“The Booth At The End”
|And then on to the Highwood Restaurant...|
TV is often used like a drug. Something to take you out of the doldrums; away from the laundry, barking dogs, unsorted bills. I resort to this drug myself. There are times I am too tired to read, too unmotivated to write, clean, walk, or even do a craft project. But I still look for a diversion. There was a rainy Saturday afternoon like that. Bored with the thought of watching Arrested Development or Malcolm in the Middle reruns, I toyed with the Hulu+ selections to see if there was anything I had missed. It is usually comedy that I seek and the more absurd the better. But this time my eye was caught by something new: “The Booth At The End”. This was billed as Sci-Fi, which is a genre that I tend to avoid like to a proverbial plague. In my estimation, Sci-Fi is a plague of misshapen space creatures possessing unpronounceable names set in preposterous situations. I have been blessed with many gifts; willful suspension of disbelief is not one of them.
But “The Booth At The End” caught my eye and held my attention for way more than the usual three minutes I take before I bail on a show. That was probably because the characters were regular humans, with pedestrian names and the setting was a coffee shop not unlike the twenty-four hour a day place that I frequented in my college days. Whether we were visiting for a study break during an all-nighter or converging for sustenance after a night at the bars, I never saw a man in a back booth waiting to help those who approached to make their wishes come true. This special “Man” idling in the last booth is what makes the show’s coffee shop different. Xander Berkeley portrays the Man in a very low key way; deftly combining sang froid and compassion to give us a character who is fascinating to watch and almost impossible to read. (In season 2 he has moved to a different coffee shop. Maybe even a very special man can only loiter so long in any one establishment.)
“I heard the pastrami sandwich here is good.” (Eeew – never had pastrami. The thought of just saying the word might be a deal breaker right there for me. I’m not sure what pastrami actually is; it just sounds wrong to me.) That is the code that lets the man in the booth know that someone is there to make a deal. Word of mouth is the Man’s only promotional tool. The motivations of those who come to make a deal are diverse. Some are driven by love of a child, parent, or spouse. Others are compelled by vanity and lust.
The tasks that the Man assigns are strange and often horrifying. One man is told to complete multiple acts of petty thievery. A woman hoping for healing for her sick child is told to find a woman without friends or family and to torture her. A pretty young girl who wishes to become prettier is told to rob $101,043 dollars from a bank. To save his son from leukemia, a father is told to find a young girl and kill her. All must check in with the Man and inform him of their progress in accomplishing their assignments. This concept tempted me to find another show, anticipating some sort of gratuitous panoply of brutality.
Even before a nun grappling with a loss of faith questioned the Man, I, too, wondered if he was the Devil. Another client of the Man asked if he was God. But as the stories of his clients unfolded, I started to see the Man as a symbol of life and the choices we all make. It is not far into this short series that we see the stories overlap and so-called coincidences unfurl.
We often hear that with God there are no coincidences and I would think most of us could cobble together stories of how what had initially appeared to be superfluous coincidences turning out to be major life changing events. We meet people and don’t know until a long time past what effect they have had on our lives. We go places for banal and random reasons only to have these actions have a major impact on the course of our lives. In my view, “The Booth At The End” is an allegory for this. To me the man is neither God nor the Devil; he is an animation of the demands, woes, and temptations that life presents.
There is something Flannery O’Connor-esque about these intertwined stories and the absurd, horrific, and initially meaningless tasks that the Man assigns to his clients. I have no idea of the intentions of Christopher Kubasik, the creator of this series. He may have merely set out to weave an entrancing story, which he certainly did. But I see an opportunity for the viewer to reflect upon the importance of the choices we make, the importance of conscience, and also to understand that there are pieces of what looks to be the puzzle of our life and how they eventually fall into place. The harsh tasks of the Man are an invitation for those whose curiosity may only be piqued by the outrageous to reflect upon the demands made upon us by the choices that life (the Man) presents. In this respect, the writing of the “The Booth At The End” fulfills O’Connor’s exhortation that, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”