We live in a time where visual images become our reference point for understanding who we are and the time we live in. It was this thought that hit me as I read Grant McCracken's post on two new TV shows - In Plain Sight and The Cleaner - that feature a guardian angel motif.
In Plain Sight stars Mary McCormack as a U.S. Federal Marshal who helps relocate witnesses and then care for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often. She is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel.
The Cleaner stars Benjamin Bratt as a ex-drug addict who comes to the rescue of people in need, and then cares for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often. He is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel.
We are drawn to the idea of angelic intervention. But of course TV has too much integrity to go for celestial trumpets, fluffy wings, smiling cherubim. No, televisual angels come in street clothing and street cred. Our angels are troubled, this is meant to make them troubling, and this is meant to turn TV into art.
I don't get to watch much TV. So, I haven't seen either these shows, but I plan to catch up on them at their websites. I understand the idea behind the shows. I understand the connection of a stranger caring for another stranger. I understand being a guardian angel. It is to a large extent a factor in my work as a consultant.
I am a fan of the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton. I am because as I watched it for the first time, I realized that in my work as a consultant, that I'm a fixer. There is a guardian angel aspect to his role in the law practice. He cares for people in trouble.
The guardian angel / fixer theme is a well used theme in film and television. There was the angel in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Michael Landon was an angel in Highway to Heaven, as was Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel and David Boreanaz' vampire Angel.
What explains this character device?
1. In spite of "rugged individualism" as central theme in our culture, the theme of helpfulness is also present. We see it in the image of the Boy Scout helping the elderly woman across the street. We see in people who take in stranded travelers, abandoned children and stray dogs. I certainly see it in the out-pouring of help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
A guardian angel is a helper, a servant. For almost a half century, the idea of servant leadership has gained increasing prominence.
So, along with this independent streak is this helpful, servant one that provides a sufficient level of dramatic tension to make stories interesting.
2. I'd like to think that there are some producers, script writers and film companies who also see that there has been a diminishment of the ethic of service in public life. Watch enough TV, and you can't help but be carried away with not just egotism run rampant, but actually sort of the reverse of my first comment. Instead of public life being filled with rugged individualists who are exemplars of servant leadership. We have celebrity figures who have an entourage that follows them everywhere, doing for them what they can't do for themselves.
This reminds me of one of my favorite films, The Emperor's Club with Kevin Kine. In it, Kline a classics professor at a New England prep school, instructs his students about ancient values. Over the door of his class is a plaque commemorating the exploits of Shutruk Nahunte. The plaque reads:
I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my God, Inshushinak. Shutruk Nahunte - 1158 B.C.
Kline admonishes his class that Nahunte is a forgotten leader because he he was simply ambitious. The the theme of the film as well as of his classs, Kline tells them, "great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance."
Whether the character in In Plain Sight or The Cleaner are ones who will become significant is unknown. What is known is that legacy is tied to service. As Waite Philips said, "The only things we keep permantly are those we give away."