Written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, “State of the Union” is a short-form anthology series chronicling a married couple’s conversations before their weekly counseling sessions. Episodes are roughly 10 minutes long and set in the same location. Season 1, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival before launching on SundanceTV and Sundance Now later that year, starred Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd and was met with critical acclaim. Both stars went on to win Emmys for Outstanding Actress and Actor (respectively) in a Short-Form Series, and “State of the Union” took home Outstanding Short-Form Series overall.
With Season 2 set to launch on Valentine’s Day, IndieWire takes a close look at the new story featuring Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson. How successful is the format in its second iteration? How does its various viewing methods (a daily dose or a movie-length marathon) alter its impact? And what’s the viability of short-form content from TV networks in today’s era of “too much TV”? IndieWire’s critics Ben Travers and Steve Greene dig into these questions and more in their Double Take review of “State of the Union” Season 2.
BEN TRAVERS: Stephen, like so many wide-ranging TV discussions, this one starts with a simple spark (at least for me): “State of the Union” is very good. Having been lucky enough to view the first season of Nick Hornby and Stephen Frears’ marriage story twice over — via screeners I spaced out over a week, before catching all 10 episodes at once in a Park City theater — more is precisely what I wanted then, and more is exactly what we’re getting now. Admittedly, what I had in mind three years ago was a long-form series or straight-up feature film from the well-paired creative quartet, but a Season 2 with two new actors playing two new struggling partners isn’t just the next best thing; it proves my initial yearning for Hornby and Frears to take on a more conventional format to be misguided, if not flat-out wrong.
Season 2 introduces Brendan Gleeson as Scott, a retired husband ready to live out the rest of his days as comfortably as possible. The only issue: His wife, Ellen (Patricia Clarkson), may want a divorce. Scott’s 25-year-old affairs aren’t to blame; instead, there’s been a fundamental shift in their personalities, their perspectives, and their view of the future. Scott considers himself “a decisive person” when he’s actually just stuck in his ways, unwilling and uninterested in seeing the world from any other point of view. Ellen is open to everything. She’s recently become a Quaker. She rejects the comforts Scott takes in “spending a lot of money on good food and wine.” She’s sick of studying the past and dead people from it, as her husband does through record collecting and visiting battlegrounds.
To sort all this out, the two are seeing counselors who work above a small coffee shop with a terrible name (Mouthfeel — blech), and that’s where each episode takes place, during the 10 minutes before Scott and Ellen’s sessions. While Season 2 is much more Scott’s journey than Ellen’s (I didn’t even catch her name until roughly halfway through), I found most every episode to be as engaging, sharply written, and splendidly acted as Season 1. But like Scott, I’ve been prattling on too long: Steve, what did you make of the new season?
STEVE GREENE: I share your love for Season 1, and your enthusiasm for seeing the series continue in some form or another, but it seems we might diverge a bit in how well Season 2 — in my mind, a messier and less tactful approach to this premise — takes up the mantle. For me, that’s less to do with the couple at the center than what Hornby does to try to liven things up. Switching the setting from a London pub to a New England coffee shop and introducing some extra people into what existed as strictly a one-on-one series of conversations, “State of the Union” certainly isn’t suffering from stasis. But where the Rosamund Pike/Chris O’Dowd banter in Season 1 had a certain Hornby shimmer (where fictional characters are quick with pop culture deep cuts and biting quips designed as much to be read as performed), I think I bristle a bit at what you made mention of in your intro: The balance is a little off here.
It’s hard not to see this as a product of lockdown self-reflection; of a writer trying to grapple with his perception of a shifting cultural landscape. Not to imply that Scott is a completely autobiographical character, but this season plays more like one man’s evolution from a grumpasaurus rather than a married couple coming to a clearer understanding of each other. In some ways, I guess that’s the point: the two of them spending these pre-session minutes listing all the ways that they’ve grown apart (or maybe were always apart to begin with).
It’s just that those differences seem a little too broad, almost designed to be a time capsule of the early 2020s rather than looking at two people who happen to be coming to their fresh realizations. Scott and Ellen are designed far more as stand-ins for each side of an American sociopolitical divide, setting the stage for what often becomes a both-sidesing exercise. When Season 2 locks into an honest conversation about what they want from the future (instead of surface-level spats about things out of their control), Clarkson and Gleeson really take all of that swirling anxiety and channel it into special moments. I just wish it felt more like a natural progression for both of them.
But Ben, what did you make of those Season 2 changes? And given the multiple ways you mentioned watching the first season, what would you say is the best way to watch these 10 new episodes?
BEN: The changes mostly worked for me, in part because the series breaks from romantic-comedy conventions with its ultimate message, but I don’t disagree with your notes. This is a Scott-heavy season. Ellen is mainly there to usher him away from a set, repetitive future trapped in time gone by, and it’s frustrating to see Clarkson play a woman so wearied by her, as you perfectly put it, grumpasaurus husband that she’s stuck repeatedly reacting to his behavior. Seeing Scott play mind games with Jay (Esco Jouléy) — their asexual, non-binary coffee house server — can feel like an exercise in edifying an audience that may be as single-minded as Scott. Though I thought Jouley and Gleeson developed an excellent rapport, Jay’s arc is similarly in service to Scott (as well as Ellen, eventually) — and not because of the service tied to their literal job.
