Having read Lucy Mangan’s five star review in The Guardian – https://bit.ly/2lDUV58 I went into my viewing of Nick Hornby’s State of the Union determined to follow her advice not to binge it all in one sitting. I failed. Ten ten-minute dramas. I wolfed the whole lot down.
Short-form comedy, I’m sure, is not meant to be watched like this. Each episode should be savoured, and in the case of State of The Union it’s easy to see why. The premise of the show is simple. Tom and Louise meet in a pub every week ten minutes before they are due to attend a session of marital therapy in a house across the road, and they talk. Given that it’s scripted by Nick Hornby, their talk is pretty special, moving effortlessly between the mundane and the profound, the number of metaphors and analogies Tom and Louise trade across the pub table making them seem like students in a North London relationship tutorial. You need to keep your wits about you—it’s clever and it’s funny— so it’s easy to see why Lucy Mangan offers her advice. This rich fare has been served up on the understanding that it will not be consumed in one go.
One effect of the binge-watch guzzle, though, is to make you more than usually aware of issues of continuity. You find yourself looking carefully at who buys each week’s glass of white wine and pint of London Pride, at what Tom and Louise are wearing, who comes in first etc etc.
And for some reason this particular binger found himself looking closely at The Guardian Crossword, coming to the conclusion that it is, in fact, the star of the show.
In an early exchange when Louise asks Tom what they have in common Tom answers, ‘We’ve got two kids, crosswords, Game of Thrones…when it’s on’. The crossword may once have been a shared experience but when we first see Tom it has become a very solitary activity. Tom is at the beginning a man without a clue in more than one sense. Baffled by what went wrong in their marriage (more specifically Louise’s infidelity with Matthew), he is also, it seems, baffled by The Guardian Crossword. In several of the early episodes he sits with it on the table in front of him, pen in hand, but we never see him filling in an answer. (I know exactly how Tom feels. Many is the time I have sat blankly in front of an equally blank grid, the pen in the hand an increasingly impotent symbol of intent. Maybe Tom, like me, has struggled since Rufus stopped giving us the easy one on a Monday)
There is, though, a turning point in Episode 6 when Tom sits at the table, an A4 print-out of that day’s puzzle in front of him, struggling with a clue (‘She got Gomorrah’d’). Later in the scene Louise picks up the sheet, asks who today’s setter is (it’s Arachne) and suggests that they do a couple of clues before they go in –‘ as a kind of morale-boosting exercise’. Louise gets two clues very quickly, provoking in her husband the wonderful response, ‘that’s a pretty easy one. I usually leave those to the end’, and giving us the sense that she may be better at this game than her husband.
Later, another important development is marked by the crossword. At the beginning of Episode 9 Tom sits at his table with the puzzle in front of him. He now, unlike earlier, seems less baffled and he even gets a clue. ‘Get in!’ he says to himself as he inks in the answer – when Louise arrives we soon realise that it is not only the pen’s performance he is pleased with.
In the final episode Tom talks of the ‘cornucopia of things we had in common’. When asked to give examples the first one he mentions is ‘crosswords’ (this time it comes before kids). We now realise that there have always been three in this marriage—Tom, Louise, and The Guardian Crossword— and the key to its survival may be ensuring that, when it comes to sex and the crossword, they keep doing it together.
Tom says ‘sometimes a crossword is just a crossword’. In Nick Hornby’s wonderful State of The Union The Guardian Crossword is much more than that.
(The clues are from Arachne 27536 (15 June, 2018). Apart, that is, from ‘She got Gomorrah’d’. How many letters, Nick?)