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.