Of­fers a smart up­date on re­la­tion­ships via sex­ual ad­ven­tures in sub­ur­bia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

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.

Blair Red­ford,

Stephanie Szostak and Matt Pass­more


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