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'State of the Union' Requires Minimal Time for Maximum Entertainment
May 6, 2019  | By David Hinckley

State of the Union, an experimental series from Sundance, adopts a new-media technique in a good way.

State of the Union, which debuts Monday on both Sundance and SundanceNow (see below for time details), is essentially a two-character production with 10 episodes that run about 10 minutes each.

Ultra-short episodes have been posted on various websites for several years, some involving professional performers and some becoming so popular they’ve been expanded into traditional TV series – though not, to this point, all that successfully.

State of the Union features Rosamund Pike as Louise and Chris O’Dowd as Tom, a couple who have been married a while, have two kids and recently became estranged.

They clearly still care for each other, though, so they’ve made an appointment with a marriage counselor.

State of the Union covers the 10 minutes before each counseling session, when they meet at a coffee shop across the street to consider what they might want to talk about.

As in almost every two-character play, the dialogue sounds theatrical at times. Both Louise and Tom speak a bit too smoothly, their wits a bit too quick, for this to sound like ordinary coffee-shop conversation with, presumably, a touch of awkwardness.

That does not, however, make their story or their characters any less interesting.

The immediate impetus for their estrangement seems to lie in a particular action of Louise’s. When Tom tosses this out as his opening gambit, she counters that to understand what she did, it’s necessary to rewind back through a thousand little things they both may or may not have done.

Tom seems less interested in that sort of broad investigation. Happily he’s overruled, because otherwise State of the Union would have far less material.  

While Pike and O’Dowd are both first-rate actors, the show naturally rises and falls on the strength of their characters’ conversation. Writer Nick Hornby handles that part well, and while it might not seem like there would be much direction required for a two-character dialogue mostly in one location, Stephen Frears captures both Tom and Louise nicely.

As viewers might expect, they fill us in on their backstory, one factoid at a time. Some are just logistical, like their professional situations, while others are fun facts that illustrate their respective quirks and give the whole show a breeziness that sets it apart from darker dramas about separated couples.

State of the Union provides a nice satisfying return for a minimal investment of time.

It starts airing at 10 p.m. ET Monday on Sundance. Also starting Monday, two episodes will air back-to-back daily at 5 p.m. on Sundance Now.

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