Saturday, October 14, 2017

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

This past summer a friend posted on Facebook that she was starting a Facebook book reading group to read the book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I was instantly intrigued to get my hands on this book.

It intrigued me because I was in part curious as to what this book would offer, acknowledging ahead of my reading that the church experience in American is rarely multi-cultural, and yet personally I would come up short on offering any true explanation.

Race-issues in the United States continue to be a part of our national conversation, and although this book was published in 2000, I found it a relevant read.

The book is somewhat out of my standard swim lane, for reading. If I read something in the social sciences, it usually is more in the realm of economics (although it's often applied economics, and there is an argument to be made that this is just sociology by another name).

The book is a scholarly text written by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, both university sociologist (at the time at Rice and University of North Carolina; currently at North Park University and Notre Dame).

In the book Emerson and Smith introduce the topic by laying a historical ground work for the race divide in America and the role of the American church, specifically the evangelical sects of the American church. The 30 page second chapter of the book titled "From Separate pews to Separate churches: Evangelical Thought and Practice, 1700 - 1964" is probably worth the cover price alone. This chapter outlines a compelling outline of American history through the lens of the race and the church.

From here the book breaks down the study that the professors performed and their results of many interviews across the United States. While this section of the book was in many ways one of the hardest parts to slog through, it also has in the past weeks of reading inspired the most conversation. Here the authors try to compartmentalize variations and differences in thoughts on race, as well as analyze the variations between white people against conservative protestant as well as strong and moderate evangelicals.

The research is very compelling and it was interesting to hear how people discuss race, whether in conversations I've had with people while reading this book, or as people discuss (privately or publicly such as in radio interviews) recent news events, such as the Charleston, Virginia demonstrations this past summer which sparked an intense national conversation.

The book is interesting in it's research and presentation to demonstrate how white evangelical Christians tend to have a different or religious based understanding of race, and as a result also a unique view on solutions namely one that is more based on inter personal relationships over structural change. From understanding the individual research, the researches further go on to discuss in it's conclusions also the role and sociological construct that leads towards homogeneous church bodies, and even the challenge of church leadership to speak out or breakdown these barriers within their congregations.

I appreciate the book, and was happy to include it in my 12 books in 2017 challenge. Also, enjoyable was to be able to engage on some of these topics through the Facebook group that my friend created, where we could share some of the items we enjoyed as well as some of the items that challenged us. What is a frustrating challenge with this text is that the authors research in conclusion ends with more questions and challenges than solutions. There is no defined policy recommendation or individual charge or action to be taken. Instead the book exposes the complexity of this historical and modern challenge which faces America, and presents a unique layer to how an evangelical perspective creates a variation in views on this topic, solutions on this topic, and potentially impacts progress in the area of racial discrimination and reconciliation in American.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

This is a good one and must recommend it, find a copy, buy a copy and get your hands on this one.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is my 6th book in my 12 books in 2017 challenge.

This book, a memoir of someone who self proclaims himself as unqualified to write a memoir (a man in his 30s who grew up in a poor community in Ohio, with a rocky family life, who joined the marines, went to college, got a degree at an Ivy league school and started a successful career breaking the cycle).

Yet in this humility, there is something powerful in this book that makes it enjoyable, reflective and important. Reading it I can see why this book has been as popular as it has been.

In my early discovery of this book, I saw notations that tied it relevance back to the 2016 election, not in impacting the election in any way, but instead crafting a narrative to "understand Trump's win." Frankly, reading this book to "understand Trump's win" is not compelling reason why I'd recommend this book -- this book to me, has very little to nothing to do about this past election.

Alternatively, this is simply a touching, thought provoking and well written book on many fronts. If the American story is one of understand the American dream and how that does (and does not) play out in society, this book fits right into that narrative and certainly may hold a place in the American cannon for the story it tells.

The book is rich in the sense that the story builds and every chapter is it's own interesting ecosystem in the way that Vance builds out his own story and lessons along the way. The build up is largely chronological, but also ends up being topical. Topics naturally range from things of family life, public education, university education, welfare, child protective services, substance abuse, childhood trauma, career opportunities and faith.

