When a marriage is in trouble, what should a couple do? Two new series pose very different solutions, neither of which is particularly promising. USA’s “Satisfaction” gives us a couple who dabble in the world of prostitution — she as a customer, he as an escort. They make big changes, however ill-advised. FX’s “Married” opts for a couple who ultimately do nothing except settle for mediocrity and continue to complain.
Yes, prostitution first. “Satisfaction,” which premieres Thursday night at 10, is the better show, as it works to look closely at marital drift and middle-life despair. It’s on USA, home of the light drama with series such as “Royal Pains,” but it nonetheless dives into some of the more uncomfortable sides of human nature and monogamy.
After 18 years of marriage, Neil and Grace Truman are at a crossroads. Grace (Stephanie Szostak) is having a hard time finding work, after staying at home to raise their now-teenage daughter. She’s unsatisfied with her life, tired of her book club. Meanwhile, Neil (Matt Passmore from “The Glades”) hates his all-consuming job as a moneyman, and he hates having missed out on most of his daughter’s youth. In a poorly chosen metaphor that begs for comparison with “The Sopranos,” Neil begins to spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the backyard pool like Tony Soprano, grieving wasted time.
Over the course of a few dramatic scenes, including a temper tantrum on a delayed airplane, Neil begins to break good, and it’s hard not to root for him as he makes a surprise visit to Anika‘s talent contest. He’s ready to repair his family life. And then he sees Grace having sex with a man who turns out to be an escort, and his world begins to spin even more precariously. He doesn’t confront Grace, but through a few forced plot maneuvers, he winds up becoming an escort himself, partly as revenge, partly in an effort to try something new. It’s all far-fetched; “Hung” tried a similar conceit and also struggled with making it all seem even vaguely realistic.
Wisely, show creator Sean Jablonski does not cast blame on either of the Trumans for their marital mess. That makes the characters more interesting and sympathetic, rather than merely a victim and an offender. I kept wanting to know more about Neil and Grace — who they are outside of their dissatisfaction. But maybe that’s Jablonski’s point — they have become numbed-out and hollow and need to find new selves. Or maybe we will see more facets of their characters as the show progresses, although earned character development and depth is one of the hardest challenges facing any TV writer.
I’m thinking we probably won’t see many facets of the couple in “Married,” which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. “Married” is a comedy, so character development is a little less essential; but still, Russ and Lina are little more than your typically bored married TV couple and parents of three who rarely have sex (forcing him to take matters into his own hands). In the course of four episodes, this stasis and staleness doesn’t change. Yes, Russ is played by the hyperactive Nat Faxon, who has perfected the role of the grown-up boy. And Lina is played by the always likable Judy Greer, so that Lina’s cool affect isn’t off-putting. They are easy to take.
But the material is wooden, lacking the kind of deft writing that would push the premise beyond sitcom cliché and make the characters more engaging. Show creator Andrew Gurland tries to add some racy fun with a few super quirky supporting players, but they only feel tacked on and forced. Jenny Slate is Jess, Russ’s best friend, who loves to party and probably belongs on “Californication.” Brett Gelman is AJ, whose intensely morbid personality is supposed to be funny and, possibly, endearing. The night he draws Russ into a party with hookers is a tonal disaster — it tries to be funny and poignant, but instead drowns in unintended pathos and creepiness.
Perhaps Gurland will find a way to make the marital distress on “Married” both more humorous and more affecting, giving us a reason to care about Russ and Lina. They need something to change, and so do we.
Starring: Matt Passmore, Stephanie Szostak,
Blair Redford, Katherine LaNasa, Michelle DeShon
Time: Thursday night, 10-11
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.