Satisfaction Series Premiere Review: The Truman Show

Satisfaction S01E01: "Pilot"


Satisfaction is going to face some challenges on the road to becoming a successful TV show, and not only because it's (partially) about a family man becoming an escort and airing on a network that's famous for populating its schedule with "blue skies" procedural dramedies (although that's a big deal).

No, the series' primary obstacle is that at its core, it's about people who are generally secure and well-off deciding that they're not happy with all the things that they thought would make them happy. That might not seem like an issue because tons of TV shows are about people who aren't happy—and thus want more for themselves and ultimately do weird or shady stuff to get it. But this isn't Breaking Bad or Mad Men, where the lead characters are clearly broken, oftentimes unsympathetic individuals. Satisfaction is playing in a much more familiar, some might say low-stakes world, but it's exactly that approach that could make people uncomfortable. I can already see it now: Are these characters likable? Why should we care about their stalled sex life when they're living in a great house and driving nice cars? For whatever reason, people can get wrapped up in those kinds of questions when dealing with a story and/or characters that they might see in their friends or even in themselves. I'm building a bit of a straw man here, but after one episode, I find what Satisfaction is at least trying to do fascinating, particularly in the context of a USA Network drama series. While I'm not sure the first hour nailed everything, there was some decently evocative stuff here about the nature of happiness, expectations, responsibilities, and the rigidity of the working world that spoke to me, even as someone who isn't married and has no children. 

Don't get me wrong, the frustrations of suburban life have been well explored by popular art, perhaps most notably in American Beauty, and on that level, Satisfaction isn't necessarily saying anything new. However, instead of showing us a family that's secretly wrecked by the various influences and problems that come with the cul-de-sac experience, the pilot tried to reflect that Neil (Matt Passmore) and Grace (Stephanie Szostak) Trumans are still hopeful that they can avoid complete familial destruction. Neil's job keeps him away from his wife and daughter far too often, leaving Grace stuck at home and wondering what her role is. But again, this isn't just a blame game. Yes, Neil's job is a problem, yet it's far from the only one when the Trumans have a somewhat difficult teenage daughter to manage on top of a mortgage, random (and lame) social responsibilities, and more. Both Neil and Grace are fried, bored, and searching for something more in their lives, which ultimately leads them to ignore the other in what appeared to be unintentional ways.


That's a cool way to tell this story, and one that limits direct blame for one character and clear sympathy for the other. We're used to one character cheating on the other or some kind of mistake that gives one partner the moral high ground. Here, they've both messed up—and will continue to do so—but they're still sort of trying. Passmore and Szostak were very good together here; warm to one another, but also detached in an obvious way that signaled tension that neither character wanted to truly address. I didn't dislike Passmore's work on The Glades but it was The Glades. He surprised me with his performance and how his Neil went through the motions without looking like a complete zombie. I'm less familiar with Szostak's work and the episode gave her less to do than her co-lead (more on that in a second), but she was solid as well. Both characters have moments in the pilot where they sort of "break," and Passmore and Szostak made sure to keep their performances in those moments at a sufficient level of expression. They could have gone much bigger, but it wouldn't have worked as well.

The structure of the episode certainly tried to accentuate both characters' role in the Truman family dysfunction, but that's the place where the pilot probably didn't work as well. Though I totally understand the logic of building up Neil and Grace's frustrations individually, it almost felt like a half-hearted commitment to that process when the episode started with a heavy focus on Neil, flashed back six months to fill in some information about Grace, and then returned to Neil for the remainder of the hour. Neil got the voiceover, he's the one making the big discoveries, quitting the jobs, and having the epiphanies. There's nothing fully wrong with that—other than it'd be nice if a show like this simply concentrated on the wife more than the husband—but it made the brief flashback with Grace feel out of place. It almost would have been better had the first episode been all about Neil and the second then been about Grace's journey to this point. 

My bad, I've written all this and I haven't even got to the main hook of the show, I guess: the escort service. Grace was using one to find some bedroom time away from her distracted husband, and after he discovered her with boytoy Simon (Blair Redford) and accidentally ended up with the escort's phone, Neil joined in on the fun. On the surface, Neil simply stealing clients and going on these overnight or long-weekend dates is kind of ridiculous. However, like in other parts of the pilot, nothing was ramped up too far. The sex was there, but the script really did try to keep the attention on what the experience taught Neil about his wife and his marriage.


Although those sequences passed the test in this first hour, I'm a little more concerned about the future of the show depending on how it uses the escort device. The last few minutes of the episode presented a much more douchey version of Neil than we had seen for most of the episode. So he took Simon's dates, stole his contacts, and then threatened to have the IRS come after the dude if he tried to get his stuff back? I understand that Simon has been having sex with Neil's wife on the reg, but all things considered, he was actually pretty cool to Mr. Truman: he was honest and up-front about the relationship with Grace, and explained to Neil that Grace was very much in love with her husband. This is the thanks he gets, apparently. If the show wants to continue to explore the world of escort services—and I'm pretty sure it does—it's going to have to be careful to not tip the scales too far. As it stands now, they're both lying to each other and that's an issue, but it's also the core conflict of the story. But if Neil starts going on all these dates, being a dick to other people, and generally goes on some kind of ego trip because of what's happening with the escort experience, that's more troublesome for the show. It's not a death-knell because the show needs to signal exactly what this lifestyle could do to any person, let alone a married man, but it's something to look for in the future. 

Nevertheless, those more future-thinking concerns can be put aside for now because this opening episode did a number of good things. There were a few moments that tried to be sardonic like American Beauty, most notably when Neil gave a big speech in an attempt to quit his job and everyone just laughed or when the daughter wrote and performed a song about two teachers having an affair, but I also liked that the episode was fine with showing the kind of monotonous oppression of the suburban lifestyle. Though the constant reference to the lack of upkeep on the pool probably laid it on too thick, those are the kind of moments that can get me when other things in the episode are working. The dreary weather didn't even seem to be intentional but it certainly added to the overall blah headspace that the characters were in.


Satisfaction might not work because it's not on the right network to be able to explore both the intimacy and the pure physicality of sex. It might also get bogged down because the escort part of the story is too appealing for the writers not to make that the real center of the show. Or maybe it'll slip up by trying too hard to provide cynical commentary on suburban life, or because the show turns one of the Trumans into a victim. That's all very possible; there's a very fine line this show has to walk to be consistently good in the way that it wants to be. But this pilot at least suggested that there's good material to explore and perhaps interesting things to say. For now, that's enough for me. I'm curious if it'll be enough for you.



NOTES

– Like many pilots, this episode was totally stricken by a terrible soundtrack full of semi-recent top 40 music. That American Authors "Best Day of My Life" song makes me want to die every time I hear it. Shame on you, music supervisor. 

– Passmore and Szostak are good—better than I expected—but they struggled with American accents throughout this first hour. Given Satisfaction's middle class, suburban suffocation premise, I'm a little more forgiving than I normally would be regarding the show's insistence that its characters be American... but it would have been the end of the world for the show to feature an Australian dude and a French woman at the center? Is that so weird?

– I'm not sure how long or how often Katherine LaNasa is going to appear on the show, but I hope (lolz) she sticks around on at least a recurring basis. She brings a lot of sexiness and maturity to her madam character, and she and Passmore seem to have a nice rapport.

– Why do people in films and on TV always jump into pools to think or make a statement about their existential crises? Doesn't anyone just yell in their car anymore?


How'd you feel about this first episode? Are you in for the long haul?


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