Podcast of the Week: Sandra

Kristen Wiig and Alia Shawkat star in this binge-worthy drama

 

Sandra is a smarter, faster Siri. She’s here to answer all our questions, and to fulfil our requests for anything from dinner to 200 doves for a pagan wedding. But, unlike Siri, who is just a computerised search system, an algorithm with a voice, Sandra is manned by seemingly thousands of employees, who answer each question one by one. It’s not a computer you talk to when you talk to Sandra: even though she sounds like one, via the mechanical voice of Kristen Wiig, you’re talking to the person who rooted out the response. Your answers are tailored; someone is listening.

In Hope Is a Mistake, the first episode of this seven-part story, Helen Pererra (played by Alia Shawkat) takes up a job at the tech behemoth that operates Sandra. Helen is assigned to become the Sandra who answers questions about birds. She undergoes a jarring personality test, conducted by her supervisor, Dustin – played by Ethan Hawke – and finds her way to her desk. Not much happens, but in the tiny details even this short journey gives us a powerful sense of the world we are operating in.

The soundscape and performances are measured and clear and free of much of the clutter that audio dramas are prone to. The episode is 19 minutes long, and that brevity combines with the story’s easy pace to lead you into the next instalment, The User Experience, which delves deeper into the relationships that Sandra can have with her users, showing more of what happens when you get a glimpse into someone’s life and an opportunity to answer a question or solve a problem.

Sandra looks at the kind of answers people want when they ask their phone a question, and how that differs from the kind of answers they might need

Aspects of Sandra could be compared to Black Mirror, the Netflix series that pries open the effects of sharing our lives with computers. Fiction of this nature allows us to step back and look at the world from a different vantage point: it encourages us to look at how we interact with phones and the internet and how that may affect our humanity.

Sandra doesn’t quite take as introspective a route as Black Mirror; instead, in its first few episodes, it looks at the kind of answers people want when they ask their phone a question, and how that differs from the kind of answers they might need. Shawkat’s Helen is relatable, and her transition into Sandra, via Wiig’s performance, is often very funny.

It’s hard to talk about technology and humanity without feeling preachy, and Sandra manages to strike the right note between lightness and commentary. It is a wonderful ensemble piece, full of distinct characters. Next time Siri wakes up to answer your question about the weather, you may just feel differently about it.

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