West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E2 Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Series 1, Episode 2

1. Jokes can backfire – use humour wisely.
2. Your strengths (in this episode, look how Bartlet’s intelligence, specifically his Latin, alientates CJ) can alienate people if you get too absorbed in them rather than using them to the ends you’re called to use them for.
3. All of us have a past which accompanies us everywhere and could trip us up or affect how we see people (even someone as intelligent as Bartlet feels insecure with the Joint Chiefs); get to know how your past dogs you – and get help with it.
4. Personal involvement in a decision – especially in a crisis – can affect you for better or worse. To get to know which, involve people who know you well and whom you trust.

IMDB.com Plot Summary

Josh trumps a potential Democratic challenger in a masterful political move and then hires the challenger’s chief of staff and ex-girlfriend Mandy Hampton. Toby tries to warn Sam away from his friendship with the call girl, but to Toby’s horror, Sam seems intent on reforming her. CJ tries to spin the latest clash between President Bartlet and Vice President Hoynes. After an American plane is shot down carrying Bartlet’s physician, Bartlet’s response leaves Leo worried about the President’s response.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E1 – Pilot

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode. 

Series 1, Episode 1

1. When handling news about yourself as a leader, even embarrassing news, honesty and truth is best – especially once the gossip starts. Truth – even about a bike accident – robs embarrassment of some of its power.

2. If you’re in a heated interaction, don’t say what you’re dying to say. It may feel good in the moment, but it may also cost you everything – Josh comes very close to losing his job.

3. Know your audience; Sam looks for Leo’s daughter in the class rather than in front of the class – leading to yet more embarrassment for him.

IMDB.com Plot Summary 

The West Wing staffers are introduced as each learns via phone or pager that the President was in a cycling accident. Josh faces the possible loss of his job after an on-air insult of a political opponent, which Toby tries to prevent by having Josh make a personal apology. Sam’s fling the previous night with Laurie, who unbeknownst to Sam is a call girl, puts him in hot water, which he compounds when ineptly lecturing a class of 4th-graders about the White House and then asking their teacher which child is Leo’s daughter. Leo must deal with the fallout from Josh’s blunder, as well as 137 Cuban refugees who escaped on rafts and are seeking asylum. The president walks in during Josh’s apology, recites the First Commandment, and lambastes three Christian pols for not denouncing a fringe group.

After getting called in early in the morning due to President Bartlet having a bicycle wreck, the staff deals with the problems of the day. Josh faces losing his job after infuriating millions of Christians on a Sunday morning talk show. Sam learns he accidentally slept with a call girl the night before and then accidentally tells Leo’s daughter about it, placing his career in possible jeopardy. Leo works to convince the President to let Josh keep his job as Leo tries to make peace with infuriated Christian leaders.

 

Obsession, anger, grace and dreams: Netflix’s Last Chance U

I may have related before that a few years ago  I was co-chaplain at a relatively minor professional football team in London. The club was in the parish I was working in; the chaplain approached a robe-clad, sun drenched version of myself about 20 minutes into my life as an Anglican minister. He’d heard from a mutual friend that I was going to be serving in the parish for a while and that I liked football; he sidled up to me, introduced himself and set about pitching to me to help him in his ministry. I was enthusiastic, but needed permission from the vicar with whom I’d be working. He didn’t need much convincing, so it was I was able to give a handful of hours each week to the football club. I worked with the youth teams, attending training sessions (as a spectator), hanging around to start conversations about anything and everything with coaches, playing staff and non-playing staff. We gratefully received free tickets to matches whenever we wanted to go; we sat amongst the directors, getting to know people. We led carols on the pitch at half-time at Christmas; I scattered the ashes of more than a few fans on the pitch on cold Tuesday mornings. I was at the youth training pitch when I heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. It was a ministry of pastoring and mission enabled by presence; a kind of holy hanging around, waiting for God to do something. I wasn’t especially good at it, but I learned a lot from it. It fostered in me convictions about models of mission that I’m still fleshing out.

