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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Glee Offers Solid Episode Focused on a Character with a Disability

I checked out Fox's Glee last night after reading that the show focused on the group's efforts to pay for an accessible bus to bring Artie, a member of the group that uses a wheelchair, to a contest with the others. I had also read that the character is played by an able-bodied actor, Kevin McHale, news that I wish was shocking but certainly is not.

Entering the show with trepidation -- glee club was just never on my radar -- I found myself basically entertained by the show. At first I was watching Artie's rendition of "Dancing with Myself" thinking it was a bit over the top, but then I realized that type of sequence is probably a regular part of a show about a glee club. Once that clicked in my brain, I actually thought it was a creative take on the song.

However, I will admit that the sequence was the one part of the show in which I was bothered by the knowledge that Artie was played by an able-bodied person. It was a very smooth routine complete with a few wheelchair maneuvers on two wheels (as opposed to four). I understand the realities of Hollywood, and I hate to use soft words in this situation, but it just didn't feel right.

Even an occasional observer of Hollywood knows it's a superficial world that will go with the best looking person over someone who may bring more authenticity to a role 99 times out of 100. Tom Cruise didn't get the lead role in Jerry Maguire because he had some deep understanding of NFL agents. So, it's not too outrageous to suggest that giving McHale the role of Arty is just par for the course. Not that an actor with a disability couldn't have been just as good, but it's at least possible that the producers did their due diligence in seeking out an actor with a disability and McHale won the part. I doubt that occurred and even if it did there are still problems with this casting, but let's assume for the moment that was the case.

Watching McHale do tricks in a wheelchair raises a question that goes beyond role playing or star power. Certainly, some people with disabilities can do those maneuvers, but there just seemed to be a hint of leaving the disability behind when it was time to perform. It's disingenuous and potentially sends a poor message to the show's teenage target audience that someone with a disability can just shake it off when necessary. To be fair, the episode addressed that very issue later.

Again, it's a show about a glee club, so it gets some latitude. Certainly it's a long way from the days of a character in a wheelchair showing up out of nowhere on a show like What's Happenin' and having all of his problems solved with a pop-a-wheelie for Rog, Rerun, and the gang at the end of the half-hour. In fact, the Glee story line that lead to the entire club spending three hours a day in a wheelchair was done fairly well. The club's teacher/sponsor brought up the often overlooked issue of the need to have the person with a disability, Artie, travel with the group to be part of the comradery of traveling as opposed to just going in a separate car with his dad. Even the Rolling on a River finale performed with everyone using wheelchairs and the ultimate conclusion of the story line about Artie was solid.

One question remains though, especially in light of the news that Brothers is likely to be canceled. This is the only other show I'm aware of currently running -- or possibly was running -- with a character who has a disability (and is played by an actor who actually uses a wheelchair, Daryl Mitchell) Is Artie's disability a true part of the show even when it's not the centerpiece?

I was disappointed by the news on Brothers, as the show was genuinely funny, though not uproariously so, and the disability of Chill, Mitchell's character, was dealt with in a manner that needs to be seen much more. It was simply part of who he was, not the center of the show. C.C.H. Pounder's character, the mother of Chill and Michael (played by Michael Strahan) delivered a couple of great lines in the pilot about Chill using the chair as a tool as opposed to being stuck in a chair, but it was a real reaction from a caring mother and the show moved on.

This may be unfair to question with Glee as I've only seen one episode and the show may already be dealing with the disability as part of the show. But last night disabilities were shown to touch the lives of three characters and was a central theme of the show. One of the other story lines involved a gay member of the club. Was this the "minority" episode after which these characters return to the background?

Hopefully not.

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