Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Twitter-Sized Thought

No, I don't "let my disability define me", but I do let my disability influence me. It would be delusional not to.

Picture Of The Day

young woman in wheelchair with full garbage bag, inside shallow cardboard box, on lap.
From the Crazy Crip Girl Tumblr blog. Do follow the link to understand what's going on.

Full Review: Ironside

old TV set with wheelchair symbol on the screen
Episode 1, "Pilot"

Spoilers ahead? … A few, but only related to characters and the depiction of disability, not about the main "case" of the episode.

What's It About? …

Sgt. Robert Ironside is an African-American police detective who uses a wheelchair, having been paralyzed by a gunshot two years ago. Ironside uses a combination of rule-breaking, strategically applied brutality, and intellect to solve difficult cases, with help from a team of three other officers, two young men and one young woman. They work as a unit, out of a converted NYC building that Ironside also uses as his home. Sgt. Ironside is tough with his team, brutal … verbally and physically … with suspects, and compassionate with crime victims and their families. He works under the somewhat loose supervision of a police Captain, who despairs of Ironside's unorthodox methods, but respects his intellect and results. Ironside also deals with the dysfunction of his former partner and close friend, who is guilt-ridden about his partner's injury.

Background Information …

I was surprised at how many themes from the old series are carried into the new one. Both Ironsides have a dedicated office / apartment, both have a hand-picked investigative team, and both are inscrutable. Like Sherlock Holmes, both Ironside characters formulate theories about their cases early on, yet don't share their theories with their team until they have gathered enough evidence to prove them correct. His team members spend almost as much time trying to figure out what their boss is onto as they do investigating the crimes. Both Ironside characters have gruff exteriors … though the intensity is cranked up in the new show, and unlike the early version, the new Ironside is also physically violent. Yet, underneath, both are compassionate and empathetic towards victims and the socially powerless.

A lot of debate in the disability community has revolved around the decision to cast a non-disabled actor in the role. Producers have explained that this is because they are using flashbacks to incidents before Ironside was shot, which is an important device in the Pilot episode. I think it will become clearer after more episodes whether an actor disabled in real life could have added some valuable insights that Blair Underwood cannot.

The Good ...

The best aspects of this Pilot episode are those directly about Ironside's disability. And the best aspects of these are purely visual. There are some really great, brief scenes where creative camera work gives us something of the wheelchair-user's view of things … a perspective not seen in any other cop show. The sex scene with Ironside is also somewhat satisfying and artfully shot. "Ironside" also appears to dodge what was a potentially deadly "bullet" ... the bitter cripple trope. It is made very clear in the Pilot episode that Sgt. Ironside was tough, brutal, and a rule-breaker before his injury. Although a few people here and there suggest that he now uses his disability as some kind of excuse or shield for his actions, the point of view of the show seems to be that this is a pretty weak idea. Basically, we see here the purposeful unraveling of a very old and harmful cliché ... the character whose darkness and misbehavior is a result of his disability. This Ironside was like this before. If anything, the show may end up suggesting an opposite idea ... that disability might soften him a bit.

The Bad ...

Pretty much everything else is mediocre to bad, both from a disability perspective and as a show of this type. The dialog is mostly clunky and unremarkable. While nobody says or does anything wholly cliché or offensive, at least regarding disability, the little one-liners about disability that seem meant to be insightful and profound just kind of fall flat. For instance, a suspect Ironside has beaten into a confession asks, "Are you really a cripple?" Ironside replies, "You tell me." Sounds good and hard, but once you think about it a bit ... huh?

Non-disabled viewers might hear or see things that are new to them, but nobody with either a passing interest or personal experience of a physical disability will be mind blown or even slightly challenged. Plus, the "rogue cop" cliché is laid on so thick here that it is at times unintentionally funny. Finally, I have to mention the "Shoot the hostage!" moment ripped off from the '90s film "Speed". Were the characters supposed to be making a conscious reference? Or, did the writers think it was an exciting, original plot device? It's not at all clear, and such an obvious reference should have been dealt with one way or another.

Is There Hope? …

The first episode leaves two questions hanging. First, how, exactly, did Sgt. Ironside manage to get reinstated with the NYPD, with his own building and handpicked team? Second, is there more to his partner's guilt and emotional collapse than we have been told? These could become the elements of season-long story arcs that would provide a reason to keep watching. Or, they might simply be symptoms of sloppy storytelling. This show desperately needs complex, character-based stories to tell. Otherwise, it's just another cop show, and not a very good one.

Conclusion …

The new "Ironside" can only be groundbreaking for viewers with no prior exposure to progressive disability ideas. Disabled viewers can enjoy some vicarious thrills and superficial empowerment through Ironside … he's a sexy bad-ass … but so far it doesn't seem ready to offer any deeper insights or commentary on the disability experience. If the character development intensifies, and story arcs develop, it could become interesting enough to watch. These developments also might work backwards to improve the wooden dialog, as the characters take on a life and logic of their own. However, the mere existence of a cop show with a detective in a wheelchair isn't going to do much by itself. The original "Ironside" ran for 8 seasons, not because the premise was unique, though it was. It lasted that long because Chief Ironside was an interesting person. Blair Underwood probably has the chops to make his Ironside interesting, but it'll take a lot of work and time, and I'm afraid the show won't live long enough to get the job done.

Further reading …