There was an annual conference for chaplains in the sports world which I attended faithfully. It was a tremendous fun – and I say that as someone who has a skeptical relationship with conferences. As well as some good training on specific issues, we had some fascinating speakers from the sports world. I even got to meet some proper legends of British sport; if you’re British and like football, you’ll know what a big deal it was for me to have conversations with Trevor Brooking and John Motson. Sport featured as an activity; and the food was atypically excellent for a Christian conference. We found ourselves queuing for supper with athletes from many disciplines using the National Centre for Excellence (which gave us a venue) for their own purposes. I remember wondering what Andrew Flintoff was doing eating that when he was meant to be healing his injury ahead of the Ashes.

All of this gave me a real insight into the various pressures at play in the life of full-time athletes at all levels. What it means to make your living entirely through your body; the sheer number of people hanging on coat-tails to be associated with success; the boredom of most of the life of the athlete; why a massage can actually be tiring. At one conference I heard a line which stays with me to this day. “If you want to be a sports chaplain, there are two things you need to remember. First, it’s only a game. Second, it’s never only a game.”

I remembered that line again over the last week whilst watching a 6-part documentary series. The show in question is Last Chance U. It’s produced by the online streaming service Netflix, but as is the way with these things it may well appear on other platforms at some point. Whatever your relationship with sport in general or the sport it focuses on, you should make an effort to check it out. It’s about sport; but it’s about way more than sport. It’s about people of all ages growing up. It’s about grace, forgiveness, family, obsession, failure, success, apologies, anger, forgiveness and much else besides. It’s utterly magnificent and compelling and hope inducing.

(For a 2 minute acquaintance with the show, click here for the trailer)

It’s focuses on the febrile world of college (American) football. As you may know, university level sport in the USA is a world unto itself; a breeding ground for excellence, simultaneously making and crushing dreams in front of an audience of millions. The college in question – in a small town, apparently adjacent to the middle of nowhere – takes promising players who had failed elsewhere and gives them another go. The college team has built a habit of winning and getting players well onto the path to big-league success, signed the next season by big name colleges. They’ve also built a habit of not losing, and not losing by huge scores. Which makes them fearsomely unpopular with their opponents.

The coach is obsessed with winning, and winning big; the life of the town revolves almost entirely around the team. The real hero, though, is the remarkable Miss Wagner. She is tasked with the job of keeping the players on the academic straight and narrow; if they don’t pass, they don’t play. If they don’t play, they don’t get signed. If they don’t get signed, they’ve lost their dreams – which for many of these guys is all of they’ve got left. Watching her reminded me of my wife and her endless capacity to work with people to help them discover what they’re best at and can achieve; part of her that I first fell in love with.

I’m a fan of the sport who is denied the affordable ability to watch it due to where I live, so I ate up the sporting side of it all. The game sequences – a relatively small part of the 6 hour series – are brilliantly directed. If you appreciate this sport, you’ll see just how good these guys are and you’ll feel the hits, the scores, the highs and the lows. But it’s all about the people, in the end. The story of individual hopes and dreams, and what this all might mean for their futures.

It being a documentary  with no narrator, the series allows the people and the events to speak for themselves. Events can be presented a certain way, of course, but we’re intimate spectators to a roller-coaster ride on which we can’t see beyond a few feet in front of us. Events take a startling and unpredictable (unless, of course, you know American college football especially well) turn in the last two episodes; we see success and failure, anger and forgiveness at their most raw and life-changing. We end with an act of grace so kind that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all set-up for the cameras. Except of course, we know by then it can’t possibly have been.

Sport is only a game, right? Maybe. There are times when all of us  – players, fans – need to know that and remember that. It means nothing in the scheme of things. Yet it also means everything; sport, like all art, is unpredictable, messy, glorious and infuriating and utterly irreplaceable. Watch Last Chance U and you’ll use those few words of well-meaning diminishing with much less casual ease.

Which of us have never been obsessed? Never had a dream? Never hoped? Never got angry? Never needed grace?

Only a game?

You sure?

 

Stuff Of The Year 2014, 4: TV

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the television that has most improved the year. They’re in no order. Click on the titles for links to trailers for the shows.

Fargo

From a distance, this could only go wrong. Taking the one of the Coen brothers’ most loved films and turn it into a series? The reality was more of an extended riff on the film, taking it in whole new directions to masterful effects. It carried many of the hallmarks of the film directors’ work: a script that shifts effortlessly from quirky humour to dark foreboding, brilliant lead performances and sudden, powerful, thrilling action sequences. Season one was a triumph; we have familiar fears about making it work for a second series.

