Monday, June 15, 2015

Good TV

Is it possible for a TV show to be too progressive?

It’s a wonderful thing to come across a new TV show to love, entirely by accident. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Australian series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. It’s like Downton Abbey on cocaine, and with more sex and murder.

Another aspect that caught me by surprise is that at least two of the episodes available on Netflix include characters with disabilities.

Season 1, Episode 12, “Murder in the Dark,” involves one of lead character Phryne Fisher’s adult cousins, who appears to have Cerebral Palsy. His portrayal is a mixed bag. In some ways he is treated like a great big child, and he seems to have internalized this, as he sort of acts like one. On the other hand, he isn’t hidden away and Phryne treats him with respect and affection pretty much the same as any close cousins of around the same age. He ends up seeming like a person who is cognitively impaired, but probably "smarter" than most people give him credit for.

Season 2, Episode 8, “The Blood of Juana the Mad,” takes place at a University, and involves a graduate student I am positive we are supposed to understand is autistic. Although she is a little on the stereotypical side, he is interesting partly because autism hadn’t been identified in the mid 1920s, which is when this show takes place. In this case, most people around her treat her like a “madwoman.” But Phryne and, following her lead, the other people on her team, just roll with the woman’s “quirks” and “obsessions," which immediately makes her seem less odd and allows a working relationship to develop.

One thing I haven’t quite decided yet is whether Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is too progressive for a period piece. Many of the episodes deal with one social justice issue or another, not just disability. It sometimes seems like Miss Fisher has been sent back in time from 2015. It’s hard to imagine someone like her, in her, era having the liberal, open-minded views she has. All of her opinions are awesome. Just once I’d like to see her have a realistic 1920s prejudice about something ... a bit of highbrow anti-semitism, a conventional view of Aboriginals, or some other unpleasant but unsurprising attitude she could maybe struggle to overcome. Still, her easy progressivism does feel earned most of the time. Phryne is meant to be a free spirit and a non-conformist, who both fits into and clashes with her upper class upbringing. The best thing about this is that because people can't help liking her, they tend to find themselves adopting her ideas, sometimes much to their surprise. The progressivism on the show is a bit anachronistic, but it works.

This is something I think about a lot when it comes to disability on TV. Which is more important ... sending progressive messages about disability for today's audience, or accurately depicting how disabled people are treated in the eras and settings in which they are depicted? Seeing ableism on-screen can be upsetting, but the lack of it can make an otherwise good show feel like a nursery school lesson. I guess the key is finding the right balance.

I’ll probably have more to say about this question, and this great TV show, in an upcoming Disability.TV Podcast.