What will you do to get what you want? What will you do, for you?
I found the short-lived TV series The Booth at the End on Amazon Prime some time back, and finally got around to watching. I’m so glad I did. I clicked on the first episode on a foggy Friday afternoon, meaning just to watch one, and then move on with my day. Instead, I sat curled up on the couch and binged the entire first season (5 episodes, 25 minutes each), enthralled.
A mysterious man (played by Xander Berkeley) sits at the corner booth of an all-night diner, with his notebook. Desperate people come to him with desperate desires: for their son to be cured of cancer, for their husband to be cured of Alzheimers. The Man can grant them anything they ask of him, if they strike a bargain with him. No, not anything so obvious as their soul (well, not exactly). The deal is that they must execute the task that he finds for them in his notebook, and they must come to him regularly to report on their progress, which The Man writes down in the notebook. Once the task is done, the wish is granted.
Sometimes the task is somewhat related to the wish: to see his son cured of cancer, James must kill someone else’s child. Sometimes, it seems arbitrary: in order to become prettier, Jenny must rob a bank of $101,043. And while some of the tasks are horrific, others are difficult but relatively benign.
The entire series is shot entirely in the diner, mostly in The Man’s booth, and it took me until the third episode to consciously realize it. You’d think that an entire TV series of nothing but one person talking to another one in a diner booth would be unengaging, too much tell and not enough show. But it isn’t, because the tension and the interest of the story doesn’t come from the action, it comes from the evolution of The Man’s clients, their internal and external struggles to complete the task — or even to decide whether they should. The viewer doesn’t care how elderly Mrs. Tyler researches and assembles her bomb; they care about whether or not she will really set it off in a crowded cafe. And The Man (though he pretends otherwise) cares, too.
It’s also interesting to see how The Man (or more accurately, his book) intertwines the tasks of the various clients, weaving a tapestry that perhaps even The Man isn’t fully aware of.
Who is The Man? How does his notebook work? What is his motivation? It isn’t said, and I prefer it that way. The supernatural aspects of the plot aren’t the central point of the story, but merely the hook on which to hang the real themes of the series: how innately moral are people? How do a person’s choices affect themselves, and the world around them? How much pain and harm are people willing to do to others, for a sake of a good to themselves?
All through season one, The Man stays resolutely out of the lives of his clients, refusing to help them in any way with their tasks, or to get involved in their lives outside of the parameters of his deal with them. And yet, while he claims that it makes no difference to him whether or not his clients complete their tasks, his facial expressions say otherwise. The Man may be the devil, or be sent by the devil (he refuses to confirm or deny, when asked), but it’s clear that he wants his clients to do the right thing, make the right choices. It’s almost as if this whole schtick is a test (the Book of Job comes to mind), one that The Man really wants his clients to pass.
By season two, The Man has changed. He seems harder, more genuinely indifferent to his clients’ desires and choices (with one notable exception). I’m not sure if this is due to a change in how the actor was directed, or whether The Man had become more jaded (both seasons were written by Christopher Kubasik, but Jessica Landaw directed the first season, while Adam Arkin directed the second). I have to say I liked his personality in season one better. Season two also started delving a bit more into the The Man’s backstory, who he might be, and what he might want.
The Booth at the End ended after two seasons, which on the one hand is a shame, but might also be for the best.
Some Things Are Better Left Unknown
Several years ago I used to read a comic book series called 100 Bullets. The first arc of the series consisted of separate self-contained stories, each of the same form: the mysterious Agent Graves approaches someone who has been a victim of some kind of injustice or wrong. Graves gives the victim a gun, 100 bullets, and information about the perpetrator of the wrong. The bullets are untraceable and whenever one is found at the scene, the investigation stops. In other words, Graves gives people the ability to avenge a wrong done to them, without (criminal) consequences. Do they? Don’t they? And what are the costs?
From what I understand, that first arc didn’t do too well, and it wasn’t until 100 Bullets pivoted into a connected narrative about the organization Agent Graves belonged to, and conflicts within that organization that the series took off. And I stopped reading.
I’m not interested in the strife and politics within a shadowy organization; I am interested in stories of people struggling with their internal ethics and motivations, and dealing with the consequences of their choices. The mysterious Graves of the first series, like The Man in the Booth, are most narratively effective as unexplained agents of change. Any why and wherefore that a writer can devise for them will never be as interesting as what we, the viewer/reader, come up with for ourselves.
And that’s why I’m kind of happy that The Booth at the End stopped where it did. Another season, and it would have gone in the direction of 100 Bullets, and much of its charm for me would have been lost. As it is, I have five hours of interesting stories, to enjoy and to think about.
At any rate, if you like thoughtful stories of people wrestling with their desires, fears and consciences, check out The Booth at the End. I found it streaming on Amazon Prime; it also streams on Apple TV and according to Wikipedia, on Hulu in the UK and Ireland. There seems to be a Region 2 DVD of the show, as well.
Check it out.
Here’s an article about the production history of The Booth at the End, from a blog series called Cancelled Too Soon. Obviously, the writer disagrees with me about two seasons being just about the right length, but the piece is an interesting read, and I like his take on the show’s treatment of religious themes.