Imagine a TV show where the only action takes place at a booth in a 1950's style southern California diner. A middle-aged man with ice-blue eyes sits all day at the booth, receiving clients who come to him for extraordinary wishes. They tell him what they want, he tells them what they must do, and if they do it, their wish comes true.
Such is the premise of the hulu.com TV show "The Booth at the End," written by Christopher Kubasik. In episode 1, a nun who wants to "hear God again" asks The Man who sits in the booth (we don't know his name) if there is any way to tell if he is the Devil or not. Nope, there's no way, says the man.
The tasks are often illegal and immoral, which makes the audience wonder if we are in fact dealing with the Devil. Sometimes, however, the tasks are just the opposite. One person is told she must rob a bank; another is told she must befriend a man with agoraphobia and coax him out of his house. The key seems to be not the morality of the task but the difficulty for that particular person in accomplishing it.
The deal makers are repeatedly told they are free to walk away from the deal at any time; they are also told that The Man does not cause the wishes to come true, but that the people's accomplishing the task effects it. The drama comes in the askers' decisions to act or not act.
It's a great idea for a story, and as with many stories, has been done before with variations. Stephen King wrote a similar story called "Needful Things." The screenwriter Mr. Kubasik, who helpfully posts online wherever comments are being made about the show, adds such precedents as "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and all the way back to the European deal-with-the-devil folktale, "Faust."
In the ancient world, we might add the story of Alcestis, the wife of the young king of Pherae in Thessaly, Admetus. Admetus is fated to die young, but because of his great hospitality to the god Apollo, Apollo makes him a deal. If he can find someone else to die in his place, he can live. Admetus asks his aged parents to die for him, and they refuse. Finally, Admetus' wife Alcestis consents to die in his place. Admetus then tries to find a way out for Alcestis.
I've always loved the story of Alcestis because it goes against the grain of typical Greek myths. The ancient world is dominantly fatalist, meaning that it often doesn't matter what you do, the result has already been decided beforehand. Alcestis shows a streak of defiance that I think is native to human beings.
"The Booth at the End" is purely about choice and action. One's fate is in one's hands, and even wildly unlikely things-- such as having lots of money-- become possible when The Man has made a deal with you.
Now, complications ensue for all the characters that make the choice-action-result less pure, but there is never a sense that what The Man asks is impossible or beyond a character's reach. This is strongly an American way of looking at the world; we are dreamers who want our wishes fulfilled, and we are can-do folks who believe if only we act, our dreams will come true.
Most of the time in American entertainment, the choices are moral and the outcome good for everyone except for the villain. "The Booth at the End" is blessedly more complex.
But aside from the (real) complications of life, there is more than a kernel of truth in the idea of choice-action-result. Recently I saw a poster implying that true happiness results only from actions taken to promote that happiness. If you're happy, keep doing the same thing. If you're not, but want to be, change something. Seems simple. And yet we tend not to see our own agency in our own happiness. Rather, we would like to blame circumstances or other people.
"The Booth at the End" distills everything in life down to a couple of principles:
1) If you want something, go after it.
2) make sure that's what you want.
I like it.