After watching St. Louis get their asses handed to them by the Titans this evening, I left the TV tuned to Fox– something I almost always regret. But after the NFL broadcast concluded, some show called Brothers came on, and I watched it for a little while.
In spite of having an all-star cast, the show was pretty terrible. The episode I watched guest-starred Snoop Dogg as a chess playing bartender, if that gives you any idea. It’s regular stars include former NFL pro Michael Strahan, CCH Pounder (a briliant actress with a ridiculous, giggle-worthy name) and Carl Weathers, one of the few cast members of the movie Predator yet to obtain a governorship. (Think about that.)
But what really struck me about the show was that one of the main characters is played by an actor with a disability– Daryll Mitchell.
I was surprised at how surprised I was to see a disabled main character. Granted, I’m no TV junkie, but after thinking about it, I could only name one other main character on television right now that has a physical disability (House) and that’s a disabled character being played by an able-bodied actor.
That got me wondering why we don’t see more disabled main characters & actors on TV. It’s kind of odd. There’s a glut of one-shot guest starring roles where able-bodied actors play disabled characters in episodes with plots that usually focus on, or revolve around the disability itself– as if the disability were the star, and not the person who has it. And there have been more than a few plot lines where able-bodied main characters are “tragically afflicted” with a disability and spend a few tear-filled and angsty episodes learning to “deal” with their disability before being miraculously cured. But there are very few main characters with disabilities, even fewer characters for whom those disabilities are not their defining characteristic, and almost no main characters played by actors who are disabled themselves.
With the exception of shows that fetishized differences in ethnicity and sexual preference by making race, class, or sexual orientation the “theme” of the show, it wasn’t too long ago that everyone on primetime American television was white, straight, and upper class– as if anyone that deviated from that definition of “normal” didn’t belong on your standard sitcom. There was only a place for them if they were neatly packaged in a show whose concept called for such differences.
I can also remember being severely annoyed by how the commercials would change based on what type of audience the tv execs believed were watching a show. During Friends, there was nary a black man or hispanic woman to be found in ads for burger joints or insurance companies. But tune in to Girlfriends, and suddenly the background music changed to R&B and everyone in the Burger King commercial was black. I found it insulting to my intelligence, and downright annoying. It was as if the advertising executives not only believed that the audience watching Friends was all white while Girlfriends’ audience was all black, but also that white audiences wouldn’t want to eat at Burger King if shown a commercial featuring black burger eaters, and that black viewers would be turned off by fictionalized white patrons. It’s bullshit. If I’m not going to eat at a Burger King, it’ll be because their food is fucking disgusting– not because I saw a commercial with a black person in it.
It has taken a while, but slowly and surely, we’ve seen the barriers of class, ethnicity, and sexual preference weakening in American primetime TV. There are still plenty of all-white and all-black casts, but there are also plenty of shows that include characters of different ethnicities and sexual preferences as common parts of their fictional worlds. These are complex “normal” characters, no longer reduced to maudlin distillations of single superficial aspects like race or sexual orientation. And more often than not, the people in the Burger King commercials nowadays represent a wider variety of races and ethnicities (but their food still sucks).
Perhaps the “ability” barrier in television will be the next one to fall, and disabled characters and actors will finally be added to television’s new idealization of the American norm. It’s a little confusing to me that this hasn’t happened already, but talented actors like Daryl Mitchell are working hard to see that it happens soon.