The upcoming fall TV season will include an unprecedented number of disabled lead characters, largely thanks to NBC. Their new slate includes the sitcoms Growing Up Fisher, which depicts a blind man, Mel (J.K Simmons), and his family dealing with divorce, and The Michael J. Fox Show, in which the actor plays a news anchor with Parkinson’s. The network is also remaking the ’60s drama Ironside with Blair Underwood as the titular cop on wheels. These shows will join FX’s already-airing The Bridge, which includes a main character who has Asperger syndrome.
But while an increase in disabled characters is heartening and perhaps suggestive of a growing commitment to diversity, visibility isn’t everything. Many shows, particularly comedies, depict physical, mental and developmental disability in a clumsy, ill-considered way. Although 30 Rock was satirical, its treatment of disability mirrored real world ignorance. It framed disabled characters as objects of pity (the girlfriend who can’t be dumped because she’s deaf and uses a wheelchair), grotesques (an “inbred” foreign prince) and weirdoes (Kathy Geiss, the barely verbal CEO’s daughter whose final scene crudely parodied the achievements of autistic activist Temple Grandin). The return of Arrested Development highlighted how horribly ableist the show has always been. (What’s funnier than giving an amputee a literal “big hand”? Pretty much anything, it turns out).
One of the worst offenders — and I mean that literally — is Glee. The show, now going into its fifth season, has included many disabled characters, winning an award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for “television with a conscience” as a result. However, Artie, the primary disabled character, is hugely problematic. Not only is he played by a non-disabled actor, Kevin McHale (who appears uncomfortable in his wheelchair), he often requires non-disabled characters to school him in the reality of his physical limitations. In fact, a key purpose of disabled people on the show is to allow non-disabled characters to demonstrate their wisdom and compassion. When cheerleading coach Sue allows Becky, who has Down syndrome, onto the squad, it proves she isn’t a monster, and when Rachel’s being a witch-with-a‑B about having a sore throat, she visits her handy local quadriplegic, former athlete, Sean, for some perspective. Although Zack Weinstein, an actor with a spinal cord injury, played this role, he was presented passively, lying down looking wistful while other characters sang over him, a tableau that only perpetuates all-too-prevalent stereotypes about disabled people as tragic figures.
In drama, disability is often lazily used to signify a character’s inner turmoil: We know Dr House is emotionally damaged because he walks with a cane, and in PBS’ Sherlock, Watson’s limp clears up as soon as he has a juicy murder to take his mind off his troubles. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) At the other extreme are characters whose disabilities give them preternatural talents, as if as compensation. This may relate to intellectual ability — Monk’s OCD makes him an exceptional detective — or to ass kicking: the Russian mobster-fighting, CIA head of tech ops on Covert Affairs just happens to be blind.
ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, which has four deaf actors in lead and recurring roles, is one of the few shows to attempt a realistic portrait of disability. Its preposterous premise involves parents from different sides of the tracks accidentally raising each other’s kids, but not only does it address the challenges of being deaf and the politics of the deaf community in a nuanced way, it also explores class and race issues, while remaining more like an entertaining program than an afterschool special. Earlier this year, the show broke new ground by screening the first all-ASL episode ever seen on TV, which was truly revolutionary. But it was marred slightly by the use of intrusive and unnecessary background music. And in many episodes, cameras cut away while characters are signing, meaning that people whose first language is ASL would be unable to follow the dialogue without subtitles, suggesting the show is more invested in its hearing audience.
Similarly, Parenthood, which has been widely praised for its sensitivity toward Asperger syndrome, has not wholly impressed some autistic people. Although Max Burkholder plays now-adolescent Max Braverman with wit and charm, his storyline is primarily told from the viewpoint of neurotypical parents adjusting to their child’s diagnosis rather than showing his perspective. It doesn’t help that the actor works with a doctor specializing in autism to get his portrayal right, rather than speaking to people with the condition. To prepare for her role as bipolar CIA officer Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Claire Danes watched YouTube videos documenting people’s real life manic episodes, studying the illness from the outside in.
But there seems to be an increased willingness for actors to work with experts with actual lived experience. Journalists at the recent Television Critics Association press tour noted the specificity of Blair Underwood’s knowledge of paralysis, the result of his work with David Bryant, who is paraplegic. For her part on The Bridge, Diane Kruger consults with a man with Asperger syndrome to craft an accurate depiction. This attention to detail is especially impressive given that her character’s condition is not immediately disclosed. Many other shows, including Sherlock, Community, and The Big Bang Theory, include characters who are coded as having Asperger’s without explicitly labeling them as such, thus ducking out of any responsibility to accuracy.
However, it would be more progressive to see disabled actors, including wheelchair users and people with Asperger syndrome, take on these kinds of roles. In Breaking Bad, RJ Mitte might not have cerebral palsy to the extent of his character, Walt Jr., but his insider’s understanding allows for a more realistic portrayal. In CSI, the fact that Doc Robbins uses prosthetic legs and a cane is neither a source of shame nor a defining characteristic, probably because the actor who plays him, Robert David Hall, shares his disability. And Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, who has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, bagged an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role as Tyrion Lannister. I’m too squeamish to watch the show, but disabled actress Mandy Colleran assures me, “Tyrion is a fully formed, properly rounded character. He isn’t a cipher.”
Still, disabled actors playing well-drawn disabled characters in lead roles on network TV are harder to find. That’s why The Michael J. Fox Show has the potential to be such a breakthrough. Not only will Fox play a character with the same illness as himself, but he’s also helped to create the role. Judging by early footage, the show finds humor in fame and family but will also wring laughs from his disability. The difference compared to most comedies is that these jokes are informed by experience rather than assumptions, allowing for the subversion of stereotypes (“inspirational” montages of the type Glee would sentimentally celebrate are mocked twice in the trailer alone). Of course, the fact that Fox is a star means he’s been given a platform few artists have access to. It would be unfair to place the pressure for an increase in mainstream opportunities for disabled writers and performers on the success of his show. But if it does find an audience, it could be the start of a new era of disability on TV.
It is well past time.