Marriage is being disgusted by the holes in your husband’s boxer shorts. Marriage is judging your spouse for buying the “wrong” chicken. Marriage is showing your partner solidarity about the absurd prices of airport ketchup. Marriage is interrupting foreplay to put the dishwasher on. In short: marriage is boring. And at four hours long, BBC1’s new family drama, Marriage, more than mirrors that fact.
“It’s interesting how young people talk about love,” observes Sean Bean’s Ian to wife Emma, played by Unforgotten’s Nicola Walker. “They always talk about the heat of it, the passion, the excitement… if I wrote a song about you… I guess you couldn’t fit all that in a song.” Well, that’s almost exactly what Stefan Golaszewski is attempting with Marriage – to condense almost three decades of matrimonial (dis)harmony into a four-part TV series. Anchored by two superb performances and given a primetime slot, this is slice-of-life programming at its most mainstream. Anyone in a long-term relationship will recognise the claustrophobia, inertia and quotidian poignancy of marriage/Marriage.
But why would we want to watch that on television? It’s bad enough living through it. And Golaszewski, whose previous works include Him & Her and Mum, doesn’t let viewers off lightly. There’s no music – often just the sound of a ticking clock to remind you of the time you’re wasting – and scenes can be indulgently long. There is, for example, an almost seven-minute sequence following the preparation of a sandwich. Is this arthouse television? Or just someone making a sandwich? Ceci n’est pas une sandwich, Golaszewski seems to say, but maybe, sometimes, a sandwich is just a sandwich.
Mercifully, the plot – in so much as there is one – does begin to kick in by the second episode. Ian struggles with re-entering the job market, while Emma’s flirtatious relationship with a colleague, Jamie (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), starts to encroach on marital stability. And both are united in concern for their daughter Jess (Chantelle Alle): she is in a relationship with a visibly controlling man (played, with horrible greasiness, by Jack Holden) who won’t let her drink or eat salad but who talks constantly of marriage. “What do you think about marriage?” he asks her. “I think marriage is old-fashioned,” she replies. “It’s like a relic from an age when there were boundaries.”
But whether you make it far enough to see these levers pulled will depend on your tolerance for the glacial pace, and lack of thematic urgency. Many issues are touched upon: the loss of children and parents, adult social care, adoption, domestic abuse, long-term unemployment, and many others. But they are subordinate to a portrait of lifelong cohabitation and codependence, which while very real isn’t very interesting. And, at times, the depiction of lower-middle-class life – where people marvel constantly at prices and complain about the “oily” food in Spain – feels almost performative in its mundanity.
There will undoubtedly be praise and awards lavished on Marriage’s writing and acting, rendering the tedium of my experience inconsequential. But if I wanted to watch a man in his underpants drinking milk straight from the carton, I could provide myself with a live performance. And the subtext would be just as oblique and, possibly, non-existent. “It was a bit boring, maybe,” Ian confesses, of another day passed in the haze of redundancy. “God, I’d love a chance to be bored,” Emma replies. Well, boy, Emma, do I have the show for you.