State of the Union review – Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson lift a sticky, slovenly script

I did not love the first season of State of the Union (BBC Two), which appeared back in 2019, though I did end up with a grudging respect and admiration for it. It followed Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike as a married couple meeting in the pub before their weekly counselling sessions. It was written by Nick Hornby and directed by Stephen Frears (as is the new series), and each episode, roughly 10 minutes long, featured theatrical verbal sparring about love, marriage and record collecting. It relied heavily on the strength of its two leads, and it was arch, literary and occasionally insufferable. By the end, I was invested in the relationship and was willing them to figure it out. Its brevity gave it a loose, stagey charm.

The second season moves the action to the US, to a coffee shop, where Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson await their therapists and try to make sense of a changing world. The most interesting choice is their age. Both are in their 60s, and have been married for more than 30 years. As in the first season, there have been affairs, but not recently enough for the wounds to feel raw. Instead, Ellen (Clarkson) is thinking they should probably get divorced, while Scott (Gleeson) is coasting, oblivious.

At its best, there is little in the way of explicit drama. It is more a question of identity, and how that shifts over time. Scott describes himself as “a hard-working family guy”. Ellen points out that he has retired, and their grownup children have left home. He doesn’t know who he is at all.

Gleeson and Clarkson are outstanding actors. It’s not quite a two-hander, as there are occasional interruptions from others, notably the Black, transgender, asexual barista Jay (Esco Jouléy) – more on them in a second – but it is all about Scott and Ellen, and the conversations between them that sustain each episode.

The first half of the series is a lot to get through, which is an achievement for episodes so brief. Their early conversations are contrived and barely convincing. Scott’s beliefs lean towards “social conservatism”, while Ellen is a Quaker who does yoga and protests at new chemical plants. He doesn’t know anything about her life (“I know you did something … stretchy”), while the uncomplicated man she married no longer excites or stimulates her. They clash over politics, and they constantly bicker about Jay, who exists as a writerly device to incite change in Scott, the curmudgeonly “old fart”. Each time Jay patiently explains a facet of their identity to the couple, I wonder why they were bothering to indulge either of them.

Scott needles Jay and Ellen over pronouns, and has lines like, “You gotta understand, all this is new to me.” He informs Jay that he would rather bump himself off than drink non-dairy milk; he loves films about Churchill; and he treats pretentious coffee menus as a personal affront. “You must never make jokes about or to wokeflakes,” he gripes to Ellen, whose character only really exists in opposition to his. She sponsors a Somali immigrant, drinks herbal tea and prefers to live simply and give her money away. Scott has, she says, “the views of a dinosaur about gays and women”.

At first it feels as if Gleeson and Clarkson have been asked to improvise a Twitter row

They are types, rather than people, and it isn’t until it breaks away from feeling as if Gleeson and Clarkson have been asked to improvise a Twitter row that it finds its feet. The psychotherapist Esther Perel, whose podcast Where Should We Begin? took listeners inside real relationship counselling sessions, has referred to love as “an active verb”. “We think it’s disappeared, and suddenly it shows up again. It’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm,” she told the New Yorker in 2018. The back-and-forth of Scott and Ellen’s discussions encapsulate the idea that a relationship, and the people in it, change, as does what works for each of them. Towards the end of the 10-episode run, the programme starts to explore this idea in greater depth, and when it does it is thoughtful, contemplative and insightful.

It is unusual, in a dramatic sense, in that it feels slovenly and sticky when it is all about conflict, but vastly improves when the tension between Ellen and Scott dissipates. Once they begin to have more even-handed chats – about the nature of intimacy and sex; about what they expect from life, now that they have reached this point; and about what it means not only to be happy, but to pursue happiness – then it becomes endearing, and plays to everyone’s strengths. As a zippy drama about a marriage in crisis, it is so much better without the crisis.