Hints and foreshadowings

Rare and inevitably odd, encounters with notable people are always entertaining.

The accidental encounters are often the most fun, just because they are so random and usually free of much pressure or awkwardness. My inauspicious start was realizing I was standing next to Sinbad, the standup comedian, in a college bookstore. Years later, I heard a voice that sounded familiar near a resort pool and turned to see Kelsey Grammer in shorts talking to his kids. Another time, I sat across from Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer as they held hands and whispered to each other at an Austin cocktail bar.

The first time I went out of my way to meet someone was a book signing with P. J. O’Rourke. Envious of his life as a full-time writer, and eager to demonstrate my familiarity, I handed him a book and said, “So, do you and your wife still have the farmhouse in New Hampshire?” He stopped writing, looked up, and replied, “Well, the wife is gone, but I still have the house.”

Which is why it’s probably best that I didn’t actually meet President Obama when he visited my co-working space. During a trip promoting entrepreneurship, he stopped by to see a few demos and give a short talk. I sat in a room with about 100 people and spent a grand total of 10 minutes not far from the President.

Since I have a thing for how politics works, I had a lot of fun watching the Secret Service, both during and in the days leading up to the visit, the press secretary, and the reporters and photographers. It was the closest I had been to that world.

The President’s remarks were quick and unremarkable, but there was something very different about the experience. Later that night, I realized what it was.

We always see and hear celebrities, politicians, musicians, athletes, and assorted newsmakers through a screen. Even if we attend a speech or event, everything we hear is through a microphone and speakers.

When the President spoke that day, though, he wasn’t wearing a mic. It was just his voice bouncing around the silent room. In fact, I remember how strange it was to have to work to hear every word.

There's nothing quite like the unfiltered voice of a person. In a sea of promotion and performance, those moments are unmistakable. Uncommon was created to be a welcoming place for unfiltered voices, a neighborhood where no one has to struggle to be heard.

Each of you makes that possible through your honest words and thoughtful attention. Thank you so very much.

Prompted

The latest dispatch asked, Which shows do you love to recommend?

Elizabeth wrote:

Chuck. The opening premise: an IT employee at a big electronics store (think Geek Squad) opens an email from his old college roommate and accidentally downloads all of the government's secrets into his head. Absurd? Yes. But the show turned out to be the perfect balance of drama and comedy, with characters and relationships I invested in more than any other. And the 80s references were always on point. To this day, a few years after the series finale aired, I can't hear the song “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart (which featured in the series finale) without thinking back to Chuck. “Aces, Charles. Aces.”

Ammar wrote:

The Wire is a show that is cliche to say is your favorite, but I always recommend it. The writing is fantastic, the show rewards attentive watchers, and the stories being told are raw and honest.

Another one: Newsroom (despite the corniness and cocaine-speed Aaron Sorkin writing). I appreciate it for its nonstop snark and idealism.

Marina wrote:

I, too, have a preternatural love of The West Wing. I have watched and rewatched all the seasons (well, except maybe Season 7, because the jumping of the shark was too painful). I have an endless list of scenes I love – I started listing them here, but it just got out of control! Sorkin’s writing is so on point, and the actors all chew up the dialogue while managing to not chew up the scenes. And, being in political communications, I have been known, from time to time, to turn to the show for inspiration. “Let Bartlett be Bartlett”….pure gold!

Antonio wrote:

I’ll answer a slightly different question—a show I would love to recommend, but can’t truly bring myself to: Babylon 5.

It was one of the earliest TV shows with true storytelling vision. A story unfolded over four seasons, and watching it a second time is a delightful foray into hints and foreshadowings—first small, then larger as the story takes shape. Like a good book, the second time through is better than the first.

Unfortunately, Babylon 5 was plagued by the kinds of problems you’d expect from being on the vanguard of long-form TV storytelling—in many ways, of TV storytelling itself. The writing, while tremendous in terms of story, was lackluster at best in terms of dialogue. The acting, in a time before television tended to attract great actors, was patchy—some main characters were incredible, others never truly lived up to their potential. Finally, the biggest problem in recommending it: the first season barely told a story at all. In the style of so many earlier sci-fi shows, the first season is mostly made up of creature-of the-week storylines with lackluster writing, and it feels incredibly weak and episodic—despite the fact that even then, you’re getting hints of what is to come.

So these days I find myself mentioning Babylon 5 as one of my favorite shows of all time—but cautioning people that while I absolutely think they should watch it, they should be dialing their expectations back to 1995. A great story, possibly unprecedented in its scope on television, but ultimately made less powerful by the shortcomings of its time.

Pat wrote:

Once The West Wing hits Netflix in Australia, I’m quite sure I’ll suddenly lose what little spare time I currently have.

