Tag Archives: TV

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Dear White People, I’mma Need You to See This Movie

DWP1One of the great ironies of Justin Simien’s masterful directorial debut, Dear White People, which released in theaters nationwide this last weekend, is that although it’s aimed at white people, it’s not about white people.

And just now as I was writing, I was tempted to use another, less weaponized-sounding verb, but truly, “aimed” is the right choice, because Dear White People is relentless in its depiction of white people as alternately clueless, ambivalent or calculatingly sinister regarding the racial issues on display at fictional ivy-league school Winchester University. And I mean that as a compliment.

In ways both obvious and subtle, it makes Big Important Pronouncements about race, and then uses those pronouncements both as occasional comedic sketch premises, but also as plot devices to flesh out the emotional development of its main characters, all of whom are either black or biracial. The combination of the two, the thematic heavy-handedness modulated by a playful tone of nimble vignettes with varying emotional intensity… it’s quite a balancing act to pull off, akin to performing surgery with a shotgun.

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Media fasting: an explanation, a decision… a lifestyle?


For the last few weeks, I’ve been perilously close to a state of crisis, emotionally speaking. A series of conditions surrounding my life, some of them I’ve spoken about, and many too private to blog about (yes, such things still exist in my world) have contributed to my being short-tempered, overly volatile, and generally living without much faith or hope. Which is a sad state for any human being, much less a worship-leading professional Christian like myself.

So I took a step recently, one which seemed rather drastic at first, but by the time I finished I wondered why it had taken me so long to try it.

I went on a media fast.

Three days without any television, radio, movies, video games, or non-essential internet usage (email mostly).

Now I realize that the true Biblical standard of fasting is to go without food, and so there are some who might read this and scoff. Going without food is a much more serious act of denial, a particularly visceral kind of longing that has especially transformational effects, the most profound of which have been discussed by many people more knowledgable than I.

But considering that, for awhile now, I’ve put much more thought, energy, and intentionality into the various forms of media that I consume than the food that I eat, I thought this move would suit me well, that is, if I had the cojones to actually try it. If nothing else, it would help me to slow down and pay attention to what I’m eating, since half the time I’m eating while I’m reading/watching/listening/playing.

(Not that I’m bragging about this… I want you to hear my heart here… this is definitely not something I’m proud of, but I realized I had a problem when I found myself wolfing down spoonfuls of cereal during a round of Halo 3. And doing pretty well, actually.)

I chose an interval of three days, because, well, it sounded sorta spiritual and my mentor Dan said three days sounded good. And I have to say, that the hardest part was that first Monday morning, when I got off the pillow, went downstairs to fix Holly some tea, and sat down to check my email.

And that was it. No checking headlines at the Tribune. No TrueHoop. No Slate.

Nothing but me and the Lord.

I read the daily Scripture email that comes into my inbox, which took me to the book of Isaiah. I read that verse, and the accompanying chapter, and then I just sat and thought for awhile. Which is not new, of course.

What was new was that I was aware of my thoughts. I could, for the first time in awhile, actually hear myself thinking.

And it made it much easier to pray, because then all I was doing was redirecting those thoughts toward God in prayer.

Now, I take no pride in my prayer life. Not that I don’t pray a lot — I pray all the time. It’s just that my prayer life sucks, because most of the time I’m only thinking of myself. If somehow my everyday, sitting-at-the-computer, laying-on-my-bed, behind-the-wheel prayers were to be recorded, I would be ashamed to play them back, because they would mostly consist of halfhearted commitments, worrying, complaining, and self-centered requests.

The good thing about removing all of the mental noise from my life is that I can actually listen to myself pray. And that is motivating, because the more I do it, the more I can hear how pathetic I sound, and then the more I can instead choose to focus on God and His glory, His plan, His desire for my day.