Broadchurch

We got this about a year after everyone else, so it feels like we’ve come hopelessly late to the party. Brilliant though, wasn’t it? Essentially a fairly standard issue murder story, with a variety of suspects, it was lifted way above average by David Tenant and Olivia Coleman’s lead performances. That, and a good portrayal of a vicar.

The Americans

An entry in the ‘can’t believe it’s not hugely popular’ category. It’s a thriller-drama about a deep cover pair of Russian spies in 1980s America, posing as an ordinary suburban family. Yes, it’s a thriller: it’s also an insightful meditation on family, marriage, trust, loyalty and identity in the same way The Sopranos was as much as about family as it was the mob. It’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as that show.

The Knick

This show is what you get when you give one of cinema’s better directors (Steven Soderbergh) time and space to develop an idea. In an age when scientists are the new, infallible priests, this was a timely drama about the price of scientific progress set in turn of the century New York, focussed on one hospital and one man (Clive Owen) in particular. Historically set, but of urgent contemporary relevance.

True Detective

A murder story told in two time-zones; the original investigation and a revisiting years later, this was dark and troubling at times – as much for its conclusions about human nature and what it takes to weed out evil when it rears its head. Made with cinematic flourishes and outstanding performances, it was often hard viewing but always deep and true.

Homeland

Homeland suffered from a great first series – series 2 and 3 tried but failed to live up to the launch. Series 4 has been outstanding, a morally complex investigation of the war on terror and the political and personal price it exerts on all of us. Outside America we’re often tempted to think of US views on some issues as uniform; shows like this undercut our assumptions and ask us think very hard about the conclusions we draw on our eras biggest issues.

Rev

After 3 series, this is still the sitcom that understands faith and ministry, a televisual companion to cinema’s Calvary. Funny, sad and true in all the ways that real-life ministry is.

Gotham

A dark, funny, exciting Batman origins series – there’s too many comic-book adaptations around; this is one of the best, though. It feels fresh and exciting, and it’s made with so much conviction that it’s hard to resist.

Doctor Who

We’re only a couple of episodes in here, but we’ve seen enough to know that Peter Capaldi is more than up to the task of one of the biggest roles on television – sufficiently different and subtle to move the character and the series along. Looking forward to what lies ahead, that most of you have already seen.

 

Also In This Series

1: Movies

2: Books

3: Music

Stuff Of The Year 2013, 3: TV

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the TV I’ve been stimulated by in 2013.

Remember when you were told that TV would rot your brain? Someone once told me that having a TV is like having an open sewer in your living room. Nonsense. Of course there’s rubbish stuff on TV; the immoral, the bad, the lazy, the vacuous. I’d also argue, as many others have, that we’re in a golden age of TV drama – writing, acting, direction and effects have gone up several notches in the last few years as the juggernaut of pay-tv has continued to bring more money into the industry and forced those who produce new material to up their game. Downloads and DVD box sets mean you can enjoy whole series at your leisure, and PVRs make recording and watching only what you want to see viable. Ironically the vacuous on TV these days is pseudo-reality; talent shows and inane rolling news, with all the depth of analysis and honesty of Victorian penny-dreadfuls. There’s great art out there in 45 minutes chunks. Here’s what I’ve especially enjoyed in 2013.

Top Of The Lake  Cinema’s Jane Campion directed this New Zealand set short series about the hunt for a missing girl in and around a small-town. So much more than a police story, this was about gender and power, fear of the unknown and how our past changes our present, all laced with beautiful photography and some brilliant performances. Especially outstanding was Mad Men‘s and The West Wing‘s Elisabeth Moss in the lead role; all the better for giving us a complex and conflicted female character around whom the whole drama focussed.

Mad Men  I’m a couple of seasons behind the rest of the world here, but this understated, complex drama around a 1950s American advertising firm continues to show us the origins of the modern age of consumption, the way work can eat a person’s soul and the danger of private and public not matching up. Lead character Don Draper is a disintegrating personality in whom we can all see ourselves.

