Two TV shows premiere this week that in different ways deal with the disability experience: Red Band Society, and the new Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.
I am absolutely locked in for the "The Roosevelts." As a former history major, a political junkie, and a disabled person, it’s a trifecta. Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt are iconic historical figures and political pioneers … not to mention Eleanor’s leadership on so many issues. Franklin, of course, spent most of his adult life and all of his Presidency dealing every single day with the paralysis that resulted from Polio. But from what I can recall in my somewhat less intensive reading about Teddy Roosevelt, it seems like he, also, dealt in a way with what today we would call disabilities. He was certainly a “sickly” child. And although I don’t believe his conditions continued into adulthood, most historians believe that his early experience of “weakness” and “frailty” profoundly affected Theodore's personal philosophy, and maybe even his political outlook.
I wonder if Burns will make that connection. In fact, I am a little nervous to see how he handles FDR’s polio, too. I hope he doesn’t confine it to one episode and then leave it behind once Franklin resumes politics. I also hope Burns calls upon more recent historical accounts that undercut the idea that FDR kept his paralysis a total secret. He might even include a few interviews with James Tobin, author of a very recent book on the subject I reviewed back in January.
Here are two relevant scenes from Burns’ film, available on the PBS website:
These key parts of the series seem to be set for Wednesday evening. Unfortunately, so is the premiere of "Red Band Society" on FOX.
I will be reviewing each episode of this new show for the TV website Gotta Watch It!, but I’m going to wait until winter, probably, before doing an extensive discussion of it on my Disability.TV Podcast.
If the show itself is any good, it looks like it will explore many different aspects of the disability experience … institutionalization, the strengths and flaws of the medical model, camaraderie among people with diverse disabilities, disabled people struggling for freedom and agency, and the murky boundaries between disability and life-threatening disease. Of course, if the acting, writing, or filming are sloppy or lazy, then it won’t be worth watching regardless of any positive messages it might try to send. Plus, dealing with these interesting disability issues doesn’t mean the show will deal with them well. I’m a little concerned that they’ll try too hard to portray the hospital as “fun” all the time. On the other hand, I love the idea of these kids bonding, helping each other out, and trying to wriggle out of the medical model control they are under.
I am looking forward to finding out if it all works.