Satisfaction, on paper, sounds awful. Any tale of a white guy suffering a midlife crisis tends to make the eyes glaze over; on USA, a network that can be hit-or-miss, the description is even less appealing. Based on the promotional material, Satisfaction is a kind of rueful middle-aged comedy—the poster has leads Matt Passmore and Stephanie Szostak in bed together with bemused expressions on their faces. Surely this is going to be a show with a lot of jokes about how married people don’t have sex anymore, set in the upper-middle-class Los Angeles suburbs, where everyone drinks copious amounts of wine and has a pool in the backyard.
But Satisfaction’s goal is not to poke fun at its characters, nor is it to make light of their issues. Instead, as the title indicates, the show is trying to understand why its protagonists aren’t happy. They have everything they want—a gorgeous house, a talented daughter, more money than they know what to do with. So why aren’t they happy?
Satisfaction both is and isn’t what it looks to be. It’s got a midlife crisis, a marriage gone stale, suburban desperation, and first-world problems galore. But its treatment of the subject matter is lot more humane than its premise would indicate.
The first indication of this, in the pilot, is the moment when Neil discovers his wife has been cheating on him. It comes at the worst possible moment: The first act is Neil shepherding the audience through his life, a life he currently feels has lost all meaning. He loves his family, but he never sees them; he has a good job, but he is convinced he is contributing nothing to the world. He is going through a version of corporate disillusionment and extracurricular search for activity that is almost depressing familiar, both in pop culture and in the real world—the kind of Gen-X thing that Deepak Chopra writes books about. Effective, but predictable.
So when he runs into a room (after showily quitting his job and deploying an airplane escape slide, to boot) and finds a stranger and his wife having passionate sex, the audience is primed to see her as a grasping shrew, an insensitive bitch, a cheating whore—whatever’s most convenient, in the deck of unflattering wifely archetypes. But Satisfaction doesn’t bother with that. Instead, it time-shifts back six months, and replays Neil’s search for vision again—but from Grace’s point of view. So while Neil is wandering around contemplating the Buddha, Grace is enduring book club meetings with several bottles of wine and applying to jobs where no one takes her seriously because of her limited work experience (she took about a decade off to be a mom). As empathetic as Passmore’s Neil is, Szostak’s Grace might be even more so.
Satisfaction’s filming style and tonal approach to the topic feel like a hybrid of Jerry Maguire and The Graduate, with a little bit of Crazy, Stupid, Love. thrown in for good measure. From Jerry Maguire, Satisfaction gets the first-person narration of the man on the edge (as well as the speechifying); from The Graduate, an obsession with sinking to the bottom of pools, combined with camera angles that are honestly adventurous, for a pilot on USA. And from Crazy, Stupid, Love. it borrows an aggressively evenhanded look at what it means to be in a marriage for 18 years—combined with that film’s slick Los Angeles feel and decided bias towards what it feels like to be a man in love.
The result is a tad messy. The strength of the first and second act—Neil’s story, and then Grace’s—are undermined by a back half that tries to make what is really a film’s premise into something that works for serialized television; that means not pushing the characters toward the maturity and resolution that seem to be just in their grasp.
Satisfaction’s strategy for this is to introduce a side to Neil that isn’t apparent in the first act—a colder, more ruthless side that responds to Grace’s cheating with deception of his own. It sounds like a punchline: Husband discovers wife is using the services of a male escort. Husband responds by turning into male escort. It’s a bizarre twist, partially so weird as to be unappealing, and partially so fresh as to be exciting. Satisfaction bobbles the pitch. Most of the time, Neil’s adventures in escorting underscore his own search for meaning. But because he never outright confronts Grace about her cheating—or what has become his cheating—he transforms from a confused but amiable guy to a bitter, mean-spirited man.
It’s hard to know exactly how to read the change. Is Satisfaction reveling in the badness—a kind of Crazy, Stupid, Love. plot twist, where the wronged man seeks his revenge by sleeping with every woman in sight? Or is this a speed bump on the way to marital bliss and suburban enlightenment? Or—worse yet—is Satisfaction going to leave behind the narrative of finding oneself to head toward a seedy gigolo dramedy, complete with cash left on the table and shiny polyester suits?
It remains to be seen—which, like the male escort twist, is both bizarre and refreshing. As of right now, Satisfaction is actually suspenseful—leaving the audience unsure if its protagonists will embrace their better natures or succumb to their special version of suburban ennui. And though some of that suspense is a result of some messy decision-making, those types of messes look a lot like life.