New Media Trends: Disability-Friendly or Not?

Dan Murphy on the set of "American Body Shop".

Dan Murphy on the set of “American Body Shop”.

Every year Hollywood studios and television networks bet their future fortunes on an expensive, nerve-wracking ritual known as pilot season. From January through April, approximately 300 new series are pitched to the studios by hopeful writers and producers. From these, perhaps 50 scripts will actually be commissioned and written, and of those, only six to 10 scripts will be selected for pilot production.

Against these odds, it seems almost miraculous that two recent situation comedy pilots prominently featuring disabled characters — “Special Unit” and “I’m With Stupid” — were not only pitched and scripted, but actually produced. Although neither show was selected for full-series production, getting as far as pilot production seems to indicate that Hollywood’s attitude toward disability is slowly but surely progressing.

Or is it?

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to be encouraged by this apparent progress. But for the small number of disabled actors and writers in the Hollywood trenches, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

For disabled show-biz veterans Danny Murphy and Jim Troesh, progress requires a fair amount of do-it-yourself ingenuity. Thanks to his big-screen appearances in popular comedies by the Farrelly brothers — Kingpin, Shallow Hal and There’s Something About Mary — Murphy has become Hollywood’s most visible quadriplegic (he jokingly prefers the term “quadrimaniac”).

Now serving as vice chairman of the Screen Actor’s Guild Performers with Disabilities Committee (chaired by double-amputee and “CSI” cast regular Robert David Hall), Murphy is also co-founder of Value Added Script Services, which seeks to increase the appearance of disabled performers on TV, stage, and film. Murphy had a role in the pilot of “I’m With Stupid” (like “The Office,” it’s an American spin-off of a popular British sitcom), and while he’s hopeful about future developments, a lot of what he sees in Hollywood is business as usual.

“Anyone on the SAG committee would roll their eyes if they heard we were on the verge of a breakthrough,” says Murphy. “We’re developing a strategy that we hope will break the entertainment industry’s ‘lead ceiling’ for people with disabilities, but there’s still a lot of fear, hesitancy and discomfort with disability at the producer and studio executive level, and there’s a lot of evidence that we’re not making as much progress as we’d like to.”

The general consensus in Hollywood’s close-knit disability community is that the Farrelly-developed pilot for “I’m With Stupid” — produced by NBC Universal and starring disabled actor Bryan Dilbeck — just didn’t translate to an American setting. The BBC sitcom, in which a disabled loner befriends a homeless man, is set within a residential group home in a country with socialized medicine. According to Murphy and others, that didn’t accurately reflect the experience of most people with disabilities in the United States.

Because the Farrelly Brothers have considerable clout in the industry, and a pro-disability attitude that informs most of their work, it’s possible that “I’m With Stupid” will be overhauled and re-submitted for network approval, but Comedy Central’s 2006 pilot for “Special Unit” appears to be dead in the water. Written by “Titus” star Christopher Titus as a vehicle for himself and a cast of disabled performers, the pilot stars Titus as a rebellious, down-on-his-luck detective assigned to train a rookie squad of physically and developmentally disabled wannabe cops. A “special unit,” get it? Portions can be viewed on YouTube.

An established quad actor since his recurring role on “Highway to Heaven” in the ’80s, Jim Troesh appeared in the “Special Unit” pilot as one of Titus’ recruits and also served as the show’s creative consultant — to ensure that disability stereotypes were avoided or at least poked fun at from a well-informed perspective.

“I thought the British ‘I’m With Stupid’ sent the wrong message about being disabled,” says Troesh, “but when I read Chris’s script for ‘Special Unit,’ I couldn’t believe it was written by a nondisabled guy. A lot of the humor was right on — from a disability perspective — and because it was being done for Comedy Central, there wasn’t any of the politically correct condescension that you’d typically find toward the disabled characters.”

Directed by “Malcolm in the Middle” costar Bryan Cranston (now starring in AMC’s acclaimed series “Breaking Bad”), “Special Unit” was reportedly Comedy Central’s most expensive pilot to date, but the potential series was nixed for reasons that remain somewhat elusive. Troesh claims that a casting dilemma sidetracked the show, but it’s likely that projected costs, overall quality, and competitive scheduling factored into the network’s ultimate decision.