Now that I’m off of my media fast, I’ve sort of gorged myself. NBA Finals Game 4 last night, Ed Norton in The Incredible Hulk this afternoon, and a rousing round of Halo 3 with friends tonight. I hope I’m not overdoing it, I’m just taking the time to do things that I enjoy with people that I enjoy hanging with (the homies at church, my brother Jomo, and my buddy John, respectively).

Which brings me to another benefit of media fasting… it helps me to prioritize my media consumption, which helps me to differentiate between things that are Truly Important and things that are just Distractions. Which is tricky, because often things that are generally important (paying bills online, listening to gospel music, staying up on local and national news) can distract me from the thing that God may want me to do in the moment.

But not only that, sometimes I get distracted from things that are actually fun and enjoyable just because something else popped up in front of me and it’s taking up my attention. So there’s something good about being able to know that on a Sunday evening I can watch a movie or I can play a video game, but chances are I won’t be able to do both. Whichever one is more appealing and/or important to me, I’ll do — and the other one I’ll also get to do — later.

It’s called delayed gratification, folks. And right now I’m not so good at it.

But if I keep this up, hopefully I will be. Which is what I’m planning to do. I’m going to do it again next week. And maybe the week after that, I don’t know.

I’m hoping that eventually this will become part of my life rhythm. Some days it’s okay to get swept away in fantastic action sequences and heartrending drama. On the other hand, some days you just gotta embrace the real life that’s happening right in front of you.

And if fasting from food can be even more beneficial, then I should try it. I was about to type, “I can’t wait to try it” but then I remembered — fasting means you don’t eat.

Yeah, so it might be awhile before I’m ready to do that.

Umm… I mean… not my will, Lord, but thine.

Don’t take the cup from me just yet, God.

Especially if it has a smoothie in it.

I’m just sayin.’

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Cable-access commencement: Snore no more!


So I’m flipping channels at my sister’s house last night, after I helped move her TV across the room. Since I don’t have cable TV at home — which is a good thing, more or less — whenever I can watch it at someone else’s home, it’s always a slightly foreign experience.

(This probably deserves its own post, because there’s this whole mini culture war going on surrounding TV that I find fascinating… you have, as Christian Lander observes, a lot of people who love not having a TV, trying to spread the gospel of turn-off-the-TV-once-in-awhile-it-rots-yer-brains, while plenty of others find so much meaning and personal significance in the television they watch — or at least love cracking wise about it.)

Anyway, I watched the last ten minutes of a “Becker” episode … which was the first time I had ever watched “Becker” … pretty standard sitcommy stuff. Just enough to realize that I wasn’t missing much.

Some interesting commercials… including a mildly patronizing commercial about how men should ostensibly be rewarded with Klondike bars for not being insensitive oafs. I’m calling it mildly patronizing now, but I must admit… I did laugh. (This one is also amusing.)

But the thing that held my attention the longest was a local public cable broadcast of the Cleveland High School commencement ceremony.

It had the look of a the typical high school graduation exercise. Flowing robes, academic regalia, flash bulbs popping, and a range of facial expressions adorning the graduates, from beaming smiles to awkward grimaces.

But the sound of this particular ceremony was different. Because whichever school administrator had been tabbed to announce the names had clearly not gotten the memo.

Which memo?

You know, the one that gets circulated every year around this time, where cautious parents and school officials attempt to prevent overzealous family members from going over the top in celebrating their loved one’s achievement. It may be in the form of a letter going out to parents, or it could be in the form of an editorial by a local columnist (such as this blog post from Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune).

I find that what underlines much of this sentiment are the underlying assumptions that graduations have traditionally been solemn affairs and that anything that people do to pierce the air of gravitas is disrespectful and causes the event to take much longer than it should.

This strikes me as being a cultural issue. I don’t just mean of ethnic culture, but of the shifting priorities and values that are taking place in our broader popular American culture. People now (and by ‘people’ I mean ‘people under 35’) are fluent in the language of spectacle. The rise of user-generated content on the internet means that high school graduates now live under the assumption that anything good that they do can and should be an excuse to draw attention to themselves, to celebrate it, and enjoy their three minutes of fame. (Because fifteen minutes is so last century.)

