Know That You Are Worth More
The Booth at the End is a lonely little animal, tucked away in Hulu’s menagerie of “search all” television along with Korean retail soap operas, low-rent British dramas too crass for the BBC, and reruns of American shows nobody wanted to watch in the first place. It was originally produced for the Canadian broadcast outfit Citytv, and it’s pretty easy to overlook; it’s barely been reviewed in mainstream publications, and Hulu, despite a few perfunctory promos, hasn’t done much to promote it. I had seen a few ads for it flash by while watching Criterion Collection flicks and other quirky TV fare, but never even considered giving it a proper viewing until it was recommended by my friend Phil Freeman.
The premise of the show is remarkably simple, yet completely enigmatic: a man sits in the corner booth of an unremarkable retro-style diner. People come to him, and he asks them what they want. “That can happen,” he invariably replies, if they fulfill a task he sets for them: the task can be simple and seemingly innocuous (help some old ladies across the street, get a shut-in to leave his house) or utterly demonic (place a bomb in a crowded restaurant, torture a total stranger), but if it is fulfilled, the petitioner’s wish will come true. The Man offers no help and precious few guidelines, and demands regular updates on the progress of the task; he always emphasizes that his plaintiffs are free to abandon their task without consequence.
That’s it. And beyond the seeming simplicity of the plot, the most daring thing about The Booth at the End is its format: though we hear all the details of these often labyrinthine duties, we never see any of them. The entire run of the series — it just this week concluded its second season of five half-hour episodes each — takes place in the corner booth of the diner, with no action whatsoever beyond the petitioners having conversations with the Man. Only once do we ever even peer out the window of the single set (in one of the show’s most unsettling moments, the Man sees someone he does not expect just outside of the diner). It’s a show in other words, that has a rambling scope, but which contains it all within what is essentially a series of identical bottle episodes. There’s something of the craziness of Harry Stephen Keeler here; Phil Freeman described it, quite aptly, I’d say, as the televised equivalent of a Joe Frank radio show.
It’s easy to see the appeal of it from a production standpoint; it must have cost next to nothing to film the thing. (Although the second-season switch to a slightly more upscale-looking restaurant may have driven up the budget somewhat.) The question is, why would anyone want to watch it? The answer lies in several locations. The scripts (by show creator Chris Kubasik, a little-known writer who may be most familiar to geeks from his work in role-playing games) are surprisingly intricate; the Man’s background and motivations, as well has how he arranges the fates of his petitioners, are kept a mystery, but there is clearly a method to his madness. He gets the tasks from a mysterious book, seemingly at random — he frequently seems a bit surprised by its contents — but there’s no question he’s playing a long game, setting one seeker against one another. While he seems aloof, almost amoral, he clearly is hoping for specific outcomes. One of the thrills of The Booth at the End is seeing the accumulation of information shape the direction its characters are headed; in both of the two seasons, there’s a heel turn by a major character (it would spoil the enjoyment to even hint at their identities) that is both unexpected and dramatically satisfying.
You’d think that what is essentially a series of dramatic dialogues would have to depend on some stellar acting to get over. That’s partially true. The Man is played by ubiquitous character actor Xander Berkeley, who you may know from, well, pretty much everything you’ve ever seen, and he indeed puts on a show. Called upon to play a character who strives for clinical detachment but becomes increasingly emotionally agitated as the series progresses, he conveys both the model of subtle restraint and a man at his wit’s end, often in the same episode. The mysterious demon-or-angel role requires a lot of heavy lifting, and the temptation to overplay it must be overwhelming, but Berkeley does anything but. He locks into the essence of the Man as something of an embittered psychologist, a man dedicated to changing lives who is increasingly frustrated as to what his own part is meant to be.
The other performances, though, are a bit shaky, at least in the first season. Jack Conley overacts his role as a crooked cop, and Jake Richardson and Kate Maberly as wanna-be bank robbers don’t have much meat in their parts to chew on. Matt Nolan and Matt Boren are a terrific dramatic match as a man assigned to murder a young girl and another assigned to protect her, but their talents aren’t on equal footing. Only Jennifer Del Rosario, as a cheerful teenager agonized by her father’s financial troubles, and reliable bit players Sarah Clarke and Timothy Omundson, as a nun and an artist drawn suddenly together, are especially memorable. Things pick up in season 2, though; as the Man pulls up stakes and moves to another town (the location is never identified), he encounters the always excellent Dayton Callie (Charlie Utter on Deadwood), Noel Fisher as a young man who feels nothing in life but never wants to die, the awkward and loveless Abby Miller (Ellen May on Justified), and, most intriguingly, the return of Del Rosario, and the reappearance of Jenni Blong as a waitress from the Man’s previous diner, who is more than she appears to be.
It’s pretty tricky for a show like this to pull off continuity, especially with such an abbreviate schedule, but The Booth at the End does the job pretty nicely. Season 2 introduces the idea that the Man’s book is something even he doesn’t fully understand, and that he’s not the only one who knows about it; the idea of a mysterious “Them” with a sinister interest in the book is introduced, but not fully explored. Jenni Blong’s role is especially intriguing, hinting at secret knowledge; the season ends with her posing a demand that most men would find inviting, but seems to deeply unsettle the Man.
The Booth at the End isn’t a perfect show. It’s obviously not going to prove that interesting for those who expect visual fireworks out of their television, though it does what it can (director Jessica Landow also lenses House of Yes and others) with its built-in limitations; it’s occasionally inventive in a formalist way, but the intricate writing is the obvious selling point. The introduction of child actors strikes a bit of an off note (though it ends interestingly), and a few of the stories are resolved in a ham-fisted way; the story of Mrs. Tyler in season 1 seems really out-of-place, and a season 2 thread involving a Latino woman’s attempt to reconnect with her mother is downright mawkish. But overall, it’s a daring experiment that works out quite well; while it has a very modern feel, in fact, it recalls early experimental television dramas like Playhouse 90, Goodyear Television Playhouse and Studio One, which often took chances with oddly structured formats in those days when it seemed like TV might actually be considered a medium of art. If nothing else, it’s proof that fascinating creatures can be seen in the remote corners of the online television zoo, if you’ve got the legs to find them.