the booth at the end

Science fiction and fantasy have been a way to explore morality with one of the simplest and most dangerous questions man has ever invented, “What if?” Every story starts with someone asking “What if?” and following that train of thought to some kind of conclusion. It may be as simple as asking what if this character existed or as complex as what if we actually colonized Mars or any of millions of other questions that spring to mind.

If you hit upon the right what if scenario, you just might end up creating more than one story. The question itself doesn’t have to be all that sophisticated. What if you could get exactly what you wanted as long as you completed a particular task? That’s the entire premise of the show “The Booth at the End.”

A friend of mine mentioned to me a couple weeks ago that I ought to check out the show. She was sure that I would really like it, based on long, rambling conversations that we had previously about shows like “Supernatural” and “Fringe”. As an added incentive, she made sure to tell me that the show was available free on Hulu.

I had a couple of hours to kill a few days ago and I thought, yeah, what the heck, let’s go check out that show and see what I think. So, I fired up the computer and went to Hulu and did a quick little search for “Booth at the End.”

I discovered that there were two seasons comprised of five episodes each. The episodes were a brief twenty-two minutes long (without commercials). So, it was easily manageable to watch a few episodes. If I liked it, it would not be too difficult to watch the rest of them. I could squeeze them in around other stuff that I needed to do. Yup. I think we can all see where this is headed.

I watched three episodes in a row. Then, I tried to think of a way that I could finish watching the rest of them without staying up too late. Now, I’m trying to make sure that all of my friends hear about “The Booth at the End” so they know what I’m referencing.

The premise of the show is almost laughably basic. In a diner, there’s a booth at the end of the row and in that booth, there’s a man. People go into the diner and tell that man what they want. He consults a book and gives them a task. If they do the task, the thing that they want will definitely happen. Anyone who agrees to do what the man asks is told that they can stop at any time. They don’t even have to start doing whatever it is they were assigned. If they change their minds, they also have the option to ask for something else. Upon making a new request, they will then be assigned another task. They’re also told that even if they do nothing, the thing that they want may still happen, however, doing their assigned task makes it a guarantee.

Each season takes place in a different diner, and, while the man who makes the deals is the same, there are only two other cast members who follow him to the second season. The constants in each season are, of course, the man himself and the ground rules, along with the book. The book itself seems like an ordinary leather-bound journal that one could buy almost anywhere. It’s got a few adornments on it, but nothing that would actually hint at its origin or if it actually has any kind of power.

Through out the two seasons thus far, the source of the man’s power itself is left virtually unexplained. Whenever one of the characters tries to give him credit for the changes in their lives, he always asserts that he did nothing, it was all them. He requests that each person who asks him for something visits him regularly and updates him “with details” at each visit so he hears about their progress. That insistence on details may be a very broad hint about who the man in the booth at the end is supposed to be, but otherwise, we get no indication if he’s actually good or evil, whether he’s some kind of supernatural being or if he’s just a man that somehow sees the workings of the universe in some way that allows him to manipulate destiny. What the viewers do know about him is that he’s telling the truth about people doing what he’s told them to and their requests becoming reality.

The man is also not as detached as he might seem. While he seems cold, doling out tasks like telling one man that he must kill a child for his own son to survive, he also rebuffs another character who says that she would like to know how he does what he does. Yet another character takes him completely by surprise by asking him why he offers people these deals, even when it’s clear that the tasks themselves don’t actually impact his life at all.

Not every task is gruesome or horrifying. They seem to be more about stretching the limits of the participants’ ethics. One woman is asked to leave her family for three weeks without giving them any warning or letting them know where she went. One man is told to protect a child for ten weeks. A boy is told that he’s supposed to help find someone who is missing. The bigger the request, it seems, the more difficult the assignment will be to accomplish.

“The Booth at the End” is remarkable not because of it’s premise, though. The entire show takes place on a single set, whichever diner it is that the man has chosen to occupy. Not once do the viewers actually see any action taking place. Instead, everyone comes to sit in the booth and talk to the man.

Trying to describe this show is a difficult process. Essentially, it’s everything that anyone who has ever given advice about writing a story or a script would tell you never to do. There’s no action. It’s all a bunch of talking heads. The characters tell you everything, but you’re shown nothing, except a man in a booth with a book and the people that come and talk to him.

It’s really the cast that carries this show. They make their performances so believable that you have no doubt someone came back from the dead because one of their loved ones did what the man in the booth told them to. When each one comes in to sit down and relate the details of their experience, they in habit their characters so fully and give such credence to their dialogue that the viewers can easily imagine what they’re describing. The man asks a few pointed questions and calls out the occasional liar by telling them that if they’d done what they were supposed to, they wouldn’t have any reason to ask him if it had worked.

Stories intersect and intertwine, so there are points in which viewers get the chance to see several of the characters in a different light. The viewpoints never really change all that much, however. The character in the booth opposite the man is the one who is telling their own story and giving over the details as part of the deal that they have made. Interestingly enough, it’s made clear that the man doesn’t ask for full disclosure. He asks for details and often the questions he asks relate to how the experience of carrying out the assigned task and seeing indications that they are getting their desired results make them feel.

It all gives the viewers a sense that the man in the booth, who is never actually given a name in the two seasons, is outside human experience. He insists that he is not directly involved in the results. Despite his slightly scruffy appearance, he gives off an air of professionalism that seems at odds with his vaguely disheveled mien. There’s not anything specific that I could point to that indicates the man in the booth isn’t just any ordinary businessman stuck on a long road trip and grabbing a quick breakfast and some coffee on his way home. He’s got some stubble. He always seems to be wearing the same clothes (though those clothes do change from season to season), but he doesn’t seem dirty or unkempt. He’s just the slightest little bit off.

“The Booth at the End” offers up a compelling idea about human nature. It takes that idea and sets it into an environment that is so bland and so ordinary that it’s easy to imagine that one day you might just find yourself in some shabby little diner in the middle of nowhere and see a man sitting in a booth by himself at the very end. If you took the chance and sat down across from him, he might ask you one of the most dangerous questions of all, “What do you want?” Then, he might proceed to offer you a way to make it happen. You’d have to then decide whether or not you’re willing to go through with it.

Personally, I think I’d take one look at that strange man alone in the booth and walk right back out the door. I’ll just watch the show, it’s close enough to finding out what people are truly capable of for me.