Which is why I was so enthralled by watching this ceremony, because the announcer was pronouncing the graduates’ names with as much gusto as possible. I mean seriously… this guy was way into it. Move over, Ben Stein; hello Ray Clay.

Janeeeeeeeeane Krystooowiak! Larry! D! Jaaaaaaamison!! Eugeeeeeeeeeene Hoooperrrrrrrr!

And so on.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Now obviously part of it was the camp factor of it all, especially because some of the students were really getting into it. You could see a little pep in their step. And it made the resulting cheering and hollering — you did it, mookie, yeahhh!!! — feel a little more natural and less out of place.

Other students just walked across, all stoic-like. For some of these kids, it was probably the first time in their life hearing their names read aloud over the public address system. So I can understand if they felt a little shy and awkward about the whole thing. I imagine it might feel a little disjointed for that reason… but I also bet they enjoyed it deep down, even if they didn’t have the stage presence of some of their more charismatic schoolmates.

Of course, I only watched it for five minutes before I was ready to flip to something else. I might feel differently if I would’ve had to sit through the whole thing.

I am, however, reminded of the timeless, often-quoted passage in the third chapter Ecclesiastes (no pun intended… no really) that describes all the different activities under the sun for which there is an appointed time.

The thing is, though, is that the writer of Ecclesiastes (presumably Solomon) never really tells us when those times are. So it’s up to people to use their own discernment — and, if they’re believers in Christ, the leading of the Holy Spirit — to figure out when it’s okay to laugh and shout and dance and when it’s better to just stand there and savor the moment in dignified silence.

Kudos to the Cleveland H.S. staff for realizing that those times can change.

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Bright Lights, Big Sicky

So I’m taking a break.

Already, I know what you’re thinking.

Taking a break? That negro hasn’t written anything for like 3 months, and he’s talking about taking a break?!

I’m taking a break from my normal mode of writing.

The Official Explanation

See, the main reason why I don’t write in this blog every week, or even every month, is that I vowed to only write something when I have something to say.

Again I can hear the heckling.

When has this cat ever NOT had anything to say? Dude writes a dissertation on something random, like, every other month.

No, no… you don’t get it. See, it’s not enough to simply have an opinion. Nor is it enough to simply rehash the notable events of the day/week/month/year. Any news aggregator worth its salt can do that in milliseconds. What I try to do is use the stories that I see in the news and the commonalities therein to illuminate the larger skeins of truth that aren’t being reported or discussed in traditional media outlets.

If that seems like a mouthful, it is. And considering I’m not getting paid to do it, I’m frankly amazed that I’ve been able to do it as often as I have. It’s hard work. More enjoyable than slaving away in an office, of course, but still work nonetheless. Which is part of the reason why I’m taking a break from this format.

Because sometimes a blog is just a blog, and so many crazy things have been going on in my personal life that I feel compelled to write about them, not only so that others can be informed and cease wondering, but for my own sense-making process. Quite often, my only recourse in dealing with difficult situations is writing about them. It’s either that, or throwing vast amounts of money at problems in an effort to make them go away. Seeing as how I’m neither wealthy nor a state congressman, I go for the former.

So abandon any hope of any worldview-changing mega-insights with this one. I’m just strictly trying to answer the question I’ve been getting over and over for the last few weeks: How have you been?

* * *

In Sickness, and in Bed

Well, in the words of the great negro spiritual, ah been ‘buked, and ah been scorned.

But mostly, I been sick.

Believe me, this is news. Because as I have said many times, I don’t get sick. At least not like most people get sick. I have a very robust immune system. I know this because in the first six months of our marriage, my wife Holly was getting sick left and right, and I exhibited nary a symptom. It was kinda weird, actually.

Every time she started to feel bad, it was my job to give the first layer of diagnosis so that we could determine if there was really something wrong or if she just needed to take something and lie down. After a while, trying to figure out what she was coming down with became a twisted combination of 20 questions, charades, and poker.

