Friday, November 16, 2007

Paging Dr. Cliche ...

The television writers are on strike. This is national news, I realize, but it's also local chatter here--I drive past the picket line at Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach some days, it's only a mile or two from my house. I was talking to a striking writer at a small dinner gathering last night, and an assistant director who's also affected. That's LA for you. But one show's writers probably shouldn't rush back to work--if recent episodes are any indication of their mindset.

Cilla Sluga at Big Noise explained what was wrong about last week's mess on ER: an episode in which a doctor and a young teen decide the kid (who has a terminal illness) shouldn't live any longer, so they lie to the kid's mother about treatment options--and this is presented as a noble gesture on the doctor's part, not as gross malpractice. One character objects, but doesn't go farther than voicing her objection. (And as Sluga further reveals, the episode was written by an ER doctor at Children's Hospital LA--a scary twist to the story.) In this week's episode, William Peace at Bad Cripple catches another doozy: a wheelchair user is the tired "bitter cripple" stereotype, complete with lines like "anger is my baseline" (which would make a fine t-shirt, but as a summary of a disabled character, ugh). One implication of his storyline is that he can't be a good parent because, uh... because he can't clean the gutters. What?

It wasn't always like this: ER has in the past done much better by the disability community. Characters with physical, mental and sensory disabilities have been presented as rounded human beings with full civil rights, at least as well as any other 44-minute network TV drama has done (admittedly, that's a low standard to achieve). One highlight was a 1998 appearance by Neil Marcus, which was about showing disablist assumptions for the dangerous errors they are.... not about confirming those assumptions for viewers.

I hear that this is ER's last season. Maybe that's for the best.

UPDATE 12-7: William Peace notes that the 300th episode (much hyped, aired this week) was also cringe-worthy.

11 comments:

Jesse the K said...

Before I abandoned this show in frustration, it always provided plenty of dis-crit gristle to chew on. In addition to any number of dislabeled patients, there were several continuing characters with disabilities who were even doctors.

Present at the creation, "Kerry Weaver" (played by Laura Innes), used one forearm crutch due to unspecified reasons until last season, when someone told her she should really get her congenital hip problem cured via joint replacement. Her stated hesitation at changing her identity from "disabled" to not overnight was at least mentioned, if not really explored. One could count on most writers to give Kerry some empathy for the lives of other people with disabilities.

In particular, Kerry was very supportive of "Jeannie Boulet" (played by Gloria Reuben), who was HIV positive and facing a high white wall of hostility both because of that and because she was "just" a Physician's Assistant, and not a real doc.

Then there was "Lucy Knight," played by Kellie Martin, who had ADD. She used an electronic notetaker to help her keep track of all the data pouring in at one time.

"Paul Nathan" (played with typical expertise by Don Cheadle) decided to become a med student because of his Parkinson's.

Oh, there are thousands more. But in general, when disability issues came up on ER, I knew that I'd be grinding my teeth later that same evening.

Jennifer Justice said...

Thanks for commenting on this. Yes! the "mercy killing" episodes are everywhere! Gray's Anatomy annoys me on a number of levels but one thing that drove me nuts is their handling of Meredith Gray's mom who has alsheimers. It's amazing how "selfless/ noble" terminally ill people are made out to be on these shows! In a moment of lucicity Gray's mom asks her OWN DAUGHTER to forego treatment for a heart condition. Gray refuses, not because it would be gross malpractice but because she doesn't want it riding her conscience, which is already curdled with mom angst.

I can think of at least 3 or 4 episodes of Gray's Anatomy where a character refuses treatment that could save or prolong their life cuz they don't want to compromize their dignity. I'm so over it. Someone recently turned me on to House and I thought it would be like all the others but I LOVE that that show is so irreverent and shafts all those tired, tired plot lines.

william Peace said...

Mercy killing of a wide variety of people seems to be the norm these days on TV and in films. Do you think this was made possible by Million Dollar Baby? That is, did this film make it socially acceptable for Hollywood to mercy kill characters?

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