21 Movies and TV Shows That Are Basically ‘Kindness Porn’

21 Movies and TV Shows That Are Basically ‘Kindness Porn’
Screenshot: Ted Lasso/Apple TV+

You’d be forgiven if you’ve spent the last, oh, 15 months (or longer) in a constant state of anxiety. Certainly in 2021, it’s easy to forgot there is just as much to celebrate about life as to lament. Probably even more! Maybe. But remembering that — and striving to be a positive force in the world yourself — might require you to reconfigure the lens through which you view the people around you.

As usual, the legacy of Mr. Rogers is here to help. In Pennsylvania, today is 143 Day — the 143rd day of the year; 143 was Mr. Rogers’ favourite number, his lifelong adult weight, and his special code for telling others, “I love you.” The day is intended to honour the beloved children’s TV host’s most vital and simplest of challenges: “Imagine what our real neighbourhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.” If we’re all a little kinder to one another, the world really will be a better place — there’s even science to back that up.

That’s all well and good, but how can you get inspired to greet each day like Mr. Rogers? Maybe you just need to live by example. What follows are 21 movies and TV series that show you the importance of moving through life with kindness and compassion for others in all that you do. Granted, it’s a high fucking bar, but I believe you can do it, and die trying. (And because we need all the help we can get, share your own picks in the comments — sans the usual listicle outrage, please; remember, kindness matters.)

Quantum Leap

“Kindness” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of this classic of late 20th century television sci-fi. But while bopping uncontrollably through time and in and out of the minds of various people from all walks of life, future scientist Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) quickly learns that the only way to complete his missions and move on — hopefully back into his own time — is to help his host bodies correct (or avoid) some past mistake, from an unintentional act of cruelty to a world-shattering act of violence. It’s unclear why Sam has been given this burden, but he endures it tirelessly through five seasons and beyond, his acts of kindness echoing across the space-time continuum. Far out, man.

Amelie

Sure, a cynic might call the title character of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece “annoying” or “meddlesome” or “possibly criminal,” but there’s a reason this story of a Parisian cafe worker (Audrey Tatou) who decides to transform the lives of those around her through small, unnoticed manipulations (which, sure, occasionally involve some breaking and entering) won over so many. Amelie is special because she notices the people around her, figures out what they need, and helps them realise it, too. Argue with her methods, but you can’t say she doesn’t do her darnedest to make people happy.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

Well, obviously. Though based on true events, this film isn’t quite a Mr. Rogers biopic (for that, look to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour?); but in following cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he heads to Pennsylvania to profile Fred Rogers, it shows us how inspiring others to acts of kindness is as important as performing acts of kindness yourself. Mr. Rogers (embodied with purity by Tom Hanks) does little more than lend a caring ear and some gentle guidance to Lloyd to slow down and pay attention to his life and those in it; this all-too-simple lesson proves transformative, both for Lloyd and (hopefully) for the audience.

Parks & Recreation

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDIxi99xbOg

We previously featured this sitcom on a list of hyper-competent characters, and maybe there’s a lesson in the fact that competence and kindness go hand-in-hand. The staff of the Pawnee, Ind. parks department might seem powerless to effect real change, but their commitment to bettering their community truly does make it a nicer, friendlier place. That’s why they get to be on this list, too, even though they treat Jerry like shit.

Moana

Lots of kids movies could probably fit on this list, but Moana is my favourite; I love that the title character is strong-willed, independent, and eager for adventure, but not because she wants to live free from her wicked parents or a community that doesn’t understand her. Rather, she dreams of being a better leader for her people, and helping them to live in harmony with nature and each other. The climax, during which she faces down a massive vengeful fire demon with compassion as her only weapon, brings me to tears every goddam time.

Groundhog Day

I don’t need to say much about this Feb. 2 mainstay, whose name and premise are so ingrained into the culture that they have become shorthand for reliving the monotony of a seemingly inescapable situation. But the real point of watching Bill Murray’s experience the same day on an endless loop is not to laugh as he grows more and more frustrated at the annoying mannerisms of the residents of a small Pennsylvania town, but to be inspired when he finally figures out how to slow down, stop being so self-centered, and realise that every person he meets is just as important as he is.