“I don’t feel good.”

“Don’t feel good in your head, chest, or stomach?”

“Stomach… sort of. Is abdomen the same as stomach? It’s sort of in that abdomen region.”

“Any cramping?”

“I don’t think so, but I’m not quite sure.”

“Well does this hurt?”

“Oww! Yes, it does hurt! Would it hurt you if I took your finger and jammed it—”

“Okay okay, I was just asking…”

“Yes, and can you see how it’s possible to do that without gouging out my midsection?”

“I know, I just… okay. I’m sorry. How about … two ibuprofen and a pillow for your back?”

“Only a man would suggest a pillow for my back when my stomach hurts. Two ibuprofen and a cup of tea. Decaf.”

“Alright,” I say, sensing closure. “Two ibuprofen, a cup of tea, and a full-length body pillow so you can put it wherever you need it without having to wake me up.”

“As if anything would wake YOU up.”

At this point, I usually spring into action, hoping to alleviate my wife’s symptoms and get to sleep as quickly as possible. Of course, after I come back with whatever I’ve promised to retrieve, I’m usually greeted with the following romantic lullabye:

“Since you’re still up, do you think I could have another favor?”

So of course, I nod yes, and then it’s lather, rinse, and repeat.

And this is the price I pay for being an ambassador, of sorts, for illnesses. I would come from the Land of Work to my Home bearing gifts from my fellow WorkLandians for my wife. They would get sick, I would carry it home, and my wife would get sick. So she beseeched me to give up my emissarian ways and rid myself of such gifts, by engaging in annoying little practices like washing my hands and covering my mouth when I sneeze. Because of my small improvements in such habits, and because her immune system has adapted to my barrage of germs, the above scenario doesn’t occur as often as it once did.

So now you can see how, generally speaking, I don’t get sick. I mean, seriously. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been really sick in the last fifteen years. I’ve had the sniffles, I’ve had hay fever symptoms, I’ve even had a few nasty coughs… but that’s usually as bad as it gets.

Until a few weeks ago, that is.

Somewhere between working in my office, having choir rehearsal, and rockin’ mics for Spirit Week down at Western Mennonite, I picked up some sort of flu bug. Wasn’t sure what it was, but I noticed a bit of a cough as I went to bed on Friday night. Eight hours of cold sweats later, I felt like I was run over by a truck. So I did what my wife told me to do, namely, keep getting rest and drinking fluids (though I wasn’t as good at the fluids part). So that’s pretty much all I did Saturday, was take naps, watch a little TV, and arrange for someone to cover for me during Sunday service. Saturday turned into Sunday, and I still felt like garbage.

The final straw broke early Sunday evening after my wife had returned from the store, and we had the following exchange:

“Hey, how are you feeling?”

(I pause for a second before answering.)

“Good.”

“Okay, well … do you want something to eat?”

Easy enough question, right? Yet, no words were coming out.

“I think, uh…”

I tried again.

“I mean… I, uhhrmmghh… I want a… ah, I want. ………..Okay.”

“Umm, nevermind. You just sit right here while I make a quick phone call..”

What I didn’t know at the time was that whatever sinus infection I had on Friday had been slowly dripping its way down my throat and into my lungs. My incomprehensible garble, combined with a 105-degree fever, was more than enough cause to call an ambulance. It wasn’t until later that evening, in the emergency room, that I would learn the official diagnosis: pneumonia.

Ridin’ the Red & White Limo

Now here’s the thing about being sick enough to have an ambulance called on your behalf. On one level, it’s scary as hell. Now in my case, I wasn’t exhibiting a lot of really scary symptoms – no vomiting blood or limbs protruding from places they shouldn’t. To tell you the truth, I was nowhere near aware of how truly sick I was at that point. But still, I can tell you the exact moment it hit me. It was when I heard the sirens, saw the lights, and realized that they weren’t heading somewhere else, but they were in fact, there for me. Seeing that, and interacting with the medical professionals who were concerned enough about my health to put me on a gurney, load me into an ambulance and take me to the hospital… that was scary.

