Everything That's Wrong With Sundance TV's 'State of the Union'

The ingredients of ‘State of the Union,’ a short-form offering from Sundance TV starring Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd, promise a delicacy, but the dish isn’t all that tasty

Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd in “State of the Union.”
Sundance TV / HBO

Take an acclaimed author/screenwriter, many of whose novels have already been adapted into popular movies; add a director with a filmography that includes some of the best-loved movies of the past 30 years; then garnish with a pair of likeable, capable actors.

Unfortunately, as every cook knows, even with all the right ingredients, sometimes the dish just doesn’t work.

In the case of “State of the Union,” the author in question is none other than Mr. Adaptation himself, Nick Hornby, whose writing has provided fertile ground for filmmakers. His first novel, “Fever Pitch,” was turned into a 1997 movie starring Colin Firth and proved so popular that an American remake was issued eight years later, starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. Subsequent books were also adapted for the big and small screens: “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack; Hugh Grant and Toni Collette took the lead roles in “About a Boy”; and, most recently, Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke starred in “Juliet, Naked.”

The director, too, has an impressive track record. Stephen Frears directed the critically acclaimed 1980s hits “My Beautiful Laundrette” (starring Daniel Day-Lewis) and “Dangerous Liaisons” (starring so many A-listers that you should just Google it). He also directed last year’s Amazon Prime hit, “A Very British Scandal.” Frears has also worked with Hornby before, teaming up on “High Fidelity” in 2000.

The acting talent for “State of the Union” also promises great things. Rosamund Pike got her big break playing a Bond girl to Pierce Brosnan’s 007 in “Die Another Day,” but she is perhaps best known to audiences from her Oscar-nominated performance in “Gone Girl.” In “State of the Union,” she plays the role of Louise, opposite Tom, played by Chris O’Dowd, the Irish actor who, despite starring in many popular movies and shows, will always be the irascible tech support guy in “The IT Crowd” to me. 

The format of “State of the Union” is also intriguing. The show tells the story of a married couple, Tom and Louise, trying to save their marriage after what Tom refers to as “a spot of infidelity.” The couple meets up each week ahead of their session with a couple’s therapist; their progress – or lack thereof – is manifested in their interactions and their conversations.

Short bursts

For Frears, Pike and O’Dowd, the show does not provide much of a challenge. The direction is straightforward enough; the scenes are shot almost exclusively in a pub, there are barely any speaking characters apart from the two leads and the plot, such as it is, does not call for any special camerawork.

Pike and O’Dowd, meanwhile, handle their respective characters with the skill and sensitivity one would expect of two such accomplished actors. Pike richly deserved her Primetime Emmy Award for her performance, which was perceptive and suitably subdued.

So, with all the ingredients prepared and the recipe double-checked, how did “State of the Union” turn out so bland? The only explanation, it seems, is the writing.

If you’ve read any of Hornby’s novels or seen any of the adaptations of his writing, you know what to expect. He is usually insightful and witty. He has – perhaps unusually for a middle-aged, upper-middle-class, male writer – written three-dimensional female characters. His plotlines may err on the side of mawkishness (maybe that’s why they make sure good fodder for Hollywood?), but, on the whole, he has justified his position as one of Britain’s best-loved writers.

“State of the Union,” however, is not his best work. Despite its fun-size episode length, there were moments when this reviewer was bored with the dialogue, which did not zip along at the expected pace. In a series lasting a total of 100 minutes, there’s surely no room for pregnant pauses.

There’s nothing wrong with short-burst serialization. Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all published some of their writing in weekly installments. But it’s a skill that, it seems, needs honing. One 10-minute episode contains around 2,500 words of dialogue. To make it work, the writing needs to be tight and there can be no throwaway lines. “State of the Union” contains too many dead moments, which leave a more lasting impression than the many good lines.

It’s possible that Hornby tried to shoe-horn an already existing but incomplete idea into this format. The themes – marital dissatisfaction and existential malaise – are familiar, as are the foibles and weaknesses of the characters. But “State of the Union” feels like the draft of a Nick Hornby novel. In parts, it manages to reproduce some sense of his writing skill. There are some very funny lines, but too much rests on the shoulders of the lead actors. When one of the ingredients is subpar, the final dish will always disappoint.