There are striking "characters" (albeit very real people), whether that be the cast of men in this book (especially his Papaw and biological father), or the women (his older sister, mother, and Mamaw). To me, the star "character" of this story who is told with such richness is that of his maternal grandmother, Mamaw. Mamaw is obviously an important character in not only J.D.'s life, but also in the various stages of his life. No character, as portrayed here, is more crass than Mamaw but she's also complex and the way her story unfolds through the eyes of her grandson's story is quite beautiful and reflective.

The topics here interconnected in Vance's story are complicated and in my opinion Vance does not make any far reaching attempts to over simplify the scenario of the rural working poor, instead delivers his own story with a sensitivity and openness to the challenges and future for this part of our cultural fabric.

In reading this book, I found myself in many context, whether hearing others talk or reading a news story that this book caused be pause to reconsider my position and thoughts -- not necessarily because this book proposes something so radical but presents a world that frankly I no so little about, and ought to take the chance to better understand.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nurtured by Love

The 12 Books in 2017 reading challenge continues with book #5. My book selection was Nurtured by Love by Shinichi Suzuki.

Suzuki is known for his violin training program ("Suzuki Method" or "Talent Education") which involves teaching young children, often before they can read how to play violin.

Suzuki's premise in his method, and outlined here is that children learn how to speak a complicated language (Japanese) through exposure to the language consistently from a young age.

The book (translated from Japanese) reads like a combination of often stream of conscious essays that share the details of his own life, his philosophy on "Talent Education," and how he arived as this philosophy.

Regarding his personal life, many parts read like a memoir, and to me the part that was most interesting was to read about his encounters with Einstein. The thought of these two men interacting together is alone quite fascinating. It was interesting to hear about his family and the impact of economic crisis in the early part of the 1900s impacting the trajecory of the families business.

His philosophy presented here extend far beyond violin. By far, the part that is most striking is a section of the book that talked about views towards kindness and learning about others (such as during his time riding the train) as well as how he spent time trying to learn from the innocence of four-year-old children.

 For the disjointed nature of the book (and sections that honestly, albeit short sort of lost my interest) I really enjoyed reading a book from such an influential voice of the previous century.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Memoirs of A Polar Bear

The 12 books in 2017 challenge continues with book #4 (falling slightly behind pace). My book selection was 2016 fictional book Memoirs of A Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada (translated from German by Susan Bernofsky).

This book is an interesting one. In many ways it's almost like a collection of three interconnected short stories, and because of it's writing style, symbolism and allegorical style probably has a number of unique interpretations.

On the surface, the story is about three generations of Polar Bears, with each part of the book reflecting the story of one of the polar bears written from their perspective.

And here's the thing, when I say written from their perspective, I have no idea what I'm really saying because it's not even entirely from their perspective. It's somewhat of a metaphysical world.

Here's a "for example," the first part of the book becomes a famous writer telling her own story of growing up in the harsh conditions of soviet Russia, and eventually getting rescued when the soviets begin discriminating against artists and writers and she is able to escape to Germany where she live in a small apartment and is given a stipend for writing.

And in a way, this crazy first part is the most abstract where the world of humans and animals morph in almost an animated-style Zootopia world (or perhaps Tawada is shooting more for Animal Farm).

Part two and three are different. Two has more of a lucid and poetic tone and as the longest of the three parts sort of lost me a few times. The writing is poetic and lovely but is by far the least narrative and looses that bizarre tone and style that made the first part captivating.

And finally, Part Three. In the interest of protecting future readers from too much detail, it seems that the book doesn't shy away from rooting itself in an adaptive telling of the story of Knut, a famous German polar bear who was rejected by it's mother and bottle fed by a human. This part is for the most part the most narrative, as if a project was to write the story of Knut from the perspective of Knut.

Having not been aware of Knut's story, this was interesting and this last connection to the real world kept me engaged and fighting to finish this to the end.

The curious telling of this story is simply intriguing so at times when it didn't fully captivate me, I was still compelled to see what Tawada would do next and where this was all going.

Will probably not look at a polar bear the same again, and perhaps this even changes the way I would see a circus or zoo experience as well, regardless of the animal.

I can't say I walked away saying "this is for everyone" but was an adventurous read.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Kindness Diaries

One of the most intriguing shows I have watched in some time was the surprisingly enjoyable mini-series called The Kindness Diaries on Netflix.