Scary in that I became That Guy.

You know what I’m talking about. That Guy In the Ambulance. As in, you’re driving down the highway, traffic piles up, you get to the front of the line and see the accident everyone is rubbernecking, and you think to yourself, ewwww… sucks to be That Guy.

Now, That Guy is me. So yeah, I’m starting to get a little concerned.

But on another level, it’s also kinda cool.

Because, you know, before this I had never been on the inside of an ambulance. On a strictly curious level, I’d always wanted to know what it would feel like to be on the inside, with all the flashing lights and the sirens and the other folks bowing to our noble, immediate traffic agenda.

Not only that, but I also noticed that when you arrive at the hospital from an ambulance, it’s totally different than when you come on your own.

Because first off, the ambulance people know what they’re doing. Not that they’re omniscient, altruistic beings… I’m sure these guys can be ignorant jerks just like the rest of us. But even the ignorant jerks, when they walk around with the special uniforms with the patches on their sleeves, people have to pay attention to what they say. They just march in, sick person in tow, and start barking out orders. And you know what? People respond. Hospital medical personnel start materializing right in front of your eyes, ready to attend to your immediate needs.

It’s really quite amazing when you think about it, because if we tried this on our own, we’d be laughed right out the joint. Can you imagine this? I’d like to see someone try to walk in with a wounded sibling walking beside them, yelling out:

“Yeah, I’ve got a 23-year-old female with bilaterial hemothorax, possible deep vein thrombosis… we’re gonna need a CXR and a blood swab, STAT… Hey you, can you gimme a hand here?!”

Of course, the actual response would be, “Sure, just wait in this line here, fill out all thirty-nine of these forms and someone will be with you shortly.” Shortly, as I have learned, means eventually in hospital-speak.

Anyway, the main lesson here is, if you can, ride with an EMT.

An alternative approach

Come to think of it, maybe you don’t need to come with an ambulance to get good service. Maybe all you need is a trusty EMT on speed-dial. That way, you could just call your order in ahead of time, and then have them meet you outside, like you’re picking up takeout:

“Hey, Nate, thanks for taking my call on such short notice.”

“No problem, Mr. Greenidge, what’ll it be this time?”

“Well, it looks like I might have either acute bronchitis or a touch of pneumonia, I’m not sure.”

“Okey-doke, I’ll just take it from here.”

If Nate’s got the stretcher ready at the curb, he could just help me on, wheel me away, and start barking out orders. No one would be the wiser.

Plus, even if I had to tip him extravagantly, it’d still probably be cheaper than the ambulance ride.

But maybe there’s still room for improvement. Maybe, if you really want the full-service EMT attention, but being the progressive type, you want your fossil fuels to serve more than just one purpose, you could set a carpool network with EMTs who normally ride the bus. I can see it now. You call up an 800 number that leads you to a dispatcher, who tells you the exact bus stop of the closest EMT who’s about to come in for work. The dispatcher alerts the medic, you rendezvous at their location, the EMT gives you one of those magnetic portable sirens like you see on police cars in the movies, and you’re off.

Talk about a win/win scenario. The EMT doesn’t have to ride the bus, so his or her commute would be faster. You get the medical attention you need without having to ride in an ambulance, and whoever is driving you gets to speed like there’s no tomorrow. I’m telling you, everybody wins.

Of course, your average person isn’t a professional driver who knows how to navigate crowded streets at breakneck speeds. And your average medic may not be all that geeked about having to start working before they even get to work, not to mention the fact that without all the ambulance technology, any pre-hospital care they give you would amount to taking a pulse and scanning for bullet holes.

But aside from that, it’s perfect!

As a matter of fact, it may be too good. On second thought, let’s just keep this one between us. Otherwise some hospital administrator will hear about it, and within two years HMOs will start doing this to save money and keep charging us full price.

