When Nick Hornby started writing the SundanceTV series “State of the Union,” he knew where he wanted the season to end. At first, the endpoint he decided on may not seem all that revolutionary – but like most elements of the experimental, 10-minute an episode, 10-episode season, context adds so much more than that.
“I wanted the last words to be ‘I love you,’ and for it not to be exactly as that seems,” Hornby said.
But aside from how those last words are framed, it’s the format of the series that lends itself to something with additional insight than the usual “couple in strife” story. In the show, Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd play Louise and Tom, an on-the-outs, estranged married couple who meet once a week before their scheduled therapy session at a pub right across the street.
Hornby wrote the entire series, which was in turn directed by Stephen Frears. (The latter’s 2000 film “High Fidelity” adapted Hornby’s novel of the same name.) Having this story play out in smaller increments made sense, given the time that these characters would have together. The trick then became to make that weekly format take full advantage of the premise.
“When I thought about setting it after their therapy, all the energy went out of it, because they would only be able to talk about what they just talked about. That would feel like you just missed a dramatic moment,” Hornby said. “Whereas before, you’ve got a week of life, a previous therapy session and all the things that are going on with them from the previous however many years as well. There’s a wealth of material for them to pick through.”
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More than a formal curiosity, “State of the Union” presents a chance for these conversations to really dig into language. Aside from the usual idea that there’s plenty of subtext lurking underneath each of Louise and Tom’s conversations, the two parse out metaphors and crossword clues as an alternate way into the marital problems the two are trying to reconcile.
“I really like writing dialogue. The difficult thing is to get to the end of ten pages and realize you haven’t gotten anywhere that you wanted to go. Then you back to the beginning and start compressing and giving it a shape and making sure that each episode has a story arc, as well as the entire series. Those were the trickier parts of it, but mostly it was a blast to write,” Hornby said.
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As with most conversations these days, those conversations also turn to the overall state of the world. With the U.K. navigating its removal from the European Union, Louise and Tom are forced to look at the ways Brexit mirrors their own predicament. Hornby wasn’t afraid to bring the topic into the show — if anything, he said that in a weird way, it was one form of keeping the show timely.
“This series could come out in three years and it would not seem dated. Brexit is a very, very imprecise point on our historical timeline. It really does look like it’s going to go on forever. So of all the things that I didn’t worry about, that was one of them because I knew it would still be relevant by the time we got back to filming,” Hornby said.
Louise and Tom’s story will live on in other formats. A version of their conversations is now available in book form, separated out in the same ten segments. But even though this is an idea that could easily lend itself to a podcast or a play, there’s one all-important element of “State of the Union” that Hornby said would be lost in any other version.
“One of the real joys of the series, for me, is the faces of the actors. I think their faces are so animated and they’re so good at reacting and speaking,” Hornby said. “A couple people have asked me if I’ve thought of turning it into a play, but the idea of not having access to those faces while you’re sat there, watching the dialogue, I can’t quite get that. I think maybe it’s found its best form.”
So instead of taking this one couple’s story and translating it to another medium, he’s working on adapting this TV format to handle the story of two new people. While there are endless possibilities for how to build on this foundation — Hornby said that the next iteration could forego married couple and focused on a different kind of parental or familial relationship — he wants to follow people who are older than Louise and Tom.
“”I would like to write a second season of this, but it would be two different people at a different stage. Different age, different life experience. We’re trying to think about that now,” Hornby said. “We all know couples that split up in their 40s with kids and everyone recovers and ends up with new partners. But with older couples, there’s a whole different set of problems and a whole different set of regrets, maybe. The stakes get higher as you get older.”
“State of the Union” is now available to stream via SundanceTV.