Unable to escape its Puritanical origins, American culture is still profoundly anti-sexual, unapologetically vulgar, and in a state of schizophrenia.
Serious examinations of adult sexuality are rare on television, while honest conversations about sexuality occur in a field of landmines. Indulgences of titillation are, paradoxically, abundant. The ubiquity of pornography on the Internet, the revealing and provocative performances of Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, et. al, and cottage industries of adolescent stimulus—Hooters, strip clubs—reveal a culture set up for the appeasement and enjoyment of the male masturbator.
Sean Jablonski, the creator of the USA drama, Satisfaction, wants to change all of that. His series about a wealthy family in an unnamed American city is an honest look at sexuality, love, relationships, and as its title would suggest, how, where, when, and why people find satisfaction. Its first season just ended tonight with an explosive finale that leaves viewers right at the moment the main characters are under threat of an enraged man holding a gun. In a culture desperately needing more adult reality and complexity in its entertainment schedule, a second season can’t arrive soon enough.
“My girls grow up watching the Disney movies, and the princesses, and the Hollywood romances, and all of that. It’s funny,” Jablonski says. “Happily ever after. They take you up to the honeymoon, and then leave you there. Ten years later, what’s that marriage look like?”
During the course of our conversation, Jablonski refers to Satisfaction as a “love story.” If viewers stay with the characters over the course of the first season, they can see the description fits, even if as far as love stories go, it is, to put it mildly, unconventional. The series began with protagonist, Neil Truman, an investment banker, discovering his wife having sex with a male escort.
Truman seemingly has everything: high-paying career, luxury automobile, huge house, beautiful wife, precocious teenage daughter, and all the expensive accouterments of the consumer economy. When he looks at the neatly compiled jigsaw puzzle of his life, however, he feels empty, deeply dissatisfied. The image of his wife in the passionate throes of an affair for hire crushes his naiveté, and forces him to confront the realization that his wife is wrestling with the same lack of fulfillment he is trying to understand in himself. After finding the phone of that escort, he assumes his life with an inquiring, first-time client, hoping to have his own moment of sexual adventure, but also, learn about the experience that his wife secretly desired and attained.
The love story enters the lives of Neil and his wife, Grace, 20 years after their honeymoon, and, according to Jablonski, “shows how two separate people on different paths have broken apart, but are trying to find their way back to each other.”
Underrated and deserving of more attention, Satisfaction explores the concept that gives the show its name, while examining the universal search for meaning. Jablonski is aware that there is a hierarchy of needs, saying, “Many people might look at a wealthy, white couple in the suburbs and ask, ‘How could they have problems?’ Well, it isn’t the same as wondering where your next meal or paycheck is coming from, but everyone wants to find happiness, and that’s what the show is about.”
Satisfaction grew out of Jablonski’s own wrestling with the inquiry the characters investigate. “Having been married myself for 14 years, and having two kids, and understanding the same issues Neil and Grace face, it is my own, heightened way of trying to understand my own relationship, and the modern approach to romance and coupling.”
Great art has the ability to simultaneously reflect and predict developments in its culture. Satisfaction subtlety demonstrates how materialism and the transactional obsessions of American consumerism are shallow substitutes for real meaning. It also shows how, emotionally, America needs to catch up to keep pace with the rapidly changing intellectual formulations of marriage and sex.
“The idea of love, the idea of sexuality, of coupling is much different than it was 20 years ago, and that creates a whole new set of problems for people,” says Jablonski. “People emotionally, and socially, take much longer to adapt to shifting ideas and ideals than they like to think. Look at the statistics that bear this out with divorce rates, how long people wait to get married, and there’s an entirely different conversation taking place about marriage and love with the fight for same-sex marriage. We’re living a hell of a lot longer, and people are getting more cynical about one soul mate for your entire life.”