Life on the Inside

So life in the hospital wasn’t too bad, at least not initially. Thankfully, my incoherent state prevented me from fully realizing what was going on. Holly had to tell me later that IVs were being inserted into my veins, blood was spurting everywhere, and the medical staff were being less than discreet about cleaning it up. In order to help distract me from what she knew would be a traumatic sight for me, Holly said cheerfully,

“They gave you a bracelet with your name on it.”

To which I replied,

“Did they spell my name right?”

Yeah, It’s a good thing I had my priorities in order. Major blood vessels spilling open like the Exxon Valdez? No problem… just don’t put an E at the end of Jelani.

* * *

At one point, I remember getting a good laugh out of my wife and my Dad, who were with me in the ER. It was funny in part because in my brain it was a serious question, one that I had no idea could be funny until it came out my mouth and they both started laughing. I was lying down on a table, IV bags in both arms, and the general mental fogginess that had stymied my earlier attempts at coherent thought gave me a brief reprieve. As it began to occur to me what was happening to me, I asked, to no one in particular,

“What time is it?”

The room was quiet for a second, and then Dad and Holly both started crackin’ up.

“What, do you have an appointment?”

“Are you missing 60 Minutes?”

At this, I noticed sheer lunacy of the question. What the hell does it matter what time it is? You’re in the hospital, remember? Then I remembered… I had been trying to ask Holly that when she first came back from the store, because I wanted to figure out how long I had been sleeping before she returned. It tells you how out-of-it I really was that I never realized that I could have just looked over at the clock in our bedroom
and done the math.

Either way, I think my brain, at that moment, realized that it never received an answer to that question, so it asked. It was only in retrospect that I could see how ridiculous it was. Sorta like when you plug in a laptop whose battery has died, boot it up, and then it gives you the low battery warning.

* * *

Also, there is something to be said for the combination of emotions you get from seeing a plethora of people fussing over you. At first you feel really important, like what it might feel like to have five or six salesmen measuring you for a suit in a ritzy department store. And then it’s a little confusing, because you know, you might have a big frenzy of activity at first, with a lot of people poking and prodding and turning you over and helping you take off your pants … but then they might leave and you might be on your own for an hour or so.

Gradually, though, it morphs itself into an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It seems so amazing that there are all these people whose job it is to, essentially, care for you. To care about you. And when you’re in such a vulnerable state, you don’t care that they get paid for caring for you, any more than a repentant parishioner cares that the pastor gets paid to pray for them at the altar. What matters is that they’re there and they care.

As a matter of fact, over my four-day stay in the hospital, I was consistently impressed with the general sense of concern that I got from all the people who attended to me in some shape, form or fashion. I mean, these people really wanted to see me get better. And not just so that I could free up another bed in a room. It was like they knew what it was like to be in the hospital and wanted to make sure that, given the circumstances, my life was as manageable as possible.

There was one lady, though, who didn’t quite fit the profile. I’m not sure if it was just her different personality, or the fact that maybe over the years she had obtained some semblance of seniority, but… this lady was serious. As one of many respiratory therapists that had seen me, it was her job to get me to breathe into this plastic tube that would measure how much air I was getting into my lungs. Naturally, it was also her job to help me get my breathing back to normal, which meant increasing that airflow meter reading.

But whereas most of the medical personnel would gently encourage me to keep going and keep making good progress in getting back to normal, this lady went personal trainer on me.

“Where was the last reading?”

“A little over a thousand milliliters.”

“Okay, I’ll be back in four hours with another breathing treatment. I expect you to be at 1500.”

With that, she walked out the door.

Okay nice to see you, too… ??

As intimidated as I was by her curtness, however, I must admit it was effective. When she came back, I’d made it to 1500. I guess I was just thankful she didn’t say “or else” on her way out.

The Epilogue

Now that I’m out of the hospital and (for the most part) back to normal, I can look back on this experience and laugh a little. But I’d be foolish if I didn’t make a few important realizations along the way.

