TV review: State of the Union, BBC Two (4 stars)

TV review: State of the Union, BBC One

Nick Hornby's bitesize episodes about a faltering marriage ring true

From his acclaimed early books Fever Pitch and High Fidelity and on to later novels such as Juliet, Naked and Funny Girl, Nick Hornby's works have been grounded in honesty and humour. With State of the Union (his second foray into TV writing after the not-great Love, Nina), he writes about a husband and wife about to enter couples counselling, a world based utterly on honesty where dashes of humour are still welcomed only if to temporarily leaven the anxiety.

Made into ten-minute episodes (with two shown every Sunday), State of the Union introduces us to Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O'Dowd) who meet for a Dutch-courage drink in the pub ten minutes prior to their session across the road. Louise is a high-flying gerontologist analysing the ills of the elderly, he is an unemployed music journalist (Hornby can't keep away from those types) worried that his vocation is slowly becoming 'the new blacksmith'. They have two sons and a heap of hidden resentments all set to be unleashed in therapy, a move triggered by her infidelity which itself was set in motion by their own long-term lack of intimacy.

We never meet the therapist (whose forename, like many things, is a source of contention between the pair) or see their children, but we do encounter other couples with appointments across the road. These alternative pairings reflect their own present situation and possible futures back towards Louise and Tom, as well as giving them an excuse to ignore their own woes and fantasise about other people's broken lives. As you'd expect, Pike and O'Dowd are pitch perfect in their performances, with Louise's glacial exterior splintered by moments of humanity, passion and wit, while the slacker Tom slumps his way through proceedings, feelings of guilt and humiliation bending him out of shape.

A couple of slapsticky moments aside, State of the Union plays its subtle hand time and again, attempting to tease out the true nature of relationships with nods, winks and subtext (and a few Brexit-shaped metaphors). A couple of notes don't quite ring true (the reason they come up with to cancel their final appointment, and the very fact they go into each session with booze on their breath: getting oiled is generally for after a session). But one moment when Louise is caught in a lie about all the places she and Tom have had sex in their house neatly sums up the show as a gem of subtle directing (Stephen Frears), acting and writing.

Episodes watched: 10 of 10

State of the Union starts on BBC Two, Sunday 8 September, 10pm.

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