Steven Universe

This animated series from creator Rebecca Sugar broke ground in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is how it recognises the importance of respecting others’ varied backgrounds — their emotional damage, their struggles with trauma, their gender identity; heady stuff for a kids show — and treating them with compassion. As he comes to understand his place in a galactic conflict between super-powered aliens, young Steven Universe comes to understand that, like them, he has his own superpower, and it’s kindness. You have it, too.

Ted Lasso

Full disclosure: This series — which justifies the mixed bag that is Apple TV+ all on its own — was basically the genesis for this entire post. Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis plays the title character, an American coach who is recruited to take charge of a British football team even though he knows zilch about the game (which makes more sense when you realise it’s part of the team owner’s The Producers-like scheme to get back at her cheating ex-husband). What could be a recipe for easy culture clash jokes instead becomes one of the most inspiring TV shows ever made — not because Ted coaches his team to a victory, but because of his good nature and the unending optimism he brings to his every interaction with the cynical press and the players who resent him proves that a generous spirit really is contagious, and that kindness can change the world (or at least win you a championship).

Schitt’s Creek

Like Ted Lasso, Schitt’s Creek became a balm for many during the pandemic — a shining example of low-stakes, character-based comedy. But unlike other comfort TV like The Office or Friends, this show excels not so much because it is so funny (because it is) but because its humour is so generous, even when it is cutting. In depicting the fall from grace of a family of billionaires forced to move to a small town and survive on the kindness of others, the show manages to illustrate — without condescension and with only a little cheesiness — the value in favouring relationships with people over accumulating wealth and status. (Of course it’s a Canadian import.)

Happy-Go-Lucky

This near-masterpiece from British improvisational director Mike Leigh can feel like a lot; protagonist Poppy (Sally Hawkins) moves through the small and boring lower-class life with such unending cheer that she almost seems brain-damaged at times. Certainly many of the people she encounters — from her frustrated family members to her sad-sack driving instructor — find her optimistic outlook so annoying it’s bordering on sadistic. But if you can’t stand someone who has figured out how to always think of others first and always, always, always look on the bight side despite her own pain and struggle, well, that sounds like a you problem, doesn’t it?

Elf

Though it’s ostensibly all about believing in the Christmas spirit, this modern seasonal staple is basically impossible not to like because its title character, Buddy (Will Ferrell), an oversized human raised to think he is one of Santa’s elves, inhabits a mindset of indefatigable optimism in every minute of every day. By always assuming others’ best intentions — and in acting out of good faith and a sense of childlike wonder in every weird and mundane scenario he finds himself in — Buddy inspires us to live our best lives throughout the year. I don’t know, he’s basically secular Jesus? Without the crucifixion part. (No offence!)

City Lights

Modern audiences may find it a challenge to watch Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece in 2021; at nearly 100 years old, this silent film is built on a language of movie-making most have forgotten how to speak. But in following his iconic, good-hearted Tramp character as he shuffles through a sometimes uncaring city, seeking to win the heart of the blind flower girl he loves (and befriending a sad-sack millionaire along the way), the movie shows us the value in realising that even the least among us is still human and worthy of being treated with kindness.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

The film debut of outré performance artist Miranda July, this obscenely quirky 2005 indie depicts the intersecting lives of a community of oddballs — a single dad and his two lonely kids, a woman yearning for love, a man confusing his desire for human connection with taboo lust — and finds beauty in the way we bounce off of one another, not always realising the pain and joy that link us together, and how wonderful, and sad, and human that is. Definitely a contender for the movie with the most touching poop joke ever committed to film.

Bluey

Essential to reshaping the world into a kinder place is teaching our children to be kind — which also means learning how not to be such distracted, stubborn, intractable parents. Bluey, an quirkily animated Australian import about a young dog and her family that’s ostensibly aimed at preschoolers, is genius in this regard (The New York Times added an episode to its “Best TV of 2020″ list). In exploring the everyday stresses of being and raising a kid, the show gives us a high bar to clear not in sharing high-minded morals, but in depicting parents who always treat their kids with compassion and understanding, even when they are being extremely naughty. The world is a scary and confusing place for little ones; if we could remember that, and help them to feel safe and protected rather than battle-scarred, it might soon be less so.