The 13 episode sereries (most episodes around 20 minutes long) feature Leon Legothetis as he attempts to travel the world, beginning in Los Angeles relying on the kindness of others.

Legothetis will not accept money, but he does need others to provide him some important items for his trip namely food, a place to sleep, and gas to keep his motorcycle ("Kindness One") fueled up for the journey.

Past travel show, part reality show with touching sub-plots, and part expose on the human experience, this is all quite good.

Legothetis' agenda is to display an intimate micro-view on kindness, while also in his travels seek out especially kind people and bless them by meeting their needs or desire (note, I think all but two episodes made me tear up).

While this film is not overtly about faith, faith places a large role. It is not suprising to me, especially on the early leg of his American journey (as well as part of his Asian experience) does faith play a role in the people who reach out and offer kindness.

I told my wife as we watched it that many episodes reminded me of the Bible passage that reads "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). I often walked away from an episode thinking that the show could had easily been called Entertaining Angels.

 A number of topics have come up in our household after watching this show, such as discussions about what keeps us from letting strangers into our lives, whether we'd let a stranger spend the night at our house if someone on the street asked, and the level and value of kindness we put in our own lives and in raising up our children.

Another topic that comes up in the show is travel. This show takes viewers to some common and uncommon places on the globe and some of cities that would not normally rate in my travel dreams seem absolutely charming and travel worthy, such as Kosovo.

The other thing that is kind of fun about this film is that Legothetis' in this film (and apparently in his real life story from business success to philanthropic bullhorn) is the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which is a fantastic film and one of my favorite films from last decade.

The Kindness Diaries isn't one of those pop cultural phenomon's that everyone's talking about, but it's an enjoyable series that I wish we were all talking about. There's certainly a number of meaningful conversations here, and conversations certainly worth having in our society today.

Monday, April 17, 2017

One Episode From the Finale - West Wing - Almost 11 Years Late

Look at those baby faces.

The year in 1999 and The West Wing came on the air. I didn't watch it.

Now it's 2017 and my wife and I (I didn't have a wife when the show first aired, and was married less than a year when the finale aired) are watching the show and after dedicating many hours over a little over a year, we are one episode a way from the finale.

Even those baby faces in the picture from season 1 aged over the series seven season run.

The show is truly enjoyable, created an era that was not designed for binge watching, but rather weekly serial watching the show still plays well back-to-back. Anyone who's obsessed will tell you that the best seasons are the first 4 when Aaron Sorkin was at the helm. And then...well...Season 5. It's a little rough and then by season 6-7 picks up into something different, but also very enjoyable as the characters are recaptured with strong foils and story lines.

In watching this show, it works well as a time capsule as well. The ideas that are discussed, while one could argue have a Hollywood/NBC liberal bent are not too extreme considering that the White House portrayed is a democratic White House. Instead, discussions capture topics that are still part of a political conversation, everything from the mundane (should we have pennies) to profound (what's the role of the court in privacy law). And as things have in some cases changed, the general story lines have remained the same.

Speaking of time capsules, this was a time period where the internet changed and technology. Watching the role of phones and computers alone is intriguing -- and even now has changed so much more.

In the vein of time capsules, the series is interesting as well because you have a parallel world on the small screen while some big events were happening in the real world, the most obvious mention is September 11, 2001. It's clear that this event was not anticipated and as the world changed the issues on the show had to catch up -- and while it took a little time, plot lines that did not involve terrorism eventually were introduced, but in many ways still minimized from what was surely the question of how does the show present this parallel world.

But more important that presenting political issues of the time, I found the show interesting in the way that it presents the Washington DC beltway. It's clear in this show that power is a finite resource and while most are intrested in advancing their view of common good it's all incremental with each people and role holding on to the power that they have available.

The magic in this show is really the writing. This show earns it's respect for witty fast paced dialogue -- especially when it involves Sorkin's trademark "walk and talk." I also look for and greatly respect the walk and talk in an episode, and even in the post-Sorkin episodes was sad to see people talking in offices, or cut aways that could have had compelling transitions as we see in early seasons.

