Two weeks ago, I sat down to start writing an article about one of my favourite TV shows, The Booth at the End, for a new recurring feature called Cancelled Too Soon. Just like every other article I write for this blog, my first stop was Wikipedia, to refresh myself on the basics: the names of all the actors, writers and directors; who produced and distributed it; how high were its ratings or box office; what was the general timbre of contemporary critical reception. I always check this stuff first because it’s the stuff I’d be most embarrassed to get wrong, especially since I routinely see professional writers get them wrong, and my second-hand embarrassment on their behalf is so intense that I’d probably throw up if I experienced it first-hand.
Most of this information does not exist on the Wikipedia page for The Booth at the End.
The very first line of the article says it was “originally produced for the US cable channel FX”.
That’s not true. Very little of the information in the article is true, and some of it is contradictory – it claims that it first aired on Canada’s City TV network in one part of the article, and that it first aired on FX in another. I spent hours searching for contemporary reporting on The Booth at the End and it was even more contradictory and confused. So, I decided to do some primary research of my own.
Two weeks later, I have a pretty good grasp of the true story of The Booth at the End. Most of it came from a Twitter conversation with its creator and writer, Christopher Kubasik, and an email exchange with Doug Miller, the media contact for the show’s production company, Vuguru. I don’t have all the fine details, but I’m reasonably satisfied I know enough to tell you the mysterious tale of this strange, ground-breaking and now tragically-forgotten show, cancelled before its time, its history rendered opaque thanks to shoddy reporting by contemporary news sources.
The Booth at the End is the best TV show you never knew existed.
The show has a simple premise: a solitary Man (Xander Berkeley) sits in a booth in a diner where people bring him their desires. He consults a notebook that contains a task for them to carry out, the completion of which will bring about their desire. Most of the time, there’s no obvious cause and effect between the task and the want (e.g. rob $101,043 from banks and you’ll become prettier), but no matter how extravagant your wish, it’ll come true as long as you complete the task. All the Man requires is that his clients return to the booth to give him regular updates on their progress, the details of which he records in the notebook.
The show was created by Christopher Kubasik and produced by Vuguru in 2010 on the presumption that it would be distributed on the web as a series of shorts, as with Vuguru’s previous successful series Prom Queen, which “aired” on Myspace, YouTube and Veoh in 2007. To the best of my knowledge, it was only distributed in this form once, on the website of Canada’s City TV network, CityTV.com, as part of their “Shorts in the City” platform. But Vuguru also packaged The Booth at the End in two other formats, a series of five twentyish minute episodes and as a feature-length film. The five-episode series was broadcast on City shortly after it debuted on their website to little impact. By the end of 2010, it had yet to air anywhere else.
But in 2011, international distributor Content Media sold The Booth at the End to FX International, who broadcast it in the UK and other territories. The UK run was well-received, which turned out to be its ticket back to the USA. Six years before Hulu made history when The Handmaid’s Tale became the first streaming series to win Outstanding Drama Series, the streaming giant was looking to make a move from an online distributor of shows from US broadcast and cable networks to exclusive content of its own (though not yet original content). They looked across the pond and found three shows that had made a splash: the BBC sitcom Whites, E4’s superhero dramedy Misfits and The Booth at the End. Hulu became the exclusive carrier of these shows in the US. Misfits quickly became one of Hulu’s most-watched shows, and their success at importing it is still remembered as a watershed moment in the history of streaming television, while Whites petered out when the BBC declined a second series. But The Booth at the End did well enough for Hulu to ask for a second season, which premiered on Hulu in 2012.
After that, the historical record is a little murky. I haven’t been able to find out yet if Hulu distributed the second season only in the US, or in other territories, whether FX International or Rogers Media continued to distribute it in the territories where they’d distributed the first season, or why it was cancelled after its second season. I watched it on Hulu in 2015, but it’s also been available at various points on both Amazon and Netflix. Right now, it’s not available to stream anywhere I can find (though you can rent or buy it in its feature-length format on iTunes or Vimeo), which means none of the streaming giants ever acquired it outright. According to Doug Miller, Vuguru are in the early stages of exploring a reboot and Italian director Paolo Genovese is in post-production on an Italian film adaptation called The Place. But if you want to watch The Booth at the End in its best and most successful format, as far as I can tell, you can’t do so legally.
That’s a shame, because The Booth at the End is unlike any other TV show I’ve ever seen, and should be held up as one of the greatest shows of the century so far. The whole series takes place in the titular booth, with the story told entirely through conversations between the Man and his clients, as well as some occasional, brief interactions between the Man and a waitress called Doris (Jenni Blong). The Man and his book are clearly supernatural in nature, but we never learn any specifics. “How can I know you’re not the Devil?” asks one client. The Man’s reply is blunt: “You can’t.” Instead, the show is focused almost solely on the clients, their desires, and how the experience of attempting to carry out their tasks affects them.
