Discussing TV's Disability Problems

Picture of an old-style TV with the wheelchair symbol on the screen
I was listening yesterday to this week’s episode of the Firewall & Iceberg Podcast, a TV review podcast by Alan Sepinwall and Dan Feinberg. One of the shows they discussed was the upcoming NBC sitcom, “Growing Up Fisher”. The show is about a father who is blind, as told by his son. It borrows a bit from “The Wonder Years”, as the son narrates a lot in voiceover as an grown adult remembering his childhood. The father is played by J. K. Simmons, not a blind person himself (yet again), but a pretty excellent comic actor. Jenna Elfman plays his wife.

One tidbit I picked up that I hadn’t heard before is that on the show, the father is said to have spent a good portion of his professional life hiding his blindness, and is now, for a variety of reasons I guess, starting to be more open about his blindness. I don’t know if this is a good idea or a terrible one.

What really interested me though was that both Sepinwall and Feinberg don’t like the show. They don’t hate it, but they are unimpressed. Mostly it’s because like a lot of recently failed network sitcoms, it’s bland and generic. But then one of them (I’m not sure which) said something telling. To paraphrase … The comedy might have been funnier and more notable if they’d done more jokes about the father’s blindness, but that would have run the risk of justifiably offending people. So, the writers soft-pedal the “blind jokes”, thereby avoiding offending people, but also leaving a possible source of stronger humor untapped.

To me, this suggests three things about disability on TV:

1. TV writers have a hard time making disability depictions distinctive and interesting, while avoiding offense. This may be because they don’t have enough direct disability experience, so they don’t really understand what’s interesting what’s offensive to actual people with disabilities.

2. Not casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters isn’t just a problem of “representation” or “equal opportunity”, it may actually produce inferior TV shows.

3. We may not see a really great disability depiction on TV until one of the great TV auteurs pitches a show with disabled main characters to one of the cable channels like HBO, AMC, or FX.

Then again, maybe the problem is that TV reviewers don't understand disability depictions.