Justified  Pretty much anyone who writes about TV agrees that there is no logical reason to explain why Justified isn’t one of the biggest shows on TV. The performances are note-perfect, the episodes set around crime in small town Kentucky are full of whip-crack smart wit, dark foreboding and shoot-outs that may not be frequent but when they do come are brilliantly staged. Using Elmore Leonard’s crime story as a jumping-off point, this series took the great writer’s trademarks and has given them flesh, blood and texture on-screen. The title refers to a law-enforcement officer’s justified use of force; scratch the surface, of course, and each character is searching for his or her own unique brand of justification. Brilliant, and bizarrely you probably haven’t heard of it.

The Newsroom The Newsroom isn’t as good as the writer’s most famous work, The West Wing; then neither is A Comedy Of Errors as good as Romeo and Juliet. A stronger, still flawed second series, about a TV news show set around the reporting of real-life events broadened scope to largely good effect and took characters to interesting new places. It’s far from Sorkin’s best work; but that’s still exalted company.

Doctor Who   To rise to the challenge of 50 years of the show, and a growing global audience, and to pull it off with two classy, different, year-end specials was an achievement of note. One of TV’s longest-running shows, and arguably one of the UK’s most significant piece of homegrown pop culture has had a very good year.

House Of Cards  Taking a set of novels and a show from Thatcher’s Britain, transporting to contemporary America and launching it on an online service only initially was bold, and destined to annoy. That it didn’t is down to the inspired casting of Kevin Spacey in the central role and faithfulness to the original’s eternal themes of power, corruption, truth and falsehood. Into the bargain, it may just have initiated a new revolution in how TV is made and consumed.

Breaking Bad  I watched the first series of this in the UK several years ago, then annoyingly lost track on moving abroad. Having watched every episode of the 5 seasons this year, I’m in no doubt in joining the many ready to hail this show about a family man with a terminal cancer diagnosis who turns to drug manufacturing to leave a legacy to his family as a genuinely great achievement. One or two narrative mis-steps early on, and female characters less on the periphery would have lifted this even further. A morality play, thriller and family portrait for the ages.

Veep  A winning British formula, translated by British writers to American politics worked against all expectations. Behind the scenes political comedy, with fine performances, addictively and acerbically funny.

Other posts in this series:

Stuff Of 2013, 1: Music

Stuff Of 2013, 2: Books

Homeland

American film-makers have long looked to other territories for films to remake; the result is usually more commercially successful than the original and less critically lauded. Homeland is a television series which has come to us via a similar route – based on an Israeli show, it presents the story of an American prisoner of war, Nicholas Brody, who returns home after years of captivity. He’s a national hero and it’s not long before he’s ascending the political ladder. On the other side of the equation we have Carrie Mathison, an unpredictable CIA operative who, based on old intelligence and a few pieces of gut instinct, thinks Brody may have been turned in captivity and is now operating as an undercover terrorist.

The first series was a brilliant exercise in paranoia, confusion and tension; Brody and Mathison are two sides of the same unhinged coin, about whose motivations we remain in almost constant state of uncertainty. It was also a series where the plot was lean and clean, focussed and intense – pulling off, with great style, the difficult trick of almost making you side with someone on the brink of something evil. Series 2 has dropped a level – the plot has meandered and flirted with implausibility, Carrie’s character has gone more than a little stupid at times and a couple of side-plots (especially withe Brody’s daughter and her boyfriend) have had the air of aimless time-fillers. There’s an inevitablity to that – when the idea wasn’t original in the first place, it was always going to be a tough ask to maintain a very high quality into a second series. It went from great to merely very good. What saved the second season’s legacy is a brilliant final episode, containing the sort of out-of-nowhere shock that leaves you gasping for air. There was enough time left afterwards for some things to be dealt with and others to be left hanging tantalisingly; but for sheer shock value and excitement this was a hard to beat finale.

Two things remain, constant, though, which lift Homeland beyond the ordinary. One is Claire Danes as Carrie. British actor Damian Lewis as Brody is very good, but Danes is in another league; it’s her show, everyone else just appears in it. Even when her part was underwritten and poorly thought through in parts of series 2, she did an outstanding job of showing us a woman who was unsure of her own motivations. Mental illness was a real, but not totally dominant part of her life and the sense of obsession which drives her is palpable. It’s a brilliant performance.