Without strong performances, it would be a mess, but both seasons (each is set in a different diner, with a different set of clients) feature exceptional ensembles filled with excellent character actors – any list of stand-out performances is doomed to paradox given it would contain almost everyone in the series, though my personal favourites are Sarah Clarke as Sister Carmel, a nun who wants to hear God again, Abby Miller as Theresa, who just wants to be loved, and Jennifer Del Rosario as Melody, a teenager who wants to save her father’s ailing business. But presiding over all, it’s Xander Berkeley as the Man that blows everyone else away with probably the greatest performance of his lengthy career. Lucy Mangan, writing for The Guardian, called it “so brilliant it should be used as an acting masterclass” and I can’t disagree. He uses the minimal physical space of the booth with the breadth and precision that other actors use a stage, the slightest shift in posture changing the whole energy of a scene. Never mind his line readings, though I’ll probably go to my grave thinking about the surprised, awkward way he says “Oh” upon learning a former client killed himself, or his faux-pleasant answer to a bigoted client’s question about what side he’s on (“I’m on this side,” he says, gesturing at the table. “My side.”). Just a super-cut of his wordless reactions to his clients’ stories would be a lesson in itself, from the slow way he turns to face an elderly client casually describing how she filled the bomb she’s building with metal shards to maximise damage to the varying shades of exasperation and amusement he expresses toward a client who keeps whining about his task to become a servant of higher power.
Also, this smile:
The Booth at the End is extraordinary for a dozen reasons, from the simple fact of its creation in the early days of streaming television when no formal infrastructure existed, to the quality of its craftsmanship (Jessica Landaw, who directed season one, should be swamped in offers to direct for every show on TV). I’m sorely tempted to just quote my favourite lines until I’ve typed out the whole script (“You think changing a man is any small thing?”), describe how the end of each storyline tore my heart apart in the best and worst ways and rant at length about how season two’s cliffhanger ending will haunt me until I die. But since my goal here is to convince you to watch it, I don’t want to give too much away.
However, one aspect of The Booth at the End is so rare in modern television that I can’t let it pass by without comment: the seriousness of its portrayal of religion. Not because it approaches the topic with an “appropriate” level of solemn regard (The Man to Sister Carmel: “Nun walks into a bar?” She stares back at him. “Or not.”) but because it appreciates the emotional weight and moral gravity that religion exerts in people’s lives. In season one, Sister Carmel’s quest to hear God again and the conflict between her vocation as a nun and her task (to become pregnant) is deeply affecting, while the desire of Jack, in season two, to eradicate a religion he views as an enemy to his own (neither explicitly named, but context suggests he’s a Christian out to destroy Islam) is portrayed as such a moral horror that it causes the Man to lose his carefully-maintained posture of disaffection – he shakes as he reads the task that Jack must commit and his utter disgust for Jack is so obvious that only a blinkered bigot like Jack could possibly miss it. When modern television bothers to portray religion at all, it’s usually as some weird, silly or sinister holdover from the past (Better Things’ gross episode about Mormons), an inconsequential character trait (Felicity in Arrow is Jewish, but it would make no difference whatsoever to the show if she wasn’t) or a punchline (pretty much any Seth MacFarlane show). There are some notable exceptions: Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Greenleaf, and a few shows with religious themes but no religious content like 12 Monkeys.
The Booth at the End is rich in both religious content and themes, especially its portrayal of the Man as a vehicle for grace. Throughout the series, the Man is very insistent that he does not “make things happen”. “I create opportunities for people to do things,” he says, ostensibly describing the tasks that will give them what they want. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear that, intentionally or not, what the Man creates are opportunities for people to be spiritually transformed, both for clients who complete their tasks and who choose to abandon them when their experiences change their desires, priorities, and understanding of themselves. One client comes to recognise their own selfishness and turns themselves into the police for crimes they committed as part of their task, while another messes up the wording of their initial request, but ends up happy with the botched result anyway because of how their task forced them to confront what they truly valued. Some end up happy when they find out their seemingly unpleasant task was itself what they really wanted, and some are so traumatised by carrying out their tasks that they learn to appreciate what they already have. Not every client gets a happy ending, but every single one of them is changed forever in the attempt to find one.
More than anything, The Booth at the End stands out as a work of art that really understands the radical implications of free will. Every choice made in The Booth at the End is treated like it could change the course of history, because it can. What is the course of history but the aggregate of every choice ever made? The Man often admonishes clients who take their choices and actions lightly, but he also cautions one who treats one desire (raising the dead) as more extreme than another (making her mother happy):
“No matter what you choose to get, you will be breaking the world. That’s what we do. We take the world and we crack it.”
This is the first article in a series entitled Cancelled Too Soon. Future instalments will be found here.