The characters are good, and the cast -- like many shows transitions in some positive and not so positive ways in various seasons, but in many ways the best characters in this shows seem great because we trully believe them and they are written in a way that has good continuity so that we can see them develop and change.

I could easily try to call out this or that character as a best-of character, but in many ways the highly praised show received it's credit with a handful of awards and nominations, particularly acting awards and nearly all are well deserved (although the occasional celebrity cameo (Matthew Perry) falls out of place, other cameo's by celebrities come before people were stars and are true delights (Amy Adams).

Many episodes my wife and I would try to discuss which character we are most like, wish we were most like, which job we'd love, which job we'd hate, which job we could never do, and the discussions continue. After seeing C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), and for that matter Toby (Richard Schiff) and Will (Joshua Milana) in the press room I will never see the press room the same -- that is a special and horrible place on earth I'd never want to stand.

And of the presidency...the American presidency is unfathomable and whether this is a genuine view or a romance, it is no more real or imaginable how one person, with an expensive staff could not only perform the duties of president, but also manage any iota of family life is unimaginable. Throw in the complexities of the first 100 days, the mid term elections, running for a second term and lame duck sessions and you realize that America has a very special and inefficient little machine that's been created -- with complexities never imagined by the founding fathers (security or a press core flying on Air Force One).

So, nearly 11 years after the original finale, it's sad to see these people go (who already left), and at the same time the stories of a presidency and the people in the West Wing could only be stretched out in a contrived way, and so in wrapping up, it's the end, and end of parallel universe era of the past that is delightful to watch, even though more actual election cycles have come and gone. Farwell president Josiah Bartlet.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Watching The Waldo Moment after the Trump Moment

As far as episodes go in the Black Mirror "The Waldo Moment" is not one of my favorites, but yet one of the most noteworthy in the series.

The episode premises is that a late night interview stunt in the form of a blue cartoon bear interviews political candidates in an aggressive and challenging way. The bear, Waldo, is population and the stunt continues when they pretend that the bear is going to run for office.

The episode has come up since the Trump nomination and election win in the United States as being it's own "Waldo Moment," especially during campaigns when it seemed that what Trump did or said in any other reality would have made him a toxic candidate.

I watched this episode after Trump was elected and found it interesting to look back at articles, like "Donald Trump's Troll Game of Jeb Bush: A+" from the Washington Post referencing this episode.

It's interesting that one of the main things this series explores is the role of social media and the dissonance between who we are and what we present online then plays out in politics or other life sectors. In "Nosedive" we see online pandering presenting ourselves as more flattering or in "Shut Up and Dance" we see the secret side of the online world leading to extreme consequences. In a more collective way in "The National Anthem" we see group think taken to extremes online turning to forced political pressures, but here in "The Waldo Moment" we see secret attitudes (say online trolling or hatred such as in "Hated in the Nation") manifest itself in acceptance. Acceptance of a candidate who is not that far off from things that are surprisingly accepted in our comedy and social media.

This is troubling. That comedy and online social media could allow us to accept certain things generations past would not, and suddenlty we have the ability to move on and appreciate someone from being "a straight shooter" or a "normal person." Or perhaps we don't accept these aspects of a person's character but see other virtues and quickly move on.

"The Waldo Moment" seems to identify this shift well ahead of it's time in a way that certainly has some unique similarities to feelings or actions taken in the last American election. In many ways the populist movement we see in many places seems to say "we're not happy so take this" in the selection or acceptance of a strong candidate who might not have the pedigree of past commonly accepted criteria.

Read other posts about Black Mirror on StrangeCultureBlog. See the post "Black Mirror Week" for other related post. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Mirror - Some Episode's Grow On You, Be Right Back

Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson in the Series 2 premier of Black Mirror, "Be Right Back"
Note: Post Contains Episode Spoilers

Some episodes of Black Mirror are absolutely captivating start to finish, with a great mix of mystery, strong writing and exceptional story delivery. Other episodes leave you with udder shock with a final intriguing twist. And then, there are episodes like "Be Right Back," the premier episode of the second series.

This episode is in many ways more sparse than other episodes. The tone is soft and somber, and generally less shocking, and only lightly mysterious. The story deals with a woman who's husband dies and she is left alone until a friend introduces her to a technology that will allow her to connect with a simulated version of her husband based on a collection of his online footprint.