Jim Troesh directing  "The Hollywood Quad" pilot.

Jim Troesh directing “The Hollywood Quad” pilot.

Whatever the cause of their eventual rejection, the productions of “I’m With Stupid” and “Special Unit” can be considered unequivocal victories for people with disabilities in Hollywood. They suggest that disability is a blinking blip on Hollywood’s radar, demanding the attention of producers and executives who determine what gets on TV. It’s only a matter of time before the right combination of script and talent results in a new-series breakthrough.

In the meantime, encouraging developments suggest continuing progress. Actress and wheelchair user Teal Sherer ["Behind the Scenes at Warm Springs," January 2008] also appeared in the American pilot for “I’m With Stupid” and starred in a recent TV ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance, in which she conquers several obstacles to exercise her civic duty as an American voter.

“Oprah’s Big Give,” a limited eight-week reality series, shined a big, bright spotlight on sassy paraplegic contestant Carlana Stone; “Breaking Bad” features actor RJ Mitte (who has a mild case of cerebral palsy) in a recurring role as Bryan Cranston’s disabled son; and in trend-setting Britain — where the BBC’s popular “Ouch” disability website sends all the right messages, and where positive images of disability in popular culture are becoming almost routine – BBC Three recently announced the production of “Britain’s Missing Top Model,” a ground-breaking five-part reality series in which eight women with disabilities, ages 18 to 30, compete over the course of three weeks to prove that they have what it takes to be a mainstream fashion model.

Back in Los Angeles, where they coincidentally live in the same North Hollywood condominium complex, Murphy and Troesh are doing whatever they can to advocate for people with disabilities while managing their own careers in an unpredictable climate of elusive employment. Their daily challenge is reflected in oft-quoted statistics from a 2005 report commissioned by SAG: Despite people with disabilities representing 20 percent of the U.S. population, only .05 percent of all speaking roles in TV go to performers with disabilities. No other minority suffers from such a severe imbalance between reality and TV, and that has prompted Murphy and Troesh to take matters into their own hands.

For Murphy, currently enjoying a recurring role on Fox’s Farrelly-produced sitcom “Unhitched,” that includes finding ways to gain exposure for disabled artists, including VASS, an appointment to the Los Angeles Stage Alliance Accessibility Task Force, and producing and acting in a new Los Angeles stage production of “The History of Bowling,” a comedy written by long-time New Mobility contributor Mike Ervin. “I just hope audiences find it funny,” says Ervin. “If it sends a positive message about disability, so much the better.”

Troesh fired his acting agent years ago and is now broadening his show-biz horizons with “The Hollywood Quad,” a self-produced sitcom that began as a series of humorous “webisodes” on YouTube, intended to promote positive disability images as well as Troesh’s own career. Shot on digital video for under $10,000, the “Hollywood Quad” pilot stars Troesh with a guest-star appearance by Cranston, who has quietly become one of Hollywood’s most prominent nondisabled advocates for people with disabilities.

As the star of “The Hollywood Quad” pilot, Troesh essentially plays himself in what he describes as a “hybrid show” intended for TV but produced with a “YouTube-ish” look and feel. Even if it fails to attract industry interest, “The Hollywood Quad” represents a pioneering milestone for people with disabilities in Hollywood.

“I’m playing a guy who’s trying to get Hollywood to think he’s a player,” says Troesh. “It’s all taken from bits and pieces of my own life, but we focus on stuff that has nothing to do with being a quad. We make that point clear when I look at the camera and say, ‘And you thought my biggest problem was being a quad.’ Well, it isn’t.”

The biggest problem continues to be attitudes that prevail in Hollywood and an industry obsessed with youth and physical perfection. And yet, with every new role or TV pilot that features a positive or at least open-minded image of disability, those attitudes will surely continue to change. When corporate Hollywood finds a way to combine pro-disability programming with bottom-line profits — as it did for African Americans with “Julia” in the late ’60s and “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s — the time for a genuine, lasting breakthrough will finally have arrived.

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