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New show Satisfaction goes on a quest for happiness, only occasionally satisfies

Matt Passmore and Michelle DeShon of Satisfaction
Matt Passmore and Michelle DeShon of Satisfaction
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The cable giant USA is at a crossroads. Many of its shows, like Burn Notice, White Collar, and Suits, have been substantial hits for the network, but they've also, somewhat unfairly, branded the channel as one that aims only for lightweight good times, rather than anything with lasting permanence. The network has been trying to darken its blue skies — just a little bit — over the course of the past few years, a movement that reaches its apex in Satisfaction, debuting Thursday at 10 p.m. Eastern after fellow freshman Rush (about which, more below).

On almost every level, Satisfaction seems like the network attempting to court critical praise and maybe even Emmy attention. But it's also a show that seems confused about how to turn itself from what might have made a cool (if overly typical) movie into a TV show. And that means that rather than being The Sopranos, Satisfaction is much more likely to be USA's version of Huff.

In case you've forgotten all about Huff (and everybody probably has), it was one of Showtime's initial entries into the scripted programming game, a show that won a few critical fans and even an Emmy. It starred Hank Azaria as a psychiatrist who couldn't fix the problems in his own life, and it surrounded him with a bunch of supporting characters who were far more interesting than him. It was about dissatisfaction, depression, and malaise, and it ran for two seasons before being swiftly forgotten, replaced in the history of Showtime by Weeds and Dexter, which were much better both at being TV shows and at building Showtime's brand. The important thing to remember is that Huff is probably a thing you haven't thought about in years until I just reminded you of it.

Satisfaction is in a slightly different position than Huff. Its network, after all, has an established brand that it's just trying to change. But in terms of trying to make a TV show out of something that doesn't automatically suggest a TV show, it has a lot of the same problems.

Mid-life crises, right on schedule

This is perhaps underselling Satisfaction, which has a pilot that is well worth a watch, even if it doesn't succeed at everything it sets out to do. In that first episode (which runs over an hour and has the feel of a short feature film), the series digs into questions of what it means to be successful and middle-aged, yet still unhappy, in a fashion that indicates it's well aware of other items in this well-worn genre. It's not reinventing the wheel, but it draws nicely from the culture at large by having its protagonist become a YouTube folk hero after forcing his way off a plane stuck on the tarmac, and it has a nice eye for visual details and symbolism. For roughly half its running time, Sean Jablonski's pilot script doesn't rush, and it takes seriously the idea that the slow loss of sexual intimacy in a marriage needn't mean the husband and wife no longer love each other, but it can feel like a kind of frozen-over apocalypse.

And here, because of a very weird turn Satisfaction takes around its midpoint, I need necessarily dip into specific plot details up to that point. They shouldn't affect your enjoyment of the pilot, but if you're trying to avoid too much information, now is the time to bail.

See, because of his airplane escapades, our hero, Neil Truman (Matt Passmore), ends up leaving his job, which he mostly hates. When he arrives home after doing so, he learns that his wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), has been sleeping with someone else, who turns out to be a male escort. Through a complicated series of events, Neil ends up with the escort's phone, and he begins answering some of those calls, going to have sex with women to the tune of $5,000 per pop. It's vaguely similar to HBO's Hung, but it's weirdly more plausible because it doesn't bother to make anything particularly realistic, as opposed to Hung's attempts to ground its story in economic recession. This take on male prostitution just feels like an extension of Neil's frustrations with the world, as if his anomie took form and found a way to make him feel like a man again.

A man's world

Yet that's sort of the problem, too. Satisfaction is at its best when it's about the inevitable complications of a marriage at a certain point in its life cycle, when it seems like it's much more of a story about a relationship than about one guy discovering a great new way to make money and reaffirm his masculinity. That the male escort plot is largely implausible isn't the problem; it's that it inadvertently focuses the show as Neil's story, instead of the story of Neil and Grace. When it comes time to figure out why Grace is sleeping with an escort, it mostly boils down to how she feels disconnected from her husband and a little bored with her marriage, even if she's still wildly in love with him. That's interesting territory to explore, but even with an extended running time, Satisfaction's pilot does too little with it.

