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If I Could Trust TV…

Posted on Monday, May 20th, 2013 at 11:27 pm

Author: s.e. smith

Every now and then, I like to indulge myself with fantasies of storylines that could be, if only I could trust television to do them right. Those dreams loom especially large in the wake of finale season, when I think ahead to what we’ll be seeing on network television in the fall, and wonder if this is perhaps the year when television breaks out of itself to do something amazing. Which shows could have the potential to take a storyline in a new and fascinating direction, rather than letting it slide into Tropeville? And what could they do with said storyline?

Today, I take a look at three shows with potentially very issue-laden storylines, and think about where the producers could take them. The results are not very heartening, but they are a stark reflection of the state of Hollywood.

The Following

The Fox drama centering around a serial killer shows no sign of slowing down after the explosive finale, leaving both Claire (Natalie Zea) and Ryan (Kevin Bacon) badly injured on the floor of his kitchen. Their survival seems predictable—after all, the show revolves around them.

But how they survive is a bigger question, and one that’s not so easy to answer. Hardy apparently has yet another set of scars to add to his library of on-the-job injuries, but what about Claire? From the look of the angle of that knife, she was stabbed squarely in the spine, which could result in neurological damage, including potential paralysis.

Will we be seeing Claire using a wheelchair for mobility for next season? And how is she going to deal with the likely post-traumatic stress disorder she’ll be experiencing in the wake of being terrorised by her brutal ex-husband and viciously attacked by one of his followers?

These are questions that intrigue me, because they could be handled in a lot of different ways, and some of those ways are very, very bad. Claire could be dealing with adjustment to a significant disability, which might involve a mourning period for her as she struggles with the changes she’ll be making in her life. Will we see her working with physical therapists and a counselor to empower herself as she rebuilds strength and takes on the immense emotional costs she’s endured?

Or will we be seeing Claire trapped in the age-old trope of damsel in distress to be saved by Hardy? Given The Following’s record, I suspect this is the more likely outcome. Claire is likely to be positioned as a damaged character who can only be healed by Hardy’s sensitive and loving attentions, rather than a strong, powerful woman who’s enduring some difficult times.

I would love to see Claire taking charge of her life, working through her trauma, and becoming a more complex character for it. That will undoubtedly involve significant ups and downs for her character, but that’s what could make it all the more compelling a journey.

But I’m not sure I can trust Fox to do that.

Ironside

This midcentury classic is being revived on NBC, with Blair Underwood in the starring role, and the revival is immediately sounding warning bells for me. On the one hand, I’m delighted to see a show with a man of colour in the leading role, and it’s even better to see a disabled character at the forefront, but that’s where my worries begin. For one thing, Underwood will be in cripface for the drama, and for another?

Can anyone say ‘confined to a wheelchair’? Because that’s what all the media are saying about this character, and this show. The use of a horrifically outdated and shackling term in reference to wheelchair users is telling; it reveals how people think about those who use wheelchairs for mobility, and how Underwood’s character will be received.

I love the premise of a detective drama with a disabled detective heading up the team. What I am not so much in love with are the troped comments about him emerging already, or the promise that he’ll be ‘hardly limited by his disability [sic].’ Which makes me think we won’t see much of what it means to live with a significant impairment in a world where accessibility is a constant issue.

It’s irritating that they couldn’t find one wheelchair using actor for this role, given the large numbers of full and part-time wheelchair users who would love an opportunity like this. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that casting calls for the role hadn’t specified a disabled actor, or were held in inaccessible spaces, because both of these practices are par for the course in Hollywood.

While I have a deep love for characters who happen to be disabled, I don’t like those who are defined by their disability, as Ironside clearly will be. This role could represent a great opportunity for a balanced and nuanced depiction of disability—not one that totally erases the character’s disability, not one that turns the disability into another character on the show—but I doubt we’re going to get that.

Elementary

It’s already shown itself to be a standout series, and it’s here that I’m resting most of my hopes with the possibility that just this once, I might be justified in putting my trust in a television series when it comes to depicting a minority character with nuance and complexity. It’s handled Lucy Liu as Joan Watson with flying colours, it’s created a racially diverse depiction of New York that rings true to life (according to those with familiarity in the subject), and it’s broken down significant barriers in the Holmes canon.

One of those barriers fell at the very end of the season with the introduction of Miss Hudson (Candis Cayne), a beloved figure from Doyle’s books. Yet this Miss Hudson is not a quiet wilting lily like that of the books, content to flutter around and tidy up a bachelor flat while sticking more or less quietly in the background. She’s a character with history, a character who’s extremely savvy and sharp, and a character whom I hope we see a lot more of as the show progresses.

She also happens to be transsexual, and not only that, she’s played by a trans actress. This is huge in a world where trans women are routinely played either by cis women or by men skirting up for a crude mockery of the trans experience. Cayne is flawless in the role, and her revelation is subtle, underscoring the point that trans women are women, nothing more, nothing less.

While the show sadly threw in an ‘Adam’s apple’ comment to make sure that less-observant viewers picked up on the fact that she was trans, it seems to otherwise be sticking with treating her neutrally, which is a rare and beautiful thing. I strongly suspect we’ll be seeing more of her as the series progresses because we’ll have need for her critical skills and she makes a fantastic incidental character, given her great chemistry on set.

Elementary appears to be on a path to model how to include minority representations well, and here’s hoping they keep it up, turning my fantasy of a positive storyline or characterisation into a reality. As for the rest of network television? It’s safe to say that it has a long way to go before it’ll be in the running. Let’s just say that I suspect I’ll be needing a barf bag to watch the Ironside pilot.

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