First Watch: The Booth at the End – “Start. See What Happens” (Season 1, Episode 1)

I once had a film professor that told me “Television is just radio, but with moving pictures.” The Booth at the End exemplifies the point by providing a series of conversations; a work of pure theater with the added element of close-ups. And it works. The Booth at the End has provided the best half-hour of drama on television.

During the first episode, seven or eight characters are introduced — some of them are first time visitors to The Booth, while some are in the middle of performing their tasks with only a few dialog-based context clues — so it would be difficult (and, in one case, impossible) to cover each character’s desire and task. Instead, I want to paint broader strokes of what a meeting with The Man involves, and why this show seems to work with little more than performances and dialog.

The constant character in The Booth at the End is “The Man” (Xander Berkeley), an enigmatic figure found in the corner of a diner. The Man waits for people to approach him and impart their deepest desires to him, to which The Man assigns a task to them: if they complete the task, their wish is granted. It’s important to note (as The Man does in almost every encounter) the want is not fulfilled by the man, but by the person performing their task. It is also important to note anything is possible. Generally, a new ‘client’ provides a pass-phrase, “I hear the pastrami sandwich is very good here. “, then is greeted with a charming “What can I do for you?”

The desires are varied; anything from a particular girl a client wants for his own, to wanting a daughter to pull through her serious illness. This is where things get strange — The Man pulls out a small notebook, flips to the back pages, and reads off a task. The tasks, it would appear, are predetermined and range from befriending a shut-in, to murdering a child. Then the bartering begins: the client asks for another task and The Man declines with a “take it or leave it.” One more catch, the client must return every week to answer any questions The Man has. These questions are often invasive, but reveal the metamorphosis, or thought process, the client experiences during the task. Then he scribbles everything down in his notebook.

Everything takes place in the diner. There are no flashbacks; no cutaways. There is only The Man, the client, a conversation, and a slice of pie.

Who is The Man? How is it he yields such power? What does that notebook contain? The mystery, coupled with the “show, don’t tell” approach to storytelling, has intoxicated the audience. The performances and script manage to enslave our attention, forcing us to use our imagination in ways conventional television has avoided for years. In fact, it comes down to imagination. The stories of The Booth at the End are haunting first-hand tales, ghost stories told around a campfire, provoking our minds with theater unique to each person. Unfortunately, the future of the series seems to be in jeopardy, and I can’t find any news to support there will be a next season. For now, I hold onto hope because this show has  changed my perception on what TV can be — entertaining, without relying on visual stimulation.

You can watch all ten episodes of The Booth at the End on Hulu.

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2 responses to “First Watch: The Booth at the End – “Start. See What Happens” (Season 1, Episode 1)

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