Marriage is largely tedious – Sean Bean’s new TV series finally includes
In the opening episode of Wedding, husband and wife Ian and Emma clean up after inviting their daughter, Jess, and her new boyfriend, Adam, to dinner. We watch as food is silently scraped from plates into the compost bucket, knives and forks are rinsed and put in the dishwasher, and empty cans are put in the recycling. It’s not until the table is cleared and the dishwasher is loaded, and the couple get ready for bed, that the verdict on Adam is finally given: “I hated his fucking face”, said Emma.
This new drama from award-winning writer Stefan Golaszewski (He she, Mom) is an intimate portrait of a 27-year-old couple. It’s also one of the most deliberately banal depictions of marriage ever brought to the screen. Ian and Emma – played by Sean Bean and Nicola Walker – seem satisfied enough, although they are past the stage where they feel the need to show it. Much of their communication is via the weird telepathy that often exists between long-term couples, which means entire scenes pass without a word. Time stretches as we see them sorting through their mail, or watching TV while sharing a packet of shrimp crackers, or decluttering the guest bedroom. Irritation seethes in the form of hissed asides or heavy sighs, each bearing the weight of old arguments they don’t bother to rehash. Ian and Emma’s long silences are sometimes pleasant and endearing, but sometimes uncomfortable. The Pinterest break has nothing to do with it.
Movies and TV have long been fascinated with how romantic love works, though they tend to be more concerned with moments of high drama. The 1974 series by Ingmar Bergman Scenes from a wedding, remade last year with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, saw a couple declare their marriage solid, then separate and subsequently go through the marital equivalent of the seven stages of grief. In the BBC series, Togetherthe cohabiting couple of Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy demonstrated the fine line between love and hate as they were stuck in close quarters during lockdown. Marriage story, as of 2019, the estranged spouses of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson were yelling at each other about which of them hated the other more. Perhaps the most depressing of all wedding portraits is the Oscar-winning one Kramer versus Kramer from 1979, depicting a wife (Meryl Streep) battered by motherhood and a husband (Dustin Hoffman) married to his job. When she walks out and returns 18 months later to claim her son, a dark custody battle ensues.
In Wedding, there are no screaming matches or dramatic exits. The dishes remain resolutely not thrown away. By refusing to submit to the demands of conflict-based drama, Golaszewski gives us an unusually honest depiction of human cohabitation, foregoing intrigue in favor of the dull minutiae of domesticity. As such, it requires a lot of patience from the viewer. There’s only so much time you can spend watching Sean Bean load up a dishwasher before lethargy sets in. Both parties can also be intensely (and deliberately) boring: her with her banal chatter, he with her needy hovering when his wife is obviously busy.
Ian and Emma’s interactions didn’t remind me so much of fictional dramas as the recent Showtime series couple therapy, which allowed us to go behind the closed doors of a therapist’s office and listen to spouses bickering over household chores, social arrangements, or the daily grind of raising children. Under the watchful gaze of therapist Orna Guralnik, a raised eyebrow or an eye roll took on serious significance. As her clients’ stories unfolded and ingrained behaviors emerged, the viewer shifted from being a neutral observer to judging a spouse who didn’t listen, or always thought that he knew better, or who was so afraid of being abandoned that he sabotaged the relationship.
With Ian and Emma, there’s a lot left unsaid, though that doesn’t stop the viewer from quietly acting as a therapist. There’s a reason why Ian is so obsessed with buying a shower gel that calls itself “conditioner”, and why he awkwardly lingers around supermarket and gym staff, can’t wait for them to ask how he’s doing. We glean early on that he was fired from his job, while Emma seems to be flying high at hers. Neither is keen to acknowledge how it affects them.
For some, Ian and Emma’s everyday life will seem depressing, with its quiet routines and total lack of spontaneity. Others will recognize the natural slowing, the barely conscious shrinking of existence, that happens to couples as they enter their forties and their children grow up and become independent. At one point, Jess laments her father’s introverted ways, taking his silence as indicative of a non-existent inner life. On another visit home, she complains to her mother that the family never talks about “real” issues – and yet when she urges Emma to reflect on past trauma, she is shocked by what she triggers. If there’s one thing we can learn Weddingis that some things are not said for a reason.
‘Marriage’ is Sunday August 14 at 9pm on BBC One