Never one to turn down a press event with exposed brick walls, lemon cake pops, and men in red sneakers, I spent Wednesday evening an advance screening of USA Network’s new drama Satisfaction. I knew exactly two things about the show beforehand, each of which came from its ‘YOUR AUNT WILL CALL THIS SHOW A GUILTY PLEASURE’ ad campaign: A man jumps into a pool in his suit, and a couple sleeps in a bed with expensive sheets. If you were drawn in by the mystery of what could possibly bring this man to ruin that nice suit, and if you thought it indicated some level of spontaneity in either the character or the show, it didn’t. It was just an ad campaign. If you were drawn in by the expensive sheets, you’re probably the target audience.
Satisfaction is the story of Neil and Grace Truman, who Have It All. We know this because it’s the first thing Neil tells us in his voice-over narration, and Neil knows it because he has a 3D big-screen TV on which to watch SPORT. He’s also got an important job at an investment firm. Grace sometimes stages decor for open house showings. Their daughter, Anika, lives in their house and shares some of their genetic traits (well done, casting team), and she likes writing songs and wearing outfits that I actually believe 16 year olds would wear. That’s about as much as Neil knows; he misses most of the big events in Anika’s life due to his job.
Neil has been doing the same thing every day for the better part of a decade at least, but he wakes up one morning and decides to be monumentally upset about it, and to express his displeasure through a series of public meltdowns. His behavior eventually gets him fired, so he comes home early, only to find Grace having sex with an escort who specializes in married women. Neil is appalled until he winds up with the escort’s phone, at which point his moral objections disappear in favor of having lots of affairs. (He’s just trying to understand his wife, you guys.) Will Neil ever tell Grace that he knows what she’s been up to? Will Grace find out about Neil’s new double life? Will they ever have an actual conversation about the issues between them in their own marriage? What even ARE relationships when there’s TWITTER?
The tables at this screening were decked with stacks of cards that asked questions like, “Do you believe that monogamy is possible?” and, “Is it cheating to text someone else?” As I feasted on classy hors d’oeuvres with Kim and Sage of Head Over Feels, we read through the cards and prepared ourselves to have a lot of words about this show. Satisfaction‘s view of relationship politics is bleak. We’re given no indication that Neil and Grace have ever loved each other. Love isn’t even mentioned in the pilot, and it was equally absent from the panel discussion after the screening, which involved a lot of statistics about how many marriages are failing. As Kim put it at the end of the night, “I would rather DIE ALONE believing in soul mates than face the view of monogamy (or lack thereof) presented in Satisfaction.”
For a show that wants to be about modern relationships, the gender dynamics here could not be more old fashioned. Neil works too much and blames another man’s similar workaholic lifestyle on the “pressure” put on men to succeed as breadwinners. Grace wanted to be an artist in college, and while I’m all for encouraging the pursuit of art, the dream of it has become a stereotype. It’s flat. There’s no drive behind the work; it’s just a convenient way to give a female character a non-threatening ambition. Grace imagined an adventurous life, and now she has a “mom life.” (Best friend at spin class: “Ew.”) Neil also wants a different life, but he doesn’t have a clue how to make change happen. He even goes back to the same job in the end, for reasons that are unclear. Men ARE JOBS, basically. Every man on this show wears suits and can’t imagine life outside the office, with Simon the escort as the only exception. Every woman on this show wears oversize cardigans, goes to spin class, and has affairs; there is no exception, because, you know, women aren’t exceptional.
This show is trying to generalize. It wants to speak for everyone, despite the fact that its characters live a lifestyle attained by only a fraction of the population. Neil has a minimum of three meltdowns about his pool, which is never clean enough because they both ignore it.
This is a world where neighbors compete for the biggest TV screens and where a wife is THE WORST for buying her husband a yellow tie. It’s a world where Neil’s desire to quit his lucrative job is so unimaginable that even he apparently doesn’t believe it, and Grace is a free spirit for taking a spin on her cornflower blue bike to the sound of The Lumineers. Anika gets expelled from her expensive prep school for getting onstage and exposing the affair of two faculty members through song. (It’s by far the best part of the episode, and I propose retooling this show around her, as she might be the only character with enough self-awareness to make it.) It’s a lifestyle that we’re meant to feel is stifling, but the show also seems to believe that it’s the only lifestyle out there. The solution isn’t to quit your job, which Neil can afford to do, or travel, which Neil can also afford to do. The only solution is to have a lot of affairs.
There are merits to protagonists who struggle to make the right changes in their lives, even if the best options are right in front of them, but only if the writers acknowledge that as a flaw. This show has the same blind spot as Neil. It doesn’t consider Neil’s stasis to be his fault, but rather a symptom of this terrible corporate world that we’re ALL stuck in because we ALL need to HIRE A NEW POOL BOY. Satisfaction presents a narrowly privileged, white, straight perspective on the subject of relationships, which is ironic given that the panelists saw it as a show about how many diverse lifestyles couples are choosing today. Just as Kim, Sage, and I were starting to feel like the only people in the audience who had a problem with this, a man raised his hand and made the same complaint. A few people in the room started clapping, so take heart: There’s hope for us yet. Addressing the panel, he acknowledged the validity of the idea that even those seemingly perfect lives come with problems. Everyone has problems. But he also asked why we should want to identify with this family that struggles mainly for more quality time by the pool.
Tracy McMillan, co-producer and relationship expert, responded by explaining that TV is all about wish fulfillment, so apparently everyone watched Breaking Bad to dream about losing all traces of humanity to a meth business, and Orange Is the New Black is such a hit because we all want to be in prison. McMillan suggested that we need characters on TV whom we all want to be, and that Neil and Grace generalize that ideal life, but that implies that being white and straight is the default way to be a person, and I thought we were all past that picket fence.