But here’s where the format starts playing its part. For one, “State of the Union” is airing on a cable channel (and two smaller streaming services), so the majority of viewers are probably of a similar age, if not mindset, to Scott and Ellen. It’s not an hourlong drama or even a half-hour kind-of comedy. It’s a short-form series, a genre that’s never made the mainstream impact of its more common long-form TV brethren. So focusing on a character who’s forced to move past an outdated mindset feels fitting for a show that’s trying to overcome dismissive assumptions and establish not only its own identity, but the format in general as a valid and rewarding experience.
The youths have already made that leap, embracing web series, YouTube clips, and TikTok videos as art forms as valid and integral to their cultural lives as anything being shown Sunday nights on HBO. TV (and its more experienced viewers) needs to catch up with them, rather than looking at anything under 30 minutes as lesser entertainment made for weakening attention spans. “State of the Union” is doing its part to emphasize the building blocks of scripted storytelling — great writing, performance, and perspective — can enlighten at any length.
That, or I’m just really fed up with exhaustively long streaming dramas. Being able to devote your full attention to a 10-minute episode and come away with as much as you can here — whether that’s how Hornsby uses coffee orders as a metaphor for Scott’s evolution or Gleeson’s convincing immersion in the character, always reacting authentically to the words, movements, and challenges around him — is so refreshing, in an age where slogging through days of content to get to the good parts is far too widely accepted. That’s partly why I’d encourage the one-a-day consumption over a binge. Not only does it help emphasize the time between each of Scott and Ellen’s sessions (one full week transpires between each brief episode), but there’s plenty to admire in each piece, not just the summation.
But Steve: You consume far more stories than anyone else on staff, in so many different forms. How viable does short-form storytelling like “State of the Union” feel in today’s market? What networks and streaming services should be investing in shows like this, and what else excites you about the format?
STEVE: Well, it can be tempting to lump all of short-form into the same bucket, which, given the different ways it’s manifested in recent years, would be a mistake. There are places like Adult Swim that have managed to bundle their short-form series under the same umbrella without all being limited to a uniform style. (“Joe Pera Talks With You,” “Smiling Friends,” and the legacy programming are all of a piece somehow, even if you may not respond as strongly to each.) And FX’s “Cake” continues to be a fascinating shorts showcase, even if it’s all presented in a slightly more traditional half-hour block.
I think the key here is whether networks can commit to short-form series without having them exist solely as proofs-of-concept. “State of the Union” is a prime example of a show that takes advantage of its constraints and builds them into its fabric. Season 2 maybe tries to do too much to emphasize these episodes are taking place a week apart from each other, but at least it’s not taking a feature-length story and chopping it up into more digestible chunks. There’s a respect here for an actual episodic storytelling, with a spirit you can’t really replicate if it were transposed onto another format.
Ben, you made some thematic arguments why this show is perfect for people whose TV-watching rhythms are aligned with a cable model. A big question is whether something like this could ever get a proper push from a streaming service already juggling an entire library of non-short-form series.
Setting aside the built-in audience for animated children’s programming (though for parents on a fourth full-series rewatch of “Bluey,” I do not mean to discount your experiences), it’s hard to see how any of the major streaming platforms could lead a short-form series charge. Given how some platforms are framing their viewership in Hours Watched (watching both seasons of “State of the Union” doesn’t even get you halfway through the runtime of “Inventing Anna”) and the overall need to get people to the platform and stay there, the amount of volume you’d need to work within that model almost defeats the purpose.
Still, even with the result of recent quick bites ventures seemingly saying the opposite, I could see a near future where a major streaming service tests out something like a short-form vertical. Giving people a potential show with a smaller barrier to entry and a less-rigid time commitment to get a full self-contained episode of television could be a way to stave off competition from people flustered by a boatload of options who give up and finish their day with some second-screen scrolling instead.
But aside from the artistic integrity of a different form of storytelling, I suspect there might just be another reason why the AMC family of networks would give something like “State of the Union” a Season 2 (and beyond). Ben, tell me this isn’t all just about awards.
BEN: SundanceTV’s commitment to exploring various genres and formats within its programming lineup almost guarantees the continuation of “State of the Union” isn’t solely about awards, but they sure do help. AMC Networks, the parent company of SundanceTV, Sundance Now, BBC America, and more, was once an Emmy heavyweight. Groundbreaking programs like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” cleaned up, year after year, but of late, the AMC family has seen a steady decline in nominations, managing only one across all its networks in 2021. Meanwhile in 2019, “State of the Union” didn’t just earn three nominations by itself: It won all three trophies.
Category shifts, rule changes, and an increasing interest in a network’s total nominations have sent everyone scurrying for a corner of the Emmy market they can control, and handsomely produced standalone series should stand up well against other show’s digital content. (“Better Call Saul’s” “Employee Training Videos” won last year, while James Corden’s Snapchat series took home the Emmy in 2018.) I fully expect Hornby, Gleeson, and Clarkson to see nominations come July. (Especially now that short-form Emmy juggernaut Quibi is out of the race.) But who else joins the competition is up to the market.
In an interview with The New York Times pegged to “State of the Union’s” first season, then-president of AMC Networks Sarah Barnett said, “Things oftentimes are too long because they can be. […] ‘State of the Union’ is exactly the right idea for its format, the shape of it is entirely right for the ideas it’s trying to convey.” Here’s hoping more networks follow her vision, and recognize the key to happy viewers isn’t quantity, but quality.
“State of the Union” Season 2 premieres Monday, February 14 on SundanceTV, Sundance Now, and AMC+. SundanceTV will release one episode every night for 10 consecutive nights, starting February 14 at 10 p.m. ET. All episodes will be made available to stream via Sundance Now and AMC+.