Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TV Notes

Photo of an old-style TV set with the wheelchair symbol on the screen
Im behind in my TV-watching.

Im supposed to be watching as many bits and pieces of disability-relevant Reality TV Shows as I can get my hands on, to beef up my scope of experience for my podcast discussion with Emily Ladau. We are scheduled to talk by Skype on Friday. I hope to post the podcast episode on Monday, March 23.

What Ive actually been doing is watching the first 5 seasons of M*A*S*H on Netflix. Its not a complete waste of time though. I have found a bit of a disability story, about a college football running back who has his wounded leg amputated at the 4077th. Season 5, Episode 18 “End Run. Theres nothing very interesting in the portrayal of disability, but that, in itself is kind of interesting. It isnt as horrible as one might imagine, but the story does lean heavily on an extremely familiar trope of disability on TV … the angry cripple who needs a kind but tough non-disabled person to persuade them that life is worth living after all. Its fairly subtle at the end, more so than most mid-70s sitcoms usually managed, but the great insight struck me as pretty by-the-numbers and simplistic to me. Plus, the solution was completely metaphorical stuff about “trying”.  Nobody mentioned a single specific idea for what this BLACK GUY might DO in the 1950s, without a football career and missing a leg.

My watch list for future episodes of Disability.TV is also extensive. For instance:

- The last 2 seasons of Parenthood.

- Season 3 of Call The Midwife, and then the Season 4 about to start, both of which apparently have appearances by actors with disabilities playing disabled characters (see below).

- Checking out new series Empire and Switched At Birth, which I have heard include disabled characters and / or disability themes.

- At some point, I need to watch Deadwood, for its own sake and to see veteran disabled actor Jeri Jewel being awesome.

- I also really want to watch Carnivale, partly to see how it compares with the similarly-set American Horror Story: Freak Show.

- I hope to do a discussion soon about disability on Downton Abbey, but for better or worse, Ive got that whole damned series pretty much memorized, so thats something.

Fortunately, future podcasts should be easier to do and less scattered to listen to using a new 5-star rating system, introduced in Disability.TV Episode 20. Each TV show will either gain or lose a star for each of the following criteria:

Authenticity …Getting the details of disability right.
Characters  Are disabled characters fully developed, and not cliché.
Messages  What the show says about disability.
Representation  Are disabled characters played by disabled actors?
Watchability  Is the show any good?

Try these criteria on the disability shows and movies you see. Its fun!

Now theres something I need to grouse about.

I have been participating off and on with the #FilmDis Twitter discussions that happen every Saturday evening at 9 PM Eastern. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in disability on film or TV. One thing I really appreciate about the group is that it has raised my consciousness about the artistic pitfalls and above all the injustice of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters, sometimes called "Cripface", but probably better termed "Cripping Up." Most of the rare disability roles written are cast this way. Meanwhile, actual actors with disabilities cant get work. Its an important issue that colors the entire topic of disability in popular culture.

However, this poses an added dilemma for me. I remain fascinated by the themes, messages, and ideas expressed when disability is depicted in popular culture, especially on TV. I find it equally fascinating regardless of who plays the parts. Maybe its because I am just more attuned to writing than I am to acting, but while I find cripping up offensive and unjust, I also find that it doesnt much affect my interest in what the show says about disability. For better or worse, content is really my thing, and whether or not disabled actors play disabled characters in a piece is only one part of how I judge a work overall (see above). Maybe six months or a year from now cripping up will be more of a deal-breaker for me, as it is for a lot of disabled people. At the moment, for me, it isn’t. Im not sure I know how to feel about that.

And now, back to our show ...