But whatever you do, don’t blame the failure of NBC’s Ironside reboot on anything to do with disability and its depiction on film and TV. As TV cops and rednecks are so fond of saying, that dog don’t hunt.
If anything, the revival of Ironside was a modest victory for people with disabilities, who stood to benefit from the modernized profile of paraplegic detective Robert Ironside, played by Blair Underwood, as a streetwise, team-leading professional. Had the series lasted for even a season or two, we might’ve seen unprecedented exploration of disability issues as “New York’s Toughest Detective” (as promo ads described the revamped Ironside) went about his crime-solving business.
Accessibility, health care, discrimination, exclusion, sexuality — everything that’s important to us could’ve been examined in the context of a weekly, hour-long crime drama. Regardless of protest over the casting of nondisabled Underwood, his character’s context made it likely that disabled actors would’ve been sought for guest-starring roles. All that and more could’ve happened had the series offered more than a shred of original plotting. It didn’t.
As the major networks struggle to compete against the boundary-pushing freedom of basic-cable nets like FX and AMC, as well as premium-cable hits on HBO and Showtime (not to mention the advent of original programming from Netflix and Hulu), they have two choices: Take serious risks with original ideas, or copy proven formulas that make sponsors feel happy and safe. And since network executives are the most risk-averse creatures in Hollywood, we inevitably get a dozen variations of Law & Order, C.S.I., NCIS and popular talent competitions.
That’s why “franchise” is Hollywood’s favorite buzzword, and it’s also the reason studios “reimagine” properties they already own. Starring Raymond Burr as San Francisco’s paraplegic chief of detectives (who was paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet), the original Ironside, produced by Universal, earned respectable ratings over eight seasons (1967-75), but was anyone begging for a reboot? Was there a fan-driven campaign to revive the series, like the one that led Netflix to rescue Arrested Development after seven years in limbo? No, the original Ironside (parodied in MAD magazine as “Ironbutt”) seemed destined to remain a relic of the past, with less than half of its 199 episodes currently available via Hulu Plus.
Apparently, Michael Caleo felt otherwise. A writer/director enjoying career momentum after selling his script for The Family (the Mafia comedy starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, released in September to mixed reviews and middling box-office), Caleo got a development deal at Universal, where his ideas for an updated Ironside were deemed promising enough to warrant production of a pilot.
Then and Now: Some Progress
With Burr sporting off-the-rack suits and using a heavyweight, standard-issue Everest & Jennings wheelchair, the original Ironside came across like a dull, sexless sleuth who could happily spend Friday nights at home reading Sherlock Holmes stories. He commanded a small but diverse team resembling 1968’s The Mod Squad, including a token black jive-talker and a fashionable young blonde woman.
Burr’s Ironside sat on the pivot point between post-World War II and Korean War perspectives (as depicted in Marlon Brando’s 1950 debut film, The Men) and the demoralizing war in Vietnam. He’s an old-school mentor to new-school detectives, calmly issuing orders as his underlings drove him around in a huge, lift-equipped police van. (In later episodes he used a late-model modified van.) The closest he came to sin was the glass of bourbon he savored after solving a case — a detail that survives in the reboot.
Jump-cut to 2013 and Blair Underwood’s Ironside: The once-token black is now elevated, Obama-like, to leadership status, always on the move in his stripped-down TiLite (except for the pilot episode, in which Underwood used a Roughrider chair from Whirlwind International). He’s a rule-bending maverick (cliché alert!), defiant enough to challenge his pushy Asian captain and experienced enough to command a trio of eager young “whatever it takes” detectives.
Caleo’s most dramatically effective development saw Underwood’s Ironside paralyzed by friendly fire when, two years earlier, his senior partner Gary (Brent Sexton, from AMC’s The Killing) accidentally shot him while they were chasing a drug dealer on a dark city sidewalk. The anguished rapport between Ironside and his former partner, who guilt-trips himself into alcoholic despair, provided the series’ most authentic relationship, inspiring Underwood and Sexton to shine in their scenes together.
While burdening Ironside with barely-suppressed anger, the accident also gave him the kind of compensation that only Hollywood can conjure: In addition to a lucrative settlement, Ironside is reinstated as a full-time detective with a hand-picked team, provided with modified police vans and an entire building (yeah, right!) to house himself and his luxurious base of operations. Jealous resentment from nondisabled colleagues added an interesting hint of real-world behavior, but aside from that, Ironside’s crib was routine TV fantasy. (Pity Burr’s Ironside: All he got was a dingy attic apartment above SFPD headquarters, equipped with a steep ramp that’s dangerously pre-ADA.)
Caleo did an admirable job of retooling a musty old property for contemporary mass consumption, and NBC ordered a 13-episode season. With its potential as an enlightening forum for disability-related drama, the Ironside reboot held genuine promise, and Underwood recruited low-level para David Bryant as a technical consultant. To honor his mother, who uses a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, Underwood knew that his own wheeling — while positioning his legs to look sufficiently atrophied — had to be convincingly authentic.
A Lost Opportunity for Disability Awareness
That’s the good stuff; here’s the bad: In both iterations of Ironside, the titular hero is burdened with the common assumption that paralysis is a waking nightmare of non-stop misery. When asked “How do you live with it?” in the original series pilot, Burr’s Ironside says “I don’t live with it. I die with it, every day and every way.” So much for acceptance! Forty-six years later, Underwood’s Ironside is a tortured soul, prone to private outbursts of anguish. Within reason, perhaps, but his tantrums, especially at two years post-injury, felt forced and melodramatic.
And while it was great to see Underwood’s Ironside getting some action in the sack, it should be noted that the two sex scenes in the four-episode run were, strictly speaking, pre- and-post coital, and both scenes are interrupted by urgent police business. David Bryant reportedly informed Underwood that all spinal cord injuries differ in degrees of sexual function, prompting Underwood to define the character as sexually “able”, but we’ll never know if Ironside would’ve offered a more intimate exploration of disabled sexuality.
More troubling was the depiction of “New York’s Toughest Detective” as a barely-disabled man of action. In its direction and editing, the new series cut too many corners to minimize the daily realities of life in a wheelchair. Simply put, Underwood’s Ironside, who’s into strenuous daily workouts and coaching hockey during off-hours, is a super-para, able to exit vehicles in a flash; smooth-talking an attractive woman (later seen in bed with him) before arm-twisting her crip-insulting boyfriend; and somehow reaching the rooftop of an old building with no elevator in sight. Indeed, the New York in the program appears to be virtually barrier-free. Would future episodes have avoided this editorial cheating? Again, we’ll never know.
As far as casting is concerned, Ironside was re-conceived to include pre-injury flashbacks, legitimately justifying the casting of a nondisabled actor. It would’ve been historic to see a disabled actor in the role, but I choose to believe that had it been successful, the new Ironside would have benefited people with disabilities in other, similarly tangible ways.
Oh, but the plotting. It was wretchedly indistinguishable from any other crime drama. Whether they were infiltrating a high-stakes poker ring, tracking a serial killer, uncovering the sinister truth behind an apparent suicide or searching for a missing girl, the Ironside team had nothing new to offer. Viewers sensed this even before the show’s premiere, resulting in death-knell ratings that killed the series in less than a month.
Disability was never the problem, behind or in front of the cameras. The series failed because nobody asked for it, nobody wanted it, and it was doomed from the get-go. Up against CBS’s C.S.I. and ABC’s Nashville at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, Ironside never had a chance.
The four episodes of 2013’s Ironside can still be viewed on Hulu and NBC.com.