Jablonski acknowledged the capacity for self-criticism that is essential for healthy marriages, and in his case, healthy television: “People have all kinds of desires, confusions, issues, wants, fetishes, and none of that goes away when you get married. Marriage can still work, but it’s hard, especially now. It’s like being an alcoholic who runs a bar.”
Satisfaction is heavy on character development and light on plot. Much more happens beneath the surface than actually on it, and Jablonski concedes that he prefers to write a “character rich” story. He points to the “symbiosis” of plot coming out of character development.
The characters of Satisfaction are fully formed human beings, but they represent the responses to the cultural confusion over sexuality Jablonski uses as inspiration. There is Neil, who believed he was in a traditional marriage, but discovers he was not, just as many Americans are realizing that they are no longer in a traditional culture. There is Adriana—the madam Neil meets—who rejects emotional ties, believing they are destructive and delusional, until she begins to sense deeper desire for Neil. And there is Simon, the male escort, who finds himself fighting against the longing he long ago swore off. His life of hedonism suddenly seems empty when he begins to fall in love with Grace. Grace is living in the vortex of conflict. She wants adventure, and she seeks it in Simon. She wants independence, and she seeks it in the start of the career she put off to raise her daughter, and she wants love and stability. She hopes she can still find it with Neil.
The characters, and the narrative they propel, are provocative and insightful because of the program’s moral ambiguity. Satisfaction does not insist on setting up clear categories of heroism and villainy, good, and evil. Anti-hero status, as enjoyed by Tony Soprano and Walter White, is typically a male property. In Satisfaction, everyone is a bit of a hero and a villain. “The key is not to judge,” says Jablonski.
“Getting married isn’t about finding the right person, but being the right person,” Jablonski says.
As Neil attempts to discover himself, he regularly seeks the advice of a Buddhist Zen Master. The show finds Neil considering his life, and contemplating how much of his life he should preserve, and how much he should eliminate. He nearly quits his job several times, and as Adriana tells him when he says he needs to wake up and recognize the value in the life he is leaving behind, “You’re a man who has just finally woken up.” He’s caught between two states of spiritual slumber and lucidity.
“Much of what happens in the show mirrors the story of Siddhartha,” Jablonski says. Neil, like Buddha, meets different teachers (specializing in hedonism, materialism, family, individuality, etc.) on his quest to discover himself, and create a life in which he can live comfortably and happily.
“The story of Siddhartha is a guy who was married, had kids, palaces, everything, but felt like there was something more in the world. He gave up his treasures to explore, and find out what was missing,” Jablonski says before explaining that if someone embarked on the Buddhist journey in modernity—leaving their career and marriage—to “walk the world and find meaning,” people would diagnose that person as insane.
“Think these people are crazy, but hang in for the ride, because it is about something deeper. It is about looking for meaning,” Jablonski says.
Albert Camus used violence as a means of exploring meaning, or lack thereof, in his existential novels. Similarly, Jablonski is using sexuality to engage in the same examination.
The first season ended with a made-for-TV cliffhanger. One of Neil’s “clients,” from his brief flirtation with the gigolo life, tries warning him about her husband discovering their one-night stand, but before he can prepare for any potential threat from an angry cuckold, the husband shows up at his door holding a gun. As the finale fades to the credits, Neil and Grace are in their backyard, while their uninvited and unfriendly visitor begins to open the door.
Will a violent confrontation serve as the consequence of Neil’s affair? Will Grace discover the secrets of Neil’s double life, just as he discovered the workings of hers?
These questions make for entertaining television, but the real mystery of the series is the intractable mystery within every person. “When you try to push aside your desires or your longings or judge them, they come out in deeper and darker places,” Jablonski says.
Is there room on American television for a Buddhist-inspired show that looks at sex and lust honestly, asks tough questions about marriage, and explores the emptiness at the heart of much of American culture?
“You’ll have to ask USA,” Jablonski said when I inquired about the possibility of a second season.
It might seem cheap considering that Jablonski was referring to the network that carries the show, and not the country, but the pun is too perfect to resist.