There's also a pervasive sense that the world of Satisfaction is a little underpopulated. Beyond Neil and Grace and their daughter, Anika (Michelle DeShon), the show lacks for obvious supporting characters. This might be okay if the central duo were played by actors so riveting audiences couldn't take their eyes off them, but both Passmore and Szostak seem to key into the script's interest in Zen Buddhism, and their performances are often a little too subdued. Neil is supposed to be acting out of a desperation that his life has ended up being nothing like he might have imagined it would be, but Passmore doesn't credibly sell that desperation often enough. Fantasy casting is rarely the best game to play, but it's hard not to imagine what this show would have been like with fellow USA actor Tim DeKay or someone similar in the lead. That might have led to something that pulled all of Satisfaction's pieces together.

Yet Satisfaction is well worth watching, because even if those pieces are all over the place, they're still fascinating pieces in and of themselves. Sure, it's not immediately clear what this show is going to look like week to week, and there's a vague sense at the end that Jablonski has written himself into a corner. But in the genre of "I don't know, but I watched American Beauty 15 years ago, and let's see what I can remember about it," Satisfaction mostly delivers, and even the pieces where it doesn't are interesting enough to be worth spending a little time thinking about. The full picture of Satisfaction isn't all there yet, but this is a show not about trying to gain something material, but about trying to find existential peace and true happiness. And when was the last time you could say that?

Quick hits

Three other new cable dramas are debuting this week, attempting to expand viewers' definitions of what their networks can be. Here are quick thoughts on all of them:

  • The other show debuting with Satisfaction is Rush, which will air an hour earlier on USA. It's not bad, as these things go, but it's also clearly an attempt to graft Showtime's Ray Donovan onto a medical series. Like Ray, the lead character here, Dr. William Rush (Tom Ellis), is a fixer for the Hollywood stars, going around and helping celebrities in medical emergencies they need to keep secrets. There's a nasty streak of dark violence running throughout the first episode (the only one sent to critics), but forcing a Ray Donovan type to deal with a medical case of the week weirdly fixes some of the issues with Showtime's problematic series. Nothing here works as well as it could, but it's an agreeable way to waste some time, and it features a nicely seedy SoCal vibe.
  • Meanwhile, WE TV is diving into scripted programming for the first time tonight (at 9 p.m. Eastern) with The Divide, a new, well-meaning series that's more or less based on the Innocence Project, a group of lawyers attempting to help potentially innocent people on Death Row receive pardons before they're executed. The Divide is well-acted, with some nice direction from Scandal star Tony Goldwyn (he plays President Fitz on the ABC show, but also works often as a director). The series is also essentially a snooze, though. It makes the common mistake of cable dramas from networks just starting out: confusing a compelling job with a compelling character, as everybody in this show seems like they're cosplaying Atticus Finch. They're collections of noble tics more than human beings.
  • Finally, Lifetime debuts its high-concept science-fiction extravaganza The Lottery this Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern, and it should be avoided at all costs. The idea of a series about a world where women are no longer able to have children is potentially a good one, but the structure of the script (by Children of Men co-screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton) feels like a confusing mishmash of storylines that don't always relate to each other. The conspiracy to do nefarious things is always as obviously evil as possible, and the overall plot arc is mostly nonsensical. Plus, the series just looks cheap, with director Danny Cannon attempting as hard as he can to cover up budgetary drawbacks by oversaturating the color and light. It doesn't work. All of those technical issues aside, however, The Lottery has the disquieting effect of suggesting that women aren't worth all that much when they can't be mothers. It doesn't intend to, but it sends the message unintentionally over and over again, leaving a show that struggles to build a world that feels convincingly dystopic.