For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘television

My family recently cut the cord on cable and switched to Roku (thanks to this advice from a friend). As a result, I have been watching some older drama series on Netflix. There are always shows that look intriguing, but come on at an inconvenient time. The first one that hooked me was Eli Stone, which ran for only two seasons (2008-2009). In that show, lawyer Eli Stone develops a brain aneurysm that gives him visions from God. These visions lead him to his next case, usually an unusual opportunity to help an underdog. Now I’m watching Saving Grace, which ran for three seasons (2007-2010) on TNT. Detective Grace Hanadarko is a hard-drinking, cursing, independent cop played by Holly Hunter. For the first season especially, almost every episode features a sex scene between Grace and a long list of partners, both regulars and one-night-stands. Into her life comes a “last-chance angel” named Earl, who wants to offer her redemption and enlist her help in redeeming others.

I am struck by the contrast between these angel-themed shows and the shows of my childhood, like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. Highway to Heaven ran from 1984-1989, with angel Michael Landon and his earthly partner travelling the United States to intervene in people’s lives. They would help, provoke, comfort and encourage people into the right, then move on to the next episode with a completely new set of humans. Touched by an Angel ran from 1994-2003 (alright, not my childhood), and followed the same formula, but with female angels Monica and Tessa.

Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel are notoriously heart-warming. These are the shows that the Hallmark Channel was invented for. While the angels do work with people facing hard human issues like death, divorce, abuse or evil, the angels are always agents of comfort and direction. At the end of the episode, the angels have done their best to help the humans deal with these tough issues, and everything wraps up neatly. Angels are benevolent helpers that offer insight, clarity and instruction in the right course of action. We viewers always saw things from their perspective.

Not so for Eli Stone and Grace Hanadarko. While both of those characters are broken people with broken lives, the angels (or, in Stone’s case, the visions) are anything but clear and instructive. The appearance of the divine in their lives troubles, confuses and mystifies them. Divine intervention is never a full revelation, but a labyrinthine wandering through different clues in search of the meaning of it all, which is never fully revealed. While we (the viewers) receive some gratification from the resolution of their individual police/court cases in each episode, the relationship to the Divine and the meaning of the angels/aneurysms is never fully explained or clarified. We don’t see God’s perspective, only Eli’s or Grace’s. God’s will is a disruptive and mysterious force that haunts their lives, albeit for the better. We are left to wonder about the will of God in ours.

This new perspective is much darker and more uncertain. There is no room for deus ex machina endings, and human characters wrestle with God far more than they obey. In the end, God urges their lives in a certain direction, but seems to offer little concrete aid or support. God is powerless without the partnership of human beings. In one episode of Saving Grace, Grace is held captive, and all her fellow officers are searching for her. Her angel Earl can’t find her either, and summons an “army of angels” to help him search. While there is some indication that the angels leave clues for the humans to find, it’s never clear whether Earl is effective at helping the search or if the officers would have found Grace on their own. Earl cannot protect Grace. Throughout the series, all he offers by way of support or protection is the occasional flash of comforting light from his wings.

Personally, I find this darker, more mysterious version of God’s action and intervention much more in line with my faith and spiritual experience. I’m not sure I believe in angels, and I definitely don’t think they are as benign as Michael Landon and Roma Downey. My parents always watched those older shows, but they just made me roll my eyes. If angels dwell among us, they come to trouble and provoke, not simply to guide and guard. God’s presence in our lives does not simply comfort us through life’s storms—sometimes, it causes a storm, and urges us out into it. God does not just use the gentle and devout. God is more likely to use those like Grace and Eli, wild souls more at home in the bar than the church.

I am still curious about why the shift took place between the older angel shows and the newer ones. What does it mean that popular faith no longer believes in a powerful, interceding God? What does it say about our American attitudes and culture that we believe we are just as effective as God? There is arrogance there, but there is also a recognition of responsibility, that we must engage with God. Why did this shift take place? Are we more comfortable with uncertainty, with unresolved endings? Does it speak to our desire to know God and angels, as long as they don’t impinge upon our choices (good or bad)? Who watches these shows, and what connects with them as viewers?

Addendum: When I wrote this original piece, I was at the end of the second season of Saving Grace. I am now nearing the end of the third and final season, and the show has changed dramatically. Grace seems to have “found the Lord,” and her character has lost its iconoclastic spirit. The show itself has become a lot more like Highway to Heaven in the third season, with characters appearing all over with connections to Earl, and Grace and Earl working together to help them. Real dialogue and story have been replaced by sermon-like speeches where every question has an orthodox answer. Platitudes have replaced probing faith. I’m very disappointed at the triteness of it all.  While I’ll probably go ahead and finish out the last few episodes, I’ve lost the engagement with Grace and the other characters, who are becoming two-dimensional model Christians instead of struggling human beings. (See similar critique here.)

 

Emotional Reunion of Rescued Miner (Photo from cnn.com)

 

I have been captivated by the story of the trapped Chilean miners. I cried when I read about the note reaching the surface 17 days after the collapse of the mine, announcing all 33 were alive and unhurt. I cried again when I read that rescue might not come until Christmas. I rejoiced when the drill broke through, and rescue came early. I am crying again today at the beautiful sight of each one emerging safe and whole into the arms of his family.

The courage, faith and endurance of these men witness to the power and triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of story that should be told and retold for generations as a testimony to hope and survival. I believe that what it means to be human is to possess these kinds of stories and understand our life through them.

 

Capsule Cam capturing the view from the miner's perspective riding up in the rescue capsule.

