July 16, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Satisfaction”


SATISFACTION:  Thursday 10PM on USA – If Nothing Else Is On…

Sean Jablonski’s new series SATISFACTION is a rarity for USA Network:  a drama that isn’t built around a familiar procedural franchise or fast-talking, quipping heroes.  Instead, it’s a story about midlife angst and marriage–there’s a namecheck of “Updike” at one passing point in the pilot’s dialogue, and that’s certainly not accidental–and one of the few times the staid network has attempted a gamechanger in quite a while.  Watching it, one only wishes it were better.

Despite the invocation of John Updike, Satisfaction is more American Beauty-lite by way of Hung.  Jablonski’s pilot script plays for a time with alternating its point of view between Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) and Grace (Stephanie Szostak), his wife of almost 20 years, but mostly it’s Neil’s story.  He loathes his money manager job, and when he has a meltdown aboard a plane that’s stuck on the runway for hours, he’s suspended from his firm and comes home to discover that Grace has been seeing an escort (she doesn’t know that he knows).  He responds, through a mixture of impulsiveness and plot contrivance (he winds up with the escort’s phone), by taking on the identity of the escort, and the resulting boost to his ego does wonders for him personally and professionally, although everything is left open-ended at the close of the pilot.

The trick about creating a drama about “ordinary people” is that they can’t really be ordinary at all.  Novelists like Updike or Tom Perrotta dig into the psyches and perceptions of their suburban characters, illuminating them from the inside so that we understand the specific ways that they see the world.  Alan Ball’s script for American Beauty may have been more superficial than their work, but it marked its territory with sardonic humor and even with its pretentions, not to mention the stylish direction by Sam Mendes and A-list cast.

Little of that is present in the Satisfaction pilot.  Although Jablonski (a senior writer/producer on shows like Suits and Nip/Tuck, but a first-time series creator) apes the voice-over narration of American Beauty, and includes motifs like the Trumans’ filthy swimming pool for metaphoric weight, his characters stay bland and ordinary.  Neil is just a generic guy who works too hard at a job he hates and neglects his wife and teen daughter, and Grace has no more dimension than the escort’s client who Neil takes on.  (Grace wishes she hadn’t abandoned her designing career when she became pregnant all those years ago.)  Because the characters are so uninvolving, plot disconnections that might have seemed unimportant feel glaring, like the fact that the only clients who call the escort’s phone are those who’ve never actually seen him before, and none of them–not even the one who’s in the escort business herself–seem surprised when Neil turns out to be 15 years older than the real guy.  You can feel Jablonski’s effort to make something compelling happen when Neil and Grace’s daughter Anika (Michelle DeShon) sings a scandalous song at the school talent show about two teachers who are having an affair–the song comes from nothing we know about Anika, and is neither satiric nor angry, just flatly rude; after one scene where the principal says their daughter will be expelled, the couple never even speak of the situation again. Passmore and Szostak are hardly Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening (they’re not even Hung‘s Thomas Jane and Anne Heche), although the script doesn’t give them much opportunity to shine.

Whatever one could say about American Beauty and Hung, they were trying in their ways to make statements about contemporary American society, its brutal economics and lack of emotional connection. Satisfaction, though, feels like it’s just making a statement about American Beauty and Hung.  The series could go in multiple directions from the initial episode, and perhaps it will have more substance going forward.  Based on the pilot, though, it’s just a different spin on USA’s typical superficiality–except without the fun gloss.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."