The light of grace in human stories

Robert Taylor, left, and Lou Diamond Phillips in "Longmire" (Netflix photo)

When Netflix was launched by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph in 1998 as a DVD rental service by mail, late fees applied and the company had fewer than 1,000 titles to loan.

A year later, the company began a monthly subscription service and by early 2000 began its flat fee with unlimited rentals, without due dates, late fees or shipping costs. It was a completely new entertainment business model.

The demise of Blockbuster and other brick-and-mortar video rental services was just a matter of time. In 2002, Netflix went public and posted its first significant profits in 2003. In 2005, according to an article in The Economist at the time, Netflix had 35,000 titles and was shipping a million DVDs every day.

Netflix began streaming content with video-on-demand in 2007 just as it hit the billion mark of DVDs delivered. In 2010, Netflix was the biggest customer the U.S. Postal Service ever had.

Netflix began producing original films and programs in 2006 under its own Red Envelope Entertainment trademark. In 2008, Netflix entered into partnership with studios and closed Red Envelope. The company continues to develop some excellent content.

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Netflix has produced and distributed some quality entertainment and documentaries, such as the 2004 Academy Award-winning documentary "Born Into Brothels," and its recent animated adaptation of "The Little Prince."

Its episodic programming, formerly known as television, is no less interesting. "Orange Is the New Black" has been nominated for multiple Emmys, and I particularly like the superhero series "Daredevil." Both shows offer platforms for theological reflection that is worth savoring -- as long as you are willing to consider human frailties and sin so that you are able to then appreciate the light of grace in these very human stories.

All this is fine, of course, for independent filmmakers and episodic television producers; talents new and old get the opportunity to create art. But Netflix and its cousin, the primetime-network-anchored Hulu, also give the consumer the opportunity to choose what to watch and to guide their children's viewing, hopefully by watching with them and talking about what's going on, the choices the characters make, and what the story means. Otherwise, how will we teach them our values and how to be discerning consumers of entertainment when we are not there to guide them?

With Netflix, so far, there are no commercials. You can get commercial-free Hulu but you have to pay more. Amazon has streaming content you can pay for, some of it original and some of it "free" for those who pay for Amazon Prime. You can even subscribe to Acorn through Amazon and access lots of British and BBC programming, some of it not available elsewhere.

With streaming video, you can watch anything anytime and almost anywhere on any device if you can handle the data fees. As of 2014, Netflix was available in 40 countries. I was in Italy last year for two weeks and Netflix was not available until a few days after I left. Thank God for iTunes, which lets you download everywhere -- as long as you pay.

Netflix is especially valuable in this election cycle where politics has reached distasteful lows and levels of incivility. We can watch and rewatch whatever we choose on Netflix and other streaming services. We can sink into nostalgia television or binge on Korean soap operas on Hulu.

Of course, as concerned citizens, we want to make sure to keep up with candidates and the issues and be prepared to vote come November. But, then, where do you get your news? Not on entertainment services, certainly, but most get their news via the Internet. That is where I found out about the dire economic and food situation in Venezuela two full weeks before NBC covered it. If you are a network television newsperson, you might consider watching BBC news on your PBS station a couple of times a week.

Storytelling can be good for the soul; news that gets to the heart of what's happening at home and in the world can engage our souls. Being critical consumers of both is an educational and social imperative for citizenship today.

In addition to "Daredevil," my favorite show on Netflix is "Longmire," an episodic Western show based on the novels by Craig Johnson about a modern-day Wyoming sheriff (Robert Taylor) and his best friend (Lou Diamond Phillips), who is Native American. A&E dropped the show after three seasons because the audience skewed too old for advertising dollars and Netflix picked it up.

While there is one key storyline that runs through one season to the next, each episode deals with the core characters' relationships and modern problems, like human trafficking, suicide rates among veterans, and, of course, the harsh reality of Native Americans on the reservations.

It's a gift to be able to choose what you want to watch, when and where. What's even better is when such programming brings families and people together and enhances relationships and communication and doesn't contribute to isolation, an issue Pope Francis addresses in his recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

There's also the issue of how much technology is enough. To have the latest device the minute it comes out won't make anyone happy in the profound way that human connectedness does. It's a short circuit. It is a "grand illusion."

Francis says not to think that technology will save us or fill the void in our souls that long for God. Francis even warns about "man caves." OK, he doesn't use that term specifically, but he does warn fathers that if they want the respect of their children, it's best to spend time with them instead of playing video games.

Try watching the latest version of "The Little Prince" on Netflix. It's good for all ages. We learn of the original 1943 tale written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-44) through the eyes of a young girl and her neighbor, the aged aviator. But there is a modern context that encourages us to think about working too hard, divorce, helicopter parents, soulless corporations, and losing the joy of our childhood imagination. It's quite an amazing little movie.

If Netflix and other streaming sources bring us joy or make us feel good, may it be because of great stories that shed light on the human condition and have the potential to make us better people. If the stories don't do this, or we allow them and their delivery devices to isolate us from the concerns of our families and our brothers and sisters near and far, then we Americans are, as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said, the most entertained people in the world and the least informed.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

This story appeared in the Sept 9-22, 2016 print issue under the headline: The light of grace in human stories .

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