Television needs its comfy, half-hour chunks. Situation comedies want 30 minutes (22 plus commercials); dramas want an hour.
But now comes the new/old notion of a mini-show.
“State of the Union” has 10 episodes, bunched into two weeks on the Sundance Channel. Each is only 10 minutes long; each has the same two people talking in the same pub.
“I love writing dialog,” said Nick Hornby, its creator. “When you’re writing movies, you have to pare it back and cram everything into one-minute scenes, if you’re lucky.”
He created a man and wife who meet at a pub each week, while waiting for their marriage therapy session. The result is sometimes funny, sometimes serious; it is, actress Rosamund Pike said, “the kind of delicate, complicatedness of a true, adult marriage.”
And it’s a very new … or old idea. Mini-shows? Look at TV’s early days:
— There were lots of 15-minute, prime-time network shows – few of them esteemed. There was “I Love to Eat” and “You Are an Artist” and “Champagne and Orchids” and “Campus Hoopla” and, alas, “Fight Film Filler.”
— Marital mini-comedies? In 1947, “Mary Kay and Johnny” was 15 minutes, done live. In ’53, “Life With Elizabeth” had three separate stories in each half-hour; it only lasted two seasons, but one of its stars (Betty White) has lasted much longer.
— Some comedies — “The Honeymooners,” “Mama’s Family” — grew from shorter bits in variety shows. Many animated half-hours began as six-minute cartoons; “The Simpsons” began as one minute.
— And right now, CBS’ “Life in Pieces” has four stories, usually separate, in each half-hour.
Still, it’s tough to do a two-person show in a “Game of Thrones” world. Hornby created a couple that has it all – lingering warmth, lingering anger, persistent humor.
“Even though they have troubles, they still find each other funny,” Pike said. “And sometimes, when sort of dissecting their marriage, they get into a riff.”
Adds Hornby: “Stephen Frears (the director) kept saying, ‘This couple has less trouble than any couple I’ve ever come across.’ But I think he meant that they could still talk.”
These are talented people. Frears has two Oscar nominations (“The Queen,” “The Grifters”), Hornby has two (“Brooklyn,” “An Education”), Pike has one (“Gone Girl”). Chris O’Dowd ranges from theater (“Of Mice and Men”) to British TV and the lead role in the “Get Shorty” series.
They approached this, O’Dowd said, as if they were doing a lot of plays.
“We shot an episode a day,” he said. “So we would shoot the entire conversation at a table in the bar. And then Ros and I would get a bottle of wine and go to the beer garden and do the lines for the next day. We did that every day, and it was lovely actually.”
— “State of the Union,” 10 p.m. ET (7 p.m. PT) weekdays, Sundance; May 6-10 and 13-17
— Each episode is about 10 minutes long. Counting commercials, the movies that follow will variously start at 10:11, 10:12 or 10:13.