What makes a TV show a good story?
No seriously, I’m asking. Is there something specific that makes a show good? Is it the characters or the plot or the set pieces or the scenery or the tone or the amazing special effects? Why do we like what we like, and why do we think it’s good?
I would argue, and I do argue, that it’s much much simpler than we think. All we need for a good TV show is all we ever need. A really good story.
The Booth at the End was doing direct streaming before Netflix even considered the idea. It’s a Hulu original, and you can check out both seasons for free online. There’s even a third season coming out sometime in the spring, I think. The episodes are only twenty minutes or so each, there are only ten of them total, and you have absolutely no excuse not to binge watch them all. Trust me.
I bring up the show not just because it’s good, though. The Booth at the End is good, to be sure, but it’s also really deeply unusual as a show, and I want to talk about that. For starters, it only ever takes place in a diner. Well, two diners, if you want to get technical. It switches diners in between the first and second seasons. But I mean it when I say that it’s only ever in the diner. And not all of the diner either. Just one booth. The booth at the end, obviously.
The main character, played by Xander Berkeley from Nikita, doesn’t have a name. He’s just the Man in the booth at the end, a fixed feature of time and space, or so it would seem. We know from his interactions with the other characters that he doesn’t really ever leave – a waitress refers to him being there when she comes on shift, and there when she goes off it and no other waitress ever seeing him leave the booth. He doesn’t eat, orders a lot of tea, and he doesn’t doodle or read or even hum. He sits in the booth and he waits.
Did I mention that this is a really freaking weird show? Because it is.
All of the action of the story is derived from people sitting across from each other in this this little booth, and talking. Telling stories. The Man asks them questions. He asks them what they want. What they want is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and always interesting and fundamental to who they are as a person.
The people vary a lot. There’s a nun who wants to be able to hear God again, a girl who just wants to be prettier, a boy who wants to live forever, a old man who wants to destroy an entire religion, and so on. But they all come into the diner, sit down, tell the Man what they want, and after he’s asked some questions, they leave.
They leave with a task that the Man has found in his book. If they do the thing, they will get what they want. The Man makes it very clear that he is not the one making things happen. They are. By completing their task, they change the world.
The tasks are not nice. But sometimes they are. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to it. Except for how there totally is.
A mother wants her daughter to be healed of her illness. The illness is unspecified. The Man consults his book and informs the mother that in order to heal her daughter, she must find a woman without family or friends, kidnap her and torture her. The mother is horrified. How could she do that? But she leaves, thinking about it.
Only, this isn’t just a story about people being their worst selves in order to benefit their own selfish interests. An artist wants to be able to paint with great skill and beauty. He’s told he needs to become a father. The specifics are left entirely unclear.
The whole show is just this: people say what they want, are told what they have to do to get it, and then talk about things. Whether they did what they were supposed to. How it went. What they want now. Why they want it. Who they are.
You wouldn’t think it’s the most insanely compelling thing I’ve seen in a long time, but it really is.
You see, The Booth at the End stretches the bounds of what we can feel. You empathize deeply with these characters, because you know them. Sure, you barely know their names, and in some cases you don’t even know that, but you know them. These people come and they pour their souls out, doing nothing but telling us everything, and we get invested.
Honestly, there’s a part of me, the part that majored in philosophy in college, that finds this all so incredibly encouraging about the human race.
We are so incredibly empathetic, so able to take on others’ emotions that we can connect to heads talking about their lives. But more than that, we can learn to love those characters, even though they’re barely characters. We become engrossed in the story, even though it never changes location and never really resolves. We see other people, and we care. It makes me happy.
Now, there is also an arch-plot on the show, involving the Man himself and where he came from, and that is also compelling as all get out. Because we really know very little about him, and it’s cool to see stuff slowly revealed. He could be God, the Devil, an angel, an alien, a man who found a magic book - we seriously have no idea. Like I said, we don't even know his name. We don't know who determines the tasks. We don't even know if he knows who determines the tasks. All we know is that he sits there and asks questions, then really, really listens to the answers.
But mostly I watch for the humanity of it all. To listen and care and truly know someone without having to see how they brush their teeth or what they do for a living. That doesn’t define who someone really is. It’s what they do. But the things we want and the stories we tell? That’s who we are. It’s the closest we can get to an outward expression of our souls.
And I don’t care if that’s pretentious and overly deep. It’s true.