The Good Place

If it wasn’t so danged delightful, the metaphor of this series would be too on the nose. Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, a selfish, small-time grifter who dies and, due to a clerical error, is sent to the titular Good Place instead of, er, the other one. She soon realises that she has to fake it until she makes it, lest she be found out and the mistake corrected. But as Eleanor gets to know her fellow residents of heaven — all of whom appear, on the surface at least, to have lived far more admirable lives back on Earth — she realises that none of us really can claim to be purely kind, which is also why all of us have to work so fucking hard at it. Considering the show is basically a four-season ontological argument about the value of living selflessly, it’s also goddamn (sorry) hilarious.

Babe: Pig in the City

It’s an open question which George Miller sequel is more nerve-wracking, Max Max: Fury Road or Babe: Pig in the City. And though the former certainly has some inspiring messages to share of the don’t-let-the-system-get-you-down variety, in peppering the followup to Babe (perhaps the sweetest movie ever made) with over-the-top cruelty (families of friendly animals being evicted and hunted down; an uncaring city nearly sapping the spirit of a kindly old lady; rampant dog violence), Miller only highlights how unusual — and precious — his young pig protagonist’s kindness and optimism really is. Probably the same applies to humans, too.

Big Fish

Living with kindness is all about slowing down, connecting with others, and opening your eyes to the strange beauty in everyone we’ll ever meet. Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, this underrated mid-career Tim Burton effort — which he was inspired to make after the death of his father — follows a young man, Will Bloom (Ewan McGregor), struggling with his feelings over the imminent death of his father (Albert Finney), a larger-than-life fabulist he’s never been able to feel truly connected to. But in finally listening to the man’s tall-tale stories of his encounters with witches, giants, and circus freaks, Will learns that any life lived with a generosity of spirit becomes its own sort of fairy tale.

About Time

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: About Time deserves Love Actually’s place in the Ricard Curtis canon, and not only because it is far less annoying. In following the life of the youngest in a line of men with the power to travel through time, reliving the past again and again until he makes it perfect — doesn’t fight with his wife, doesn’t ignore his kids, doesn’t take others for granted, doesn’t get caught up in his own selfish concerns — the film makes the simple but powerful point that we all have the power to live that way, simply by recognising that each day grants us our one and only opportunity to get it right.

It’s a Wonderful Life

I could’ve probably filled this entire list with Christmas movies, and I already mentioned Elf, but it’s hard to argue against featuring this perennial Frank Capra classic simply on the merits. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey begins the film in despair, convinced he’s a failure who has only made life difficult for his friends and family. But when an angelic being gives him a look at a world without George Bailey in it, he discovers the true value of even an imperfect life lived in service to others. At any time of year, it will make you want to be the George Bailey in the lives of everyone you know.

The Great British Baking Show

Competitive reality TV can be pretty cutthroat — going all the way back to Sue Hawk’s brutal “snake eats the rat” speech during the first season of Survivor — which is why it is so heartwarming to watch this on any number of other British imports that foregrounds skill and a sense of camaraderie over win-at-any-costs underhandedness. The bakers on this show are all vying for the same cash prize (and lucrative title), but they never fail to hold one another up when their soufflés fall or their cakes have soggy bottoms. Delicious and inspiring.

Kindness Is Contagious

Perhaps you don’t find all these fictional examples convincing. Sure, you say, being kind is easy when you’re the product of a writer imparting trite lessons through the construction of an artificial world that conveniently conforms to a naive worldview. Well, fine: Watch this 2014 documentary instead. Combining expert commentary on the psychological and societal benefits of simple acts of kindness with interviews with everyday people sharing stories of how the kindness of others changed their lives and helped them to pay it forward, it may just restore your faith in humanity. At least until the next time you look at your phone.

Thanks to Lifehacker’s Jordan Calhoun, Beth Skwarecki, Meghan Walbert, Claire Lower, and Mike Winters for their contributions to this post.

Log in to comment on this story!