Xander Berkeley is the inscrutable center of “The Booth at the End.”
In the thick of its second season, “The Booth at the End” tosses out a succinct explanation for both its ingratiating success and the challenges of its many wounded characters.
During a spirited back-and-forth with a dissatisfied client, the man in the booth at the end — an inscrutable deal-maker played by a wonderfully weary Xander Berkeley — says, “You’d be surprised what words can do.”
Enigmatic and addictive, “The Booth at the End” is almost nothing but words, equal parts writing and acting — an exercise in storytelling and motivation. Now showing on Hulu after debuting on Canadian television, it is drama pared to its bare essentials. Words precede action, and they’re all that’s left when it’s over.
The Man sits in the far booth of a diner and brokers deals with desperate people. The stakes are high: love, a child’s health, money, immortality. He assigns them a task — sometimes vague, sometimes remarkably detailed — at the completion of which they will get their wish.
How these broken people have come to know about the Man is a mystery, though most seem to know the pass code: “I hear this place serves a great pastrami sandwich.”
“I need to know you’re not the Devil,” says a character in the first episode, a nun who wants to “hear God again.”
“I can’t tell you that,” the Man says.
Part “Faust,” part “Monkey’s Paw,” part “Twilight Zone,” “The Booth at the End” raises trenchant, universal questions, placing each of its characters in the palm of a moral dilemma. Halfway through Season 2, it has been by turns melodrama, theology, polemic, agitprop, mystery and treatise. Through it all, “The Booth at the End” carries the strong whiff of truth.
Set entirely in a diner — a different one for each of its first two seasons — it is a series of meetings between the Man and his clients, or partners. As part of the deal they are required to check in with updates, the details of which he jots down in an antique, leather-bound notebook.
“Do you believe in God?” a client asks the Man.
“I believe in details,” he answers.
Because what would typically be a story’s action all takes place off screen, the viewer — and the Man — is left only with the consequences and, most important, the characters’ reflections.
The Man seems straightforward, in part because, like a therapist, he often answers questions by turning them back on his inquisitor. But he won’t offer up facts of his own volition. And when a nosy waitress corners him, he betrays a hesitance (or inability?) to reveal anything of himself.
But is there anything to reveal? Does he have a plan? Some of the tasks he assigns will overlap. Is he beneficent? When things go well for a client, he smiles. But he also assigns some horrible tasks, telling one woman she must find and torture a lonely woman, and a man that he must kill 22 people in broad daylight.
In a small show of proof, he tells a teenager to help 10 people cross the street.
This dichotomy keeps the big picture at arm’s length; as it is, one supposes, in real life. That the tasks are sometimes related, and sometimes at odds, seems less a convenient coincidence than an example of life’s infinite ecosystem.
Because I’m not finished with the series — it’s currently in its third season, and I’m halfway through the second — I’m not in a position to reveal more and wouldn’t, anyway. “The Booth at the End” is a rare piece of entertainment, a drama that not only challenges us to ask what we really want out of life, but how we might achieve those goals in a world full of other people with dreams of their own.