Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Top entertainment TV shows featuring disability in the 07-08 season

I've been meaning to write about this for awhile but the writer's strike meant some shows didn't appear last fall. The media love lists so I thought I'd follow their trend with a list of ongoing characters with disabilities on TV. (I didn't include guest spots.) These are in no particular order, and please post comments with characters or shows I have missed. Thanks!

1. "Friday Night Lights" (NBC) -- As someone who grew up in Texas, I refused to watch this show for the first season because I didn't want to hear them butcher TX accents and I don't care much about football. But a fellow disabilities studies scholar talked glowingly about its disabled character, Jason Street, that I decided to give it a try. (Thanks Elaine!) Street is the star quarterback who becomes disabled due to a tackle in the pilot. But he remains an integral part of the story line throughout the first season and second. The show deals with his character's transition to accepting his new disabled identity, independent living, sexuality, friendships, etc. Full episodes of both seasons are available online. And if you really want to see a complex disabled character continue on network TV, write NBC and tell them to NOT to cancel "Friday Night Lights."

2. "House" (FOX) -- Everyone loves to hate Dr. Gregory House, who is just plain mean but is also a brilliant diagnostician. House, played by Hugh Laurie, uses a cane due to a disabled leg, which is disabled because he refused to allow it to be amputated, which was medically recommended. He's also in chronic pain from the leg so abuses prescription pain killers. He can be annoying, but from a disability standpoint, no one has time to pity him because they are too busy despising him. Too often characters with disabilities are syrupy sweet or totally evil, and Dr. House is neither of these. He's nasty and manipulative, but that's coupled with a single-minded focus to truly help seemingly un-help-able patients.

3. "Family Guy" (FOX) -- Joe Swanson, a macho wheelchair user, contrasts to the doughy family guy, Peter Griffin. He arrived in episode 5 of Season 1, when Peter asks him to play softball, not realizing he's paraplegic. Joe, of course, wins the game and becomes a hero, making Peter jealous. I have only watched a few episodes and seem to always miss the ones that feature Joe, but my informants tell me that "Ready Willing and Disabled" is a good one, in which Joe competes in a Paralympics-like sporting event. In another Joe-focused episode, "Believe It or Not, Joe's Walking on Air," he receives a leg transplant and becomes a jerk, so the gang decides to re-paralyze him. TV.com describes "Family Guy" this way: "Sick, twisted, politically incorrect and freakin' sweet. The animated series features the adventures of the Griffin family. Peter and Lois have three kids - the youngest is a brilliant, sadistic baby bent on killing his mother and world domination. Chris, like his father, is obese, has a low IQ and no common sense. Meg desperately tries to be part of the popular crowd, and is coldly rebuffed. Their talking dog Brian keeps baby Stewie in check while sipping martinis and sorting out his own life issues." Wikipedia has a good list of all the show's episodes, so you can find the ones with Joe.

4. "The L Word" (Showtime) -- Definitely not for children due to the nudity and graphic language, this show about chic West Hollywood lesbians added Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin to the cast in Season 4, for what was supposed to be a multi-episode guest spot, but show runners liked what was happening with her deaf lesbian artist character, Jodi Lerner, so they kept her around for season 5. The season finale for season 5 is March 23, and the storyline doesn't look good for the Jodi character staying around for season 6 (the show has just been renewed for one final season.) But Matlin's character brought important awareness to audiences by reminding them that some deaf or disabled people are members of the GBLT community just like some non-disabled people are. And of course, it's always wonderful to see sign language incorporated into a TV show.

5. "Monk" (USA) -- Adrian Monk, a former San Francisco police detective, now works freelance as a detective for the police department because of his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As played by Tony Shalhoub, Monk's phobias and tics are endearing and even empowering (if they help him catch the bad guy). I feel the OCD isn't played for laughs, but as just a part of Monk's persona that those who care about him accept.

6. "Breaking Bad" (AMC) -- Teenager RJ Mitte, who actually has cerebral palsy, plays Walter Jr., the son of a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to cook meth to raise money for his family. Walter Jr. uses two crutches and has a more severe form of CP than Mitte does. What I like about the character is the nonchalance with which his CP is treated. It's only occasionally acknowledged and when it is, it's appropriate and in context. But mostly he just a member of the family, and has great lines as an average sarcastic teenager character.

7. "Dirt" (FX) -- In this drama Courtney Cox plays a tabloid magazine editor, Lucy Spiller, and her best friend and best photographer is Don Konkey (played by Ian Hart) is schizophrenic. Last season, Konkey had full-blown symptoms; this season his symptoms appear to be controlled by anti-psychotic drugs. The interaction between Cox's Lucy Spiller character and Konkey comes off as both sweet and manipulative, if that is possible. Spiller truly seems to care for Konkey and considers him her best friend, but she has no problem asking him to take sleazy tabloid photos in situations in which someone with schizophrenia would be better served by not participating. Konkey would take a bullet for Spiller, so he never questions her, making him an easy target for her manipulation. The show's not that great, but I guess the one positive is that a character with schizophrenia appears to be integrated into society and happily holds a good job in which his talents are recognized. This is somewhat better than the usual stigmatizing presentations of people with major mental illnesses.

8. "Rick & Steve, Happiest Gay Couple" (Logo) -- Steve's best friend is Chuck, an HIV-positive, wheelchair user, whose partner is Evan, a 19-year-old club kid. They pal around with Rick and Steve in the gay community. I've only seen one episode of the show, so don't have too many comments, except Logo needs to fix its reference to Chuck being "confined to a wheelchair" on its web site.

9. 10. "South Park" (Comedy Central) -- The irreverent satire featuring four foul-mouthed elementary school boys also occasionally spotlights their schoolmate Timmy, a wheelchair user with garbled speech, who was voted "The Greatest Disabled TV Character" in a poll by BBC's Ouch! Jimmy, who uses crutches, is also another disabled character, who sometimes teams with Timmy. New Mobility did a great article about the popularity of Timmy and Jimmy in 2005. Ouch! says Timmy got the vote because of his badass activities on the show. "His capers have included becoming lead singer of Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld. They were hounded by a cartoon Phil Collins, who felt it wrong and shameful that a disabled person was fronting a rock band. Timmy also tried to join the notorious 'Krips' street mob, mistakenly thinking it was an empowering gang for cripples. And he was at the centre of a comical ethical debate over the question 'Do the handicapped go to heaven?'"

11. "Little People, Big World" (TLC) -- Technically, the Roloff family aren't "characters" because they are real people, but as reality TV is part of entertainment TV, I'm counting them. Matt and Amy Roloff are little people, and parents to four children, one of whom is a little person. The reality shows follows them in their daily lives on their farm, kids school, soccer games, vacations, etc. What I like about the show are the real moments of Matt acting overbearing, Amy getting frustrated or one of the kids screwing up. It's a great message -- their family's just like everyone else's.

12. "Lost" (ABC) -- OK, I am a Lost-ophile (I know, not a word) but I love the show. So for those of us who have been with Lost from the beginning, John Locke, played by Terry O'Quinn, is still technically disabled. It's just the magic power of the island has temporarily healed his paralysis. (Another character, Rose, no longer has terminal cancer because of the island.) His disability (or current lack thereof) always rests in the back of regular viewers minds because of his current obsession with staying on the island (so he can stay non-disabled). So because his "disability" may be part of the motivation for everything he does, he made this list.

So that's the list. Please let me know of others. I found it upsetting that I could only come up 12 from the dozens of networks, cable channels and premium channels out there, but I guess we're supposed to be glad it's not zero. :-(