The other constant plus is the show’s sense of American self-criticism. It asks hard questions about torture, the nation’s expressed desire to welcome all but still suspect people purely on the basis of a religious belief and what it means to be that often touted icon an ‘American hero’. Heroism, patriotism and service of country all appear here, but none of them are morally simple or easily praised. Bearing in mind this was based on Israeli original, I’d love to know if a similar self-awareness was evident there.

So we’re set up well for series 3; which will probably see another slight decline. As long, though, as Danes remains and the writers continue to turn a searching lens on America itself, Homeland will be a show worth staying with.

After the second series of Homeland, I’ve adjusted my imdb.com rating down from 9 to 8/10

The Newsroom, Series 1

The West Wing was brilliant. It took until the beginning of the fifth series for the quality to dip somewhere below close to perfection. In the last 3 series it didn’t quite hit the same heights, but got pretty close. There one or two narrative mis-steps, but it remains one of those shows which makes those addicted to it jealous of those about to watch it for the first time. It could take a debate about the American tax system or a foreign policy issue and make it accessible, funny and gripping – all without demeaning the subject matter. That, and all the while you cared about the characters.

The show’s writer – Aaron Sorkin – hasn’t had the same luck with television since. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was cancelled before the first series had finished. He had more success with films  – The Social Network and Moneyball were critical and commercial hits. The Newsroom is his latest television effort; a show commissioned and broadcast on HBO, an American channel well known for giving writers creative freedom, and one not afraid of causing offence. The offence could be as a result of politics, language, explicit sex or violence … or anything, really. It’s a network that’s known for not backing down.

So this series is, on one level, typically Sorkin. From the snappy dialogue to the moments of broad comedy to the big themes of the day – it’s all there. It has differences too – more expletives than his other show and central male character who’s a Republican voter. Like Studio 60 or The West Wing it’s about an attempt to rouse back to life a great American institution – in this case, the nightly news show. It asks you to imagine a world, like those other shows, where the leaders of such institutions are driven by high ideals and big vision, not small time concerns.

Where it differs, crucially, is this show exists in the real world. Real news stories break – from a year or two ago – and we watch the decisions made off air which determine how they are reported and understood. Episode one has the BP oil catastrophe off the Louisiana coast; another episode (as already blogged here) the death of Bin Laden; the end of the series has the News International phone hacking scandal. The show had a decidedly mixed reception in the USA; some took against the recent past being made into drama, some didn’t like the way journalists were portrayed, some just didn’t like it. Given that most of those criticising the show were journalists, it’s hard to shake the feeling that their real issue was that the show was turning too stark a light on their profession.

It’s always problematic to mix the small-scale and the large; it’s been a problem confronting writers since drama began. Whether it’s Oedipus or Shakespeare or many others you care to name, there’s a history of playing out personal dramas on the canvass of nations. So for The Newsroom  to give us relationship dramas as an environmental crisis looms, or an under-the-influence of drugs presenter as news breaks of Bin Laden’s death, or people running into doors whilst a politician is shot; for Sorkin to give us these, he’s not being trivial, he’s just in a long line of writers doing what writers do. History is made and now broadcast by people with clay feet and fracturing lives; it’s just, of course, that usually we don’t see the cracks.

The show’s problem is that it’s hard to make you care about the dramas of the characters when the real world dramas are so much more all-consuming and vivid for us. So there’s a few too many comedic touches; the tone toys with inconsistency and the balance only really struck true for me as the series ended amidst the phone hacking scandal. There, in the best dramatic traditions, the personal threatened to become the public, and the drama was compelling.

So where are we? Is this show perfect? No. It has a distance to go. Is it better than most other things on TV? Yes. It’s written by a genius, and it’s always worth paying attention to a genius. Here he’s drawing attention to our habit of making easy judgements on those in the public eye whilst turning a blind eye to the same failings in ourselves. Whether that’s Sorkin’s intention or not is, in a sense, a moot point. Sorkin and his characters are never short of an opinion or a judgement; but what as the personal and public collide here, we’re allowed the space to challenge the easy judgements we have of others and the way we are all too often tolerant of similar failings in ourselves.

Really, then, it’s a show about being slow to judge and quick to have mercy. I’d say we need a second series of that. As it’s on HBO, that’s already been decided.