This episode is one that upon watching it I was surprised to find how often I thought about it after seeing it. The episode grew richer the longer I had waked away from it. There were certain aspects of this episode that were quite interesting in that the replicated husband was close, but not close enough.

Obviously, there has been plenty said about the dissidence between our online self and our actual self,but this episode was not preachy, it had the perfect simple man, Ash (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who wasn't presenting himself on social media as anything dramatically different from his actual self and so the similarity that was able to be established was very very close, just not quite an exact replica.

Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker could have gone for broke with a dramatic revelation that Ash was someone that his wife didn't know, or gone from some horrific twist, but the Brooker went for understated and sincere. As a result the differences between a replicated Ash and the real Ash are simple items.

Brooker's premise in this episode is not that we should present a true version of ourselves, for example one of the items that replicated Ash does not know about the real Ash is sexually intimate details. This is not presented as a criticism but as a simple gap that would be expected in this type of fantasy technology.

 As such, this episode doesn't just make you ask about your own gaps in your online and real self (and those around you), but also makes you asks which parts of yourself are okay to be left to real life. The episode also asks the question if you were to die what do you leave behind to your loved one's in your own online foot print -- a very new question, only barely discussed and explored.

Brooker writes a heartfelt episode in "Be Right Back" that asks some very real questions, questions worth lingering on, and in the case of this episode my appreciation for it grew only after concluding the episode.

This posts is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangecultureBlog.com. Click here to see the other posts part of this series. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Themes of Sex in Black Mirror

Daniel Kaluuya in "Fifteen Million Merits" (Black Mirror Season 1, Episode 2)
One of the things that keeps me apprehensive about recommending Black Mirror to people on teh streets is the sexual themes that are common in the series.

The episodes often have themes that deal with sex, but the themes are rarely presented in a sexual way (i.e. included because "sex sells), rather they are typically an important part of the story and deal with themes of sexual exploitation or the negative role of technology to unnaturally deliver sexual stimulus to a negative end.

Without spoiling the episode, Fifteen Million Merits, by far one of the most futuristic feeling episodes presents an alternative dystopian world where part of mind numbing tools used on people is pornography and as part of it's story telling a central character is manipulated in a way that leads to further exploitation of a sexual nature.

Many of the time, these topics appear as part of the hidden side of the internet, which is a key part of "Shut Up and Dance" (Season 3) which involves internet usage for less than wholesome things leading people to be placed an exploitable position. Where an episode like this shows people using technology on their free will, other episode such as "Men Against Fire" (Season 3) have military members being exploited by creating false sexual realities as part of the way there minds are used to exploit them and present false realities.

When I think about the comparison of Black Mirror to the The Twilight Zone this is one of the key differences -- in some ways, I chalk it up to edginess that is created in Black Mirror that reflects the producers desire to be shocking, but on the other hand this is also part of the modern technological dilemmas presented. It seems that every new technology ends up having a risk for sexual use, which we talk about at time, particularly when we talk about risk for raising children and providing them technology. But on the other hand, it's not just children -- it's a societal risk that has been introduced that is changing not only our social sensitivities ("The National Anthem," Season 1) and creates not only immoral opportunities but new criminal opportunities ("White Christmas," 2014 special).

There's certainly items all throughout the Black Mirror episodes that warrant discussion, often because of the way they make us feel uncomfortable in the vieiwing, and the topics that flow from Sexual Themes are no exception.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Black Mirror - A Window To The Future or Satire, A Discussion on Nosedive

Alice Eve as Naomi and Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie in "Nosedive" (Black Mirror Season 3, Episode 1)
Certain episode of Black Mirror seem to fall into the "lighter" category - probably as much because of their stylistic elements and production style, as opposed to their content, "Nosedive" is a stand out in this lighter style. Where certainly episodes like "The Waldo Moment"  or "San Junipero" fall into these categories, "Nosedive" over delivers with a a bubbly Bryce Dallas Howard who is taking cutesy pictures of her lattes and childhood stuffed animals as a tool to compel people to rate her highly online.