Like for example, if you’re in the ICU, and your first nurse has given you all your meds, and asks, “Is there anything else you need,” make sure you find out how to work the television. If you’re like me, it might be awhile before you get to watch cable TV again, so you better make the most of it.

Also, If you’re in the hospital, and you ever think to yourself, hey, the food here isn’t that bad, chances are it is, in fact,
that bad. But being unable to get real food into your system for so long, your body has been fooled into thinking that you’re eating bona fide gourmet. Conversely, if you find yourself getting sick of eating the hospital food, take heart – it means you’re getting better.

Finally, if it’s possible, make sure you can get a handle on what put you in the hospital in the first place. In my case, it was a consistent lack of enough sleep, not enough vitamins, and a horrendous amount of personal stress. Oh, and driving like one of the Andrettis probably didn’t help, either.

So from here on out, I’m vowing to stop hurrying so much. My life has enough external stressors without me unnecessarily rushing around trying to accomplish Big Important Things. John Ortberg said in The Life You’ve Always Wanted that love and hurrying are mutually incompatible, and if I want to be spiritually healthy I must work to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from my life. Sounds like a tall order to me, but I guess all the most important tasks in life are God-sized.

Having said that, the next time I fall ill, and Holly has to go to the store to pick up a few things for me, I’m arguing to come with. I’ve always been good at sleeping in the car, and plus, if my brain cells get too wacky to function right then I’m already in the car and we can just go straight to the hospital.

I’ll just have to make sure that in addition to the chicken soup, vitamin supplements, and orange juice, we pick up an EMT along the way.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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Reality is key to quality entertainment (just ask Sam Fisher or Jack Bauer)

The entertainment industry is a multibillion dollar industry. Film studios, TV networks, and video game developers are competing for our attention, and when they succeed, they are rewarded handsomely. But many of the biggest successes in the field of media and entertainment have one thing in common – they are grounded in reality.

Not “reality” as defined by the vast wasteland of “reality-based” TV programming. That stuff is as unrealistic as it gets. The only way I could watch “The Simple Life” is if Nicole Richie had to clean up her act in order to compete for an eight-bucks-an-hour office job. That would be reality-based television. Unfortunately, it would also be boring, which is why I probably wouldn’t watch for more than 15 minutes.

The reality I’m talking about is a quality of successful entertaining media projects where the stories and characters have a distinct grounding in real life.

Escape? Nah. Transcend.

See, people often claim to watch television, go to the movies, or play video games in order to escape from reality. I think that’s only half true. People don’t want to escape reality as much as they want to transcend reality. That is, they want something better than reality.

They want to experience the redemption of characters that ring true. They want to experience scenarios where real problems meet real solutions. Even if the nuances of those solutions wouldn’t exactly play out in the real world, it’s still nice to see. People want heroes who succeed in making their world a better place. In so watching these stories, they can, if only for the length of the program, live in that better world.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my own tastes. I may seek an immediate escape from the tedium of my own life when I read/watch/play, but I end up gaining more knowledge and insight into the world around me. The shows and movies and games I like the most tend to be rooted in reality.

Consider a few favorites:

John Grisham’s legal thrillers. I recently read The Rainmaker, which seemed downright prophetic in its portrayal of corporate greed and corruption. Reading The Rainmaker can help provide a plausible scenario for the WorldCom and Enron accounting scandals.

Both critically-acclaimed Aaron Sorkin / Tommy Schlamme TV shows: the cult hit “Sports Night” and its more famous sibling, “The West Wing.” Sure, going behind-the-scenes of a presidential administration or a nightly cable sports show is a way to invest emotional weight into fictional characters. But it’s also a great way to learn about how things get done in politics and television.

I’ve written at length about my fascination with Halo 2, but it bears repeating: the success of that game is only partially due to its technical feats. A major reason why people love it is because it examines, albeit in a fantasy setting, the politics of religion and war. There are disturbing parallels between the machinations of the Covenant uprising and the contention between political factions in the U.S. This is not to say Halo 2 was written to be a political satire, but the interstellar leaders of the fictional alien populace suffer through the same hubris-driven power struggles that our own leaders do. In this way, it too is grounded in reality.