Lauren wrote:

I feel like a bit of a geek cliche saying this, but my favourite show of all time is Firefly, the short-lived “space western” from Joss Whedon. If the idea of cowboys in space (not to be confused with cowboys & aliens) sounds like a truly terrible concept to you, you're not alone. I was skeptical, too. But it's a wonderful ensemble piece with a fantastic cast, witty and fast-paced writing, and – as the best speculative fiction does – it managed to create a curiously believable universe in a very short time. I missed that universe terribly when the show was cancelled, and I still do.

Wesley wrote:

Gilmore Girls, The Wire (d’uh), and as of recently, Daredevil. (Also The West Wing, but you already mentioned that.)

Carie wrote:

The show that comes to mind for me is Scrubs. I enjoy a comedy that can sometimes make me cry, and this one fits the bill. Although I laughed out loud so much while watching, it was some of the touching episodes that stayed with me the longest, like the one titled “My Old Lady” and the ones Brendan Fraser guest starred in. Not every Scrubs episode was a winner, but the the first three seasons were fantastic, and I remained loyal through the end. It's one of the shows I bought on DVD so that I could put a season on when I was grading papers or cleaning the house and feel like I had friends around just by pushing play. It has great music too, and even though the show doesn’t take itself seriously in a lot of ways (there are dream sequences and impromptu musicals, for example) some friends in the medical field have told me that there is a lot about being a doctor that Scrubs gets exactly right.

Joel wrote:

The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks and Geeks, The Wire, Sports Night, and the first 4 seasons of The West Wing.

Erin wrote:

I watch way too much tv, so there are always tons of shows I recommend to people. The ones I always go to first are Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and Sherlock because of the quality of writing and acting, and the ability to engage and continuously captivate me as a viewer. You care about the characters and their stories.

Adam wrote:

Veronica Mars, The West Wing, and Babylon 5 are all things you might hear me recommend frequently -- usually to people who enjoy shows with complex storylines and large casts of characters. :) I've also found myself recommending How I Met Your Mother as a good show for just relaxing.

Paulo wrote:

Friday Night Lights. I love recommending it because 1) it wasn't a natural for me, 2) most of my friends don't know American Football, 3) it didn't make a big splash in European culture, 4) it looks shallow, but it isn’t, and 5) it has the best portrayal of a relationship that I’ve ever seen on a show or movie.

Brad wrote:

I am currently experiencing the privilege of The West Wing for the very first time. I have a little over a season left and am enjoying it deeply, so no spoilers!

I find that I’m careful with my recommendations in general; to good friends because I know their tastes more intimately and feel an obligation to recommend only great things for them, and to strangers because I know people are quick to judge based on what you like. That said, I do have a few shows that have become a part of my own story, and that I've recommended repeatedly.

First is The Wire, which has some of the most impressive writing I've ever seen in television or film. It's gritty, compelling, dramatic and honest in a way that was rare for its time, and it still holds up well today. I recommend it to people who don't mind a cynical or critical perspective, both of which it reflects at times, but most of all I recommend it because it tells what I think is one of the most important stories of this generation: the utter failure of the “war on drugs”.

Beyond that, I have rarely been so captivated by a series than Battlestar Galactica, the remake by Glen Larson and Ron Moore. I know that others have many complaints about the series, but it came at a special time in my life and I watched it with people who made it a big part of my story. I recommend it less to others because I think it fills a narrow niche, though I frequently banter about it with the few friends who share my appreciation.

Uncommon reads

On the future by Jen Myers:

There was a brief period of time when web design as a creative technological pursuit flourished right after its inception, and now it’s already been submerged under the demands of complexity and being bigger and better and never being enough. Everything and everyone is now a product. There isn’t much novelty anymore in the internet’s value as a means of simple, sincere communication and connection.

Overcoming the extraction mindset by Seth Godin:

The chasm is so deep, people on each side of it have trouble imagining what the other side is thinking. Some people show up in your email box or social network intent on taking what they can get (can I have a guest post? wanna fund my project? made you look...) while others are patiently weaving together a cohort of meaning.

Connected // Disconnected by Josh Clark:

Instead of engaging attention, I’d like to free it. Instead of maximizing time on site, I’d like to reduce it. Give people the information they need, and let them get back to their lives. Notify only when there’s something worth saying. Ask for attention only for content that deserves it. Less talk, more conversation.

Our Online Religion, Sam Sacks reviews The Book of Numbers:

But in a deeper sense this story reprises the rocky transformation of a small tribe of true believers into the compromised rulers of a mighty nation. It is resonantly fraught with idealism and betrayal, moral struggle, and the worship of the golden calf of commerce. Mr. Cohen’s difficult and deeply rewarding novel is about an online religion gone wrong—and its importance lies in the fact that nearly all of us in the modernized world are members of that faith, whether we know it or not.

Your turn

Which notable people have you crossed paths with?