Where many episodes begin and you wonder "what in the world is going on here?" this episode that opens series 3 is not nearly as mysterious -- the question is "where is this going?" and give you an hour to ponder the consequences of a society based on the star rating of others (imagine Yelp and Instagram coming together to make a disastrous act where star rating controlled every single part of life).

In this "Nosedive," directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) there may be a little bit of that "this could happen" feeling, but in more ways it comes across as pure satire. This is the only episode of the series my wife joined me in watching and after we watched we both had reflections the following day of odd elevator interactions and made jokes throughout the week of how we would rate others (and how they would rate us) after various interactions.

An episode like "Nosedive" isn't a stand alone for instant reflection, but is certainly one that connects in daily life. Certain people certainly care more about their "like count," "fried count," or "follower count" on various social media platforms. Sure, the thoughts are not to far off in this regard (we live in a world where there are professional instagrammers), but on the flip side your social network profile doesn't impact your ability to get a first class seat on an airplane or entrance into a resort.

That said, there are going to be certain circles where people care about your "counts" in these networks a way that didn't exist a decade ago. I have heard people talk about concerns or thoughts on their connection count on sites like LinkedIn, or if you are a motivational speaker or local business or anyone who tries to generate their own grass roots brand certainly hasn't to be tuned into this space.

I have to think that Office and Parks & Recreation alumni Michael Schur and Rashida Jones (and Harvard grads) in writing this episode wanted to present this as comic parody of how we live today more than a fearful presentation of a future possibility.

Episodes like "Nosedive" that create a slightly changed world certainly raise questions unanswered by the episode -- for me, questions from this universe included when does a child begin rating others and start being rated? What industry is maintaining this rating system and preventing hacks or corruption? Is this a global program or defined by certain jurisdictions?

Schur and Jones would probably tell me "stop thinking so hard, enjoy it for what it is." And with that, I will.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Black Mirror: Top 10 Female Roles in Series 3

The casting in Black Mirror is fantastic, but in the third series/season (Netflix, series 3) the casting is somewhat different and at the same time features some tremendous female performances.

For starters, the casting is, well, less British (although casting is quite diverse), and second while every episode is not female-centric, the female characters in the third series get some meaty and interesting roles and really shine.

Below is a rank list of notable call outs in series 3 -- five as leading females in the episode and five in more cameo/supporting roles.

Top 5 Female Episode Leads, Series 3

1. Kelly Macdonald, Hated in the Nation (Ep 3. 6)

2. Mackenzie Davis, San Junipero (Ep 3. 4)

3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, San Junipero (Ep 3. 4)

4. Bryce Dallas Howard, Nosedive (Ep 3.1)

5. Faye Marsay, Hated in the Nation (Ep 3. 6)

Top 5 Female Episode Supporting Roles, Series 3

1. Wunmi Mosaku, Playtest (Ep 3.2)

2. Cherry Jones, Nosedive (Ep 3.1)

3. Hannah John-Kamen, Playtest (Ep 3.2)

4. Madeline Brewer, Men Against Fire (Ep 3.5)

5. Sarah Snook, Men Against Fire (Ep 3.5)

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Black Mirror, Series 1 - Well Hello There Downton Abbey and Favorite Masterpiece Friends

Allen Leech in a minor role is the first Black Mirror episode "The National Anthem"
"Whoa, it's Tom from Downton Abbey."

"Wait, that's Mr. Grove from Mr. Selfridge."

Part of the pleasure in the first episodes of Black Mirror (as an American viewer who enjoys some PBS Materpiece as a way to catch some of BBC's shows), and in Episode 1 "The National Anthem" two recognizable faces from Masterpiece show up in small roles. Allen Leech (Tom from Downton Abbey) and Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove from Mr. Selfridge) show up.

And then episode 2 begins and the fictional wife of Downton's Tom, Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Cybil Crawley) plays a staring role in "Fifteen Million Merits."

Jessica Brown Findlay in "Fifteen Million Merits"
I realize to some the casting revelation is not that big of a deal, but on this side of the pond the cross pollination is pure delight...sure I recognized other characters in these episodes as well (Such as Rupert Everett who plays the judge of a singing competion in this second episode as well) but something about the "Masterpiece Theatre Crew" was certainly exciting...surely this trend couldn't continue.