A new ethical model

With video games, the sense of vicarious identification is heightened, because instead of just cheering for heroes, you’re guiding them through their challenges yourself. And as games get more and more sophisticated in their storytelling capability, the challenges become greater. Not just harder to execute, but fraught with weightier moral consequences.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Tom Clancy’s “Splinter Cell” franchise. Besides being the definitive title to spawn a whole new genre of game (the stealth-action thriller), the Splinter Cell games have been the first games I’ve seen to explore U.S. counterintelligence programs in a manner that befits their shadowy nature. You play as Sam Fisher, a highly-trained special-ops field agent who is sent, through an experimental NSA program called Third Echelon, on a variety of missions pertaining to classified objectives, all in the name of national security.

Part of what makes playing Splinter Cell a gripping experience is the technical wizardry that enhances your sensory intake: the detailed environments, the continuous interplay between light and shadows, the pulse-pounding music, and the interesting dialogue. But those things pale in comparison to the fascinating ethical morass of situations that Fisher and his team have to wade through.

For example, in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Third Echelon’s director Irving Lambert sends Fisher to break into a Peruvian bank in order to find out who funded a group of terrorist guerillas who kidnapped an American mathematician. But in order to disguise the true nature of the mission, Fisher also has to steal $50 million in French bearer bonds. While guiding Fisher through the mission is exciting in its own right, there are a myriad of philosophical and political questions that thoughtful gamers encounter during gameplay. What is Third Echelon going to do with this money? Are they planning on giving it back later? If so, how? Does Sam Fisher rightfully deserve any of it? How much culpability does the bank have in the inadvertant laundering of terrorist money? Does this culpability justify the use of lethal force in the execution of this mission?

The advent of games like Splinter Cell has ushered in an era of new ethical models for popular culture. The days of victory being achieved by saving the princess or blowing up all the aliens… those days are long gone. No longer are there simply good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the good guys have to do bad things to support the greater good. This progression (or regression, depending on your perspective) has introduced a series of gray areas to issues that for generations have been seen only as black-and-white.

Sam Fisher: The New Jack Bauer

This complicated relationship between the iconic status of video game heroes and the morally questionable lives they are required to lead is only going to get more dicey with the newest iteration of the Splinter Cell franchise, Splinter Cell: Double Agent. In it, Fisher is required to bring down a terrorist organization by going deep undercover as a terrorist. This development will tread down the same path recently traveled by Jack Bauer, the hero of the popular FOX TV series “24” (which, incidentally, is about to release its own action-shooter game exclusively for the Playstation 2). Dedicated “24” fans have witnessed Bauer go undercover on numerous occasions in order to bring down the terrorist organizations threatening to harm its fictional U.S. of A.

It was a risky move for 24, and it will be for Splinter Cell as well. When a well-established game protagonist pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior (even for a highly-trained special agent), there remains a distinct possibility that the audience will turn on that character. Emotional connections to a character often fuel our willful suspension of disbelief. Therefore, if a “good guy” does something too heinous, even for what he perceives as the overall greater good, he will no longer be considered to be a good guy.

If, however, the established good guy later appears to be a bad guy… but then redeems his “bad guy” status by taking down all the other bad guys, then the emotional payoff can be huge. And many of the most successful entertainment franchises (ABC’s “Alias” starring Jennifer Garner is another example) work this formula well by using a series of complicated plot twists to continually shed new light on morally ambiguous characters.

This version of reality in entertainment works well because in real life, people and problems can rarely be broken down to black-and-white characterizations. There are subtle nuances and details that can change the complexion of characters and situations. So when real characters can find real solutions to real problems, and not cheat the system by using easy outs or pat solutions, that is the reality that we all want to see and live.

And if we can’t live it out in real life, then the least we can do is live it out through our favorite pop culture heroes.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.