 

However, I do want to raise a cautionary query. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have been attentive to staging. This story has been presented to the world as though it were not unfolding before us, but as though it were almost already packaged for television and movies. Just today, as I watch the rescue, we are treated to a camera in the mine to capture the send-off from the other trapped miners, a camera in the rescue capsule that shows exactly what the miner is seeing in transit, along with multiple surface cameras to capture the emotions of the waiting families, the work and determination and encouragement of rescue workers and (of course) the presence and involvement of the Chilean president. Each of these cameras has been positioned with a Hollywood director’s care. Someone is directing this show.

 

Trapped Miners

 

The same has been true of the daily briefings and reporting throughout the ordeal. The way that each of the miners has been given a character and identity (the pastor, the musician, the medic, the MacGyver-like mechanic) mimics Hollywood portrayals of disaster and war stories, where nameless and indistinguishable soldiers take on unique archetypal identities. Each day, we get small bits of news unique to each miner, which have obviously been carefully crafted to portray them as courageous, strong and hopeful. This reporting is thanks to the work of three miners, who have been given cameras and sound equipment. One is the official cameraman, the other two are sound engineers. Another miner has been officially named the group poet, writing daily verse about their ordeal and praising rescue workers. (Excellent article here about daily life in the mine.)

Someone is crafting this story, and has been since the very beginning. The narrative of the rescue workers has been meticulously edited to avoid news of major mistakes, and no one is even talking about what caused the collapse in the first place. Here in the U.S., we are always searching first and foremost for someone to blame. This story is all about the hope and courage and ingenuity of the Chilean people.

 

President Sebastian Pinera with the initial note from the miners, holding it up for the cameras.

 

The lead hero of the story is Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. He has been at the forefront of every briefing, and taken the privilege of announcing every breakthrough. Today, as the miners are rescued one by one in that tiny capsule, he stands at the side of the families, second in line to embrace each one—right before the cameras. Having watched him throughout this media moment, I believe he or one of his closest advisors is responsible for the attention to media direction. He or someone close to him foresaw the captivating nature of the story (and, I add, without cynicism,) the political opportunity for Pinera to become a hero by connecting to the miners.

Here’s my ultimate question, however: is this a problem? Does it matter? We could have been exposed to every bit of the mass information and daily doldrums of this 68-day ordeal, or we could have been exposed to very little—just a pool camera at the rescue site. We could have received this information via a raw feed, or carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect. What difference would that make, ethically? Is there a requirement that we receive raw information? What amount of crafting and spin on a story like this one renders it inauthentic or unjust?

 

Picture-Perfect Moment

 

As a professional storyteller (aka preacher), I spend my time every week reading the Bible and trying to figure out how to craft and spin and retell it for dramatic effect, so that it moves the hearts of the listeners and opens them to the Holy Spirit. The Chilean president and his advisors have done the same thing here, except they are attempting to provoke national pride and honor instead of spiritual awakening. We both know that there is a difference between a great story and a great story told by a great storyteller. Is the story any less true because it has been carefully manipulated and told for maximum impact? Or is it an even better story that way?

Stories like that of the Chilean miners captivate us because they are great human stories, in the same way that great human stories of courage and hope have captivated us throughout human history. I praise God today for their rescue, and pray for their healing and peaceful reintegration into their families. And I also ponder these questions about their story and how it is being told. How much has my relationship and emotional response to this story been crafted and directed by storytellers? And how much does that matter? What do you think?

I’ve only seen two episodes, but I am already hooked on the new NBC show Parenthood. At first it was just my love of Lauren Graham and Peter Krause, but now it’s bigger than that.

I realized in the first five minutes that I was exactly the target demographic for the show—an educated, thirty-something parent passionately concerned about my child’s future, filled with anxiety about my ability to balance my work and family life, wanting my child to have the best of everything and fearful of my ability to offer it. The show is even set in Berkeley, where I went to seminary. It’s like someone took an idealized version of what I might like my life to be and turned it into a show.

Except it’s not completely idealized. The writers and actors manage to capture on the screen the anxiety and competitiveness and floundering of contemporary parenting, along with the heart-wrenching love we all feel for our children. Most of the television I watch is an escape from my life. Parenthood hooks me because it draws me toward my life, in all its angst and foolishness and ego and even the beauty and honesty I yearn for.

I watched tonight after a long and exhausting day. Throughout the episode, I felt my tension rise with the tension of the show. Will the child get into the right school? Oh no, she’s having a bad mom moment in public! How can even the best-intentioned parents still blow it sometimes? After a few minutes I considered turning it off, because I feared it would keep me awake and tense about my own life. When a particularly tense and poignant moment broke into a commercial, I expected the show to be over until the next week. It was an ideal cliffhanger—relationships strained, events incomplete, tension intact to hook the viewer for the next episode. But I looked at my watch and there were eight minutes left.

Then I realized what was coming. The same thing as the week before. I thought it was just something for the pilot, but now I see it will likely be a weekly trope. A closing scene with the whole extended family together, enjoying each other’s company, playing or eating or laughing or working together as though their problems have all resolved, or at least been set aside for a temporary reprieve. Showing us, the audience at home, that everything is okay as long as we love each other, no matter how many mistakes we make or how impossibly imperfect life is.

And I cried. Just like I did last week. I cried because I felt all the tension of the show, of my day and of my own family wash away. I cried because it gave me just what I wanted—a camera shot of the whole mess of family and relationships with a wide enough angle to see the big picture of love, and music that makes everything beautiful and whole again.

It’s easy to make those moments happen in the last eight minutes of a television episode. Sometimes those vicarious, created moments can wash over into feelings of peace and contentment in our own lives. It’s much harder to find those moments in real life, but they do happen. The lighting is not perfect, the houses are not designer, the people are not slim and fantastic, but the beauty is even more amazing, and the warmth and laughter and love are real.

And on the days when the real-life moments seem impossible, I’ll take eight minutes of television to remind me.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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