It does.

Episode 3 "The Entire History of You" you see a dinner party that includes a number of serial-british TV cast members reuniting. Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey's Anthony Gillingham), Amy Beth Hayes (Mr. Selfridge's Kitty Hawkins) and Jodie Whitaker (Broadchurch's Beth Latimer).
Tom Cullen in "The Entire History of You" 
And the Downton and Masterpiece connections (to me, on this side of the pond, mind you) seem to end here. These episodes through all three series/seasons are cast well, but it certainly is fun in this earlier phase to see some of these favorite characters appear outside of the role I was most accustomed.

Note to Black Mirror casters, I'd love to see Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockerty, Jim Carter or Joanne Froggarty make an appearance in future episodes.

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Black Mirror - The Power of the Not So Distant Future

From Black Mirror Series 1 Episode 1 "The National Anthem"
In the first episode of Black Mirror, "The National Anthem" this show, known for it's science fiction and technology bent isn't beaming up light years into the future. There are no aliens. There is no mysterious unknown future technology. There is no medical innovation.

No, there is YouTube, Twitter, and cable news.

This episode begins with a kidnap and a ransom video in which the Prime Minister is specifically called out in to perform a bizarre sex act,

From there the story takes some unique turns that while absolutely outrageous in some regards are also incrementally believable.

This episode is one that is hard to place in the rating of the episodes (ranked 10 o 13 on my list) because in many ways it lacks some of thsoe compelling factors that make some of the other episodes so great, and in many ways is a little painful to watch at points -- yet, conceptually where this episode has the most power, and really sets the town for the series is that it's all somehow believable.

This episode, like many of the others leaves the viewer with the sense that this could happen, and maybe some time in the not too distant future.

In terms of episodes, and there reliance on technology, some episodes rely on some social change and technology changes (the furthest reaching in my opinion is incidentally the second episode of the series "Fifteen Million Merits") while many episodes are like this one -- it could happen, well, basically today (much like "Shut Up and Dance").

And while the nearer future episodes may lack some of the intrigue of these rendering of the future, in many ways the closest of these types of potential moments and uses of existing technology are striking.

I mention "Shut Up and Dance" as a similar episode from series 3 that uses technological tools that are readily available (computer viruses, cell phones, GPS trackers) to tell a story that could be stolen from tomorrow's news.

From Series 3 episode "Shut Up and Dance." Text messages read "KEEP LOCATION SERVICES ON | KEEP PHONE ON AND CHARGED | wHEN TIME COME'S YOU WILL BE ACTIVATED")
And for even those stories that rely on future technologies that do not exist the concepts themselves are some how believable, the episodes help bridge the gap to explain how these technologies, with all their unintended consequences, might come to be -- often with multiple purposes, including purposes that can be exploited.

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here.

Black Mirror - Rankings of the First 13 Episodes

John Hamm as Matt in the Black Mirror Special "White Christmas"
Originally aired December 16, 2014
Ranking the first 13 Episodes of Black Mirror is easy in the sense that they are all stand alone episodes and some of them are just easy to call out as fantastic.

On the other hand, establishing a criteria to rank an episode is tricky. There are some episodes which are more enjoyable while watching them - often in the way they grab you and keep you hooked (or guessing), while other episodes might be a little more painful to watch but by the time the episode resolves has you reflecting on what you just watched for days.

I've tried to marry the enjoyment and lingering thoughtfulness factor in my rankings below.

And then, there's the unfair advantage of some episodes being well, longer - and in the case of Black Mirror, both episodes that tip towards feature length at 90 or so minutes are two of the best.

Here's my rankings, feel free to suggest that I have it all wrong.

1. "White Christmas" (2.4)
2. "Hated in the Nation" (3.6)
3. "San Junipero" (3.4)
4. "Be Right Back" (2.1)
5. "White Bear" (2.2)
6. "Nosedive" (3.1)
7. "The Entire History of You" (1.3)
8. "Shut Up and Dance" (3.3)
9. "Fifteen Million Merits" (1.2)
10. "The National Anthem" (1.1)
11. "Men Against Fire" (3.5)
12. "The Waldo Moment" (2.3)
13. "Playtest" (3.2)

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here