Offers a smart update on relationships via sexual adventures in suburbia
dultery is a most conventional way to rise above the conventional,” Vladimir Nabokov once suggested. It could be an apt epigraph for a witty new series that portrays a postmodern kind of marriage in which two people make seemingly unconventional choices to keep it alive — and which quite possibly turn out to be rather conventional.
Satisfaction, from creator and writer Sean Jablonski ( Suits, Nip/Tuck), is a show about a couple who, having lost sight of the meaning in their lives after 20 years of apparent suburban happiness, begin to explore extramarital affairs in the attempt to find it again.
And it turns out to be a surprisingly intelligent love story about ethics and responsibility, in which instead of infidelity annihilating all trust, security, privacy and intimacy, the deceit and sneakiness in fact brings the couple closer together. “The idea of love, the idea of sexuality, of coupling is much different than it was 20 years ago, and that creates a whole new set of problems for people,” Jablonski says.
People emotionally and socially take much longer to adapt to shifting ideas and ideals than they like to think, he argues, pointing to statistics relating to divorce rates and the time people wait before getting married. And, of course, the conversation taking place about same-sex marriage. “We’re living a hell of a lot longer, and people are getting more cynical about one soulmate for your entire life.’’
This absorbing reflection on the nature of marriage at midlife was created for USA Network, the American basic cable and satellite television channel owned by NBC, and appears to herald a move by the station towards noirish narratives, unconventional heroes, moral quandaries and non-traditional relationships.
And if the network is determined to throw its name into the prestige drama ring, where rivals such as AMC and FX compete, it’s certainly succeeded with Satisfaction, just renewed for a second season. This is dark, complex and often bleakly comic TV.
In the pilot episode, Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) appears to have what every man in America wants: a beautiful and clever wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), and a smart musical daughter, Anika (Michelle DeShon). He also has a high-flying job in finance, a capacious swimming pool (source of a number of visual metaphors) and a 203-com 3-D TV, yet finds himself teetering on the edge of a midlife crisis. He starts reading books on Zen philosophy and thinks of attending a carpentry school like his father did. “The problem is I need to feel more right now,” he tells a gym buddy.
Frustrated with a banking job that makes rich people even richer, he has a meltdown. Stranded on a crowded commuter aircraft grounded for five suffocating hours, he reacts unexpectedly, his outburst making him a briefly famous social media star. He quits his job, runs home to his wife, and catches her having passionate sex against their bedroom wall with another man — though she doesn’t catch sight of the anguished Neil, as she’s just a little preoccupied.
We flash back six months for the story from her perspective. Her need for sexual adventure is, it seems, a way out of the monotony and boredom of middle-class life with Neil, while paradoxically she still desires permanence, stability and love with her husband. (“Married people don’t have sex,” she tells her single friend who dares ask how many times a week she has sex with her husband.)
Then, seriously back in the present, Neil, after giving chase when the man leaves the family home, confronts him. He turns out to be to be a male hooker (“Escort is more the industry term,” the handsome stranger tells him). He’s called Simon (Blair Redford) and Grace has a longstanding financial arrangement with him.
Left with Simon’s coat after their skirmish, Neil finds his phone and decides that, in the midst of all the angst, he should follow the moment and have his own sexual adventure by assuming Simon’s identity with an attractive, nervous first-time client. (He soon discovers the truth of Woody Allen’s observation that “sex without love is a pretty meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good”.)
It’s a decision that shapes the story arc of the series, both husband and wife on dubious moral ground but Grace knowing nothing about what her husband is up to. How long can this continue, and how can Jablonski wring enough surprises from his narrative? (And is it possible that Simon, the buffed but obviously well-educated escort, has fallen in love with Grace — a thought that appeals as the episode closes?)
It’s all deliciously constructed, written deftly and economically by Jablonski in short, astringent scenes accompanied by a clever musical score and specially written songs, the drama amplified by the counterpointing wit of the music. This is a show where more happens beneath the surface than on it, the movements of the story emanating directly from the development of the characters, each a kind of response to the general cultural confusion over sexuality all of us continually face.
From a reading of websites dedicated to the series, the narrative trick of the show is obviously not to offer any tangibly ideal way to finding satisfaction or emotional realisation. Instead, Jablonski promises to explore what some of the journeys to fulfilment — or not — might look like, questioning the models to which we as selfabsorbed, increasingly anxious and disappointed adults have become so accustomed.
And it’s done with a lightness of touch from Jablonski and director Kevin Bray, who manages the scenes with a quiet brilliance — there are no caricatures or condescension, with characters vividly conceived in terms of appearance and mannerisms. Cinematographer Paula Huidobro, setting the aesthetic for the show with
Satisfaction this pilot, employs a judicious mixture of handheld camera subjectivity: constant slow-motion tweaks heighten comic tension; and nicely composed classical movie-like tableaux take advantage of any shiny surfaces to reflect back the characters to themselves.
There is a wistful loneliness about Szostak’s Grace that is captivating, and her early attempts to rediscover her seemingly lost sexuality are beguiling. (“I’ve been in a bar fight,” she tells her incredulous husband after a book club night with her girlfriends ends in a melee at a nightclub.)
Her skills as an actress are comparable to those of Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker; her words seem heavily annotated by the little silences around them, by all sorts of possible alternatives from which she nonchalantly selects them. Few actresses have that kind of Diane Keaton-like ability to make absent-mindedness or emotional disorganisation so sexy, though Cougar Town’s Courteney Cox does the same sort of thing in a more obviously high-strung fashion.
And Aussie actor Passmore, who found fame in the US through the successful drama The Glades as a character who often masked his emotions through jokes and wordplay, is a fine antihero here, quick-witted and his comic timing cleverly judged, obviously honed by four seasons of the Miami-set police procedural.
Again he uses tense understatement to draw laughs and he shows an ability to close the gap between self and part so that it’s sometimes hard to tell if he is acting at all. Both he and Szostak bring a freshness of detail and a charming comic sensibility to roles that in other hands may have lacked credibility.
Satisfaction is a dazzling display piece of human folly and cruelty, and so amusing at times that even Nabokov might have smiled. Sex is certainly alive in this series (decorously shot, thank goodness) but you get the impression that as it develops it’s going to take a terrible whacking.
Stephanie Szostak and Matt Passmore