A Married Couple Walk Into a Bar. We Watch.

Nick Hornby’s State of the Union captures—in bite-size episodes—the complex chemistry of a relationship in humdrum crisis.

Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd in SundanceTV's 'State of the Union'
Parisatag Hizadeh / Confession Films / SundanceTV

A couple, their marriage on the rocks, walk into a bar.

What sounds like the beginning of an uncomfortable joke is actually the premise—and the entirety—of State of the Union, a sharp, 10-episode relationship comedy written by the author Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears, who’d previously adapted Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. Airing on SundanceTV, every episode lasts just about 10 minutes, takes place at the same bar, and hits the same beats: Tom (played by Chris O’Dowd) and Louise (Rosamund Pike)—and all their emotional baggage—meet at the pub across the street from their marriage counselor’s office for a quick drink before their weekly session. Tom gets a beer, Louise a glass of white wine. They try (and usually fail) to chat about their “agenda.” They notice the clock. They rush to make it to therapy.

All in all, Tom and Louise’s story wraps up in less than two hours, making it the latest in a growing trend of TV productions experimenting with bite-size, web-series-like run times. This year alone, Netflix debuted the animated anthology Love, Death & Robots, which ran episodes ranging from six to 17 minutes long, and the autobiographical drama Special, which played out in 12- to 17-minute increments.

State of the Union, though, is notable for being disciplined in both its time constraint and its storytelling (the viewer never follows Tom and Louise into their therapist’s office, never sees their children, and never glimpses their London lives outside of these brief pre-counseling meet-ups). And for the most part, it succeeds. The subject matter—a long marriage complicated by unemployment (his) and infidelity (hers)—is perfect for such scrutiny: Think of Richard Linklater’s approach to his Before trilogy, which checked in on a romance every nine years, or of David Nicholls’s novel One Day, which followed a couple-in-the-making on the same day over the course of two decades.

These stories are as rewarding as they are withholding. By showing only slices of the protagonists’ lives, the audience is tasked with looking out for changes in their dynamic. It’s like a game of Spot the Difference. In one episode, Louise sits next to Tom instead of across from him—have they reconciled? In another, Tom’s put on a suit—is he out of his rut? Romantic relationships welcome these questions, and State of the Union tempts viewers, likely armed with their own insights into the trickiness of love, to care about these evolutions-in-miniature.

In Tom and Louise’s case, the viewer has plenty to pick apart from the weekly 10-minute slices, which are filled with colorful, quippy conversations. They take tangents: One episode’s conversation veers into a debate over Brexit; another, a diatribe on Call the Midwife. They’re believably eager to avoid broaching the topic of their relationship without employing metaphors. (In an especially amusing aside in Episode 3, Tom equates their waned passion with keys and pens—“something you lose”—which prompts an entire discussion about whether they’d prefer to be keys, which get found, or pens, which can be easily replaced.) And when they’re out of figurative language, the silence between them often conveys even more about their unease.

Frears keeps the visual language fresh, too, with playful camera angles and seamless one-shots following the pair whenever they cross the street. And O’Dowd and Pike are more than up to the challenge of a 10-part two-hander: They carry the rhythmic dialogue deftly and beautifully, capturing the complex chemistry of a married couple dealing with more than they ever thought they would.

Ironically, some elements of State of the Union need a little more time: In the middle installments, as the novelty of the format wears off and the couple’s rapport barely changes between sessions, Hornby writes time-filling, wheel-spinning exchanges that, albeit realistic, fail to deepen either protagonist’s characterization. Tom and Louise also just aren’t that interesting. They’re almost painfully normal as a couple: He’s unemployed and something of a slob, while she’s overwhelmed from running the house and looking after their children. As characters, they feel true to life and plucked directly off the streets of a London suburb. But as the subjects of a probing, small-screen case study, their ordinariness begins to grate. By the end of the series, the takeaway veers from illuminating to cliché: Marriage, it turns out, is hard work.

Still, these are quibbles. The short format lends itself naturally to creativity of story: The couple can talk about anything, without the pressure of a therapist present and without the pressures of daily life; they’ve got only 10 minutes to catch up—10 minutes they probably rarely get to have. No wonder Hornby is interested in making a second season with a different therapy-going couple. He already has a few options he could use: Tom and Louise, in the moments when they can’t figure out what to say to each other, gaze out of the pub’s windows and watch other couples exit their counselor’s office. Early on, they spy on a dramatic fight between a pair about their age. Later, they observe a much older couple reconciling as they leave.

Either way, Hornby should have no trouble dreaming up more shaky marriages to inspect. The real challenge is whether he can find one that says something a little more unexpected.