and most enduring metaphor, one about comfortableness, as the two try to unpack if that’s enough of a reason to stay together. “State of the Union” Season 2 is not as funny as Season 1, but Gleeson, Clarkson and Jouléy are able to make Hornby’s dialogue perhaps even more engaging. Frears’ direction, which makes each 10-minute episode feel both fulfilling and effortless, helps make “State of the Union” one of TV’s hidden gems.

“State of the Union” premieres on February 14 on Sundance Now and AMC+.

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