In the new television fall season, is there a new Breaking Bad with a supporting character with cerebral palsy, or a new Glee with an ensemble member in a wheelchair? Where’s the new House, a show built entirely around a lead character with a disability? After years on the margins of primetime TV, is this the season where people with disabilities finally become a forceful presence?
As they say in the Chicago Cubs locker room: Wait until next year.
This fall’s TV schedule, with one exception, is pathetically devoid of any new showcase for characters with disabilities. According to Gail Williamson of Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin and Associates Talent Agency, the most prominent and successful agent for actors with disabilities in Hollywood, “it is slim pickings for actors with disabilities this year. There is a recurring character here and there and a fair number of guest spots, but nothing to write home about.”
Williamson attributes this dearth of opportunity to two factors. One, “characters with disabilities are pretty much the last of the marginalized minority groups coming to the ‘entertainment table’ because we have so few like them in the executive offices.” Two, even when such a role is written, actors with disabilities are still left out in the cold. “In 2015, you really can’t fake black or Hispanic or Asian, say, but because you can fake someone with a disability, there’s an easy and insidious way to do so, i.e., “We tried to cast a disabled performer but simply had to go with a nondisabled actor who was perfect for the part.”
It does seem — in a completely unscientific assessment — that there is more exposure for actors with disabilities these days in TV commercials. Williamson notes that Target has a kid in a chair in its current Back to School campaign and Lowe’s features a person in a chair in more than one spot. One particularly moving Wells Fargo ad now running features a same-sex couple learning sign language before adopting a deaf child. The thing about well-made commercials is that they stick in the mind. Remember the recent spot featuring a wheelchair basketball game where only one player was an actual wheelchair user?
New Kid on the Block: The Inspectors
If that was all that was happening, this article would be over. But, then, like a shooting star in the sky, up on the radar screen pops The Inspectors from the outer reaches of the television universe. It’s not on ABC or HBO primetime. It’s on CBS on Saturday morning, the land of kids’ TV, part of the “CBS Dream Team” line-up featuring family-friendly shows targeted at 13 to 16-year-olds and full of valuable life lessons. This is the result of an FCC mandate from 1991 called the Children’s Television Act. No more Strawberry Shortcake or My Little Pony, basically cartoon-length commercials for dolls and toys. This is stuff, God forbid, that is good for kids.
Created and produced by Dave Morgan, a prolific purveyor of quality, Emmy-winning children’s programming like Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown and Lucky Dog, The Inspectors is a scripted, live-action half-hour series about a 19-year-old wheelchair-using kid who works with his mom to solve crimes committed against the postal service. Remember when your grandmother paid some shyster $500 after being told she’d won a sweepstakes prize of an all-expense paid cruise to Puerto Vallarta? Or that mail offer your not-too-bright brother-in-law got that convinced him he could get a brand new Toyota for only $39.95? That’s a postal crime, dealt with by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The show is what is known in the TV business as a “procedural,” the solving of a crime from onset to arrest. In primetime, it’s a major trope. On Saturday morning, at least with The Inspectors, it’s primetime in a different daypart.
Morgan and company work out of Charleston, S.C., far from the sins, and expenses, of Hollywood. This allows them a perspective, Morgan says, that is closer to the audience. “I have the mentality of a local broadcaster,” he says, “where part of the job description is that you care about the community.” The idea for the show came from Morgan’s own experience being around people with disabilities, as well as producing PSAs involving disability-creating events like texting and driving.
Preston, the teenager in the chair, in fact becomes paralyzed one day while his dad, also a postal inspector, is driving and texting and loses control of the car. His father is killed and Preston becomes a low-level para. The actor playing Preston, Bret Green, is not disabled, an all too common crime against actors with disabilities and an immediate red flag for anyone who cares. According to Morgan, a nondisabled actor was needed to allow for multiple flashbacks in the pre-accident life of Preston. “Flashbacks,” he says, “allow us to have the kid learn from his deceased father about how to crack tough cases (with the subtext of ‘kids, listen to your parents’).” It also allows the character, and the audience, to see him both before and after his accident.
“I looked at the television landscape,” says Morgan, “and decided I wanted a character I had never seen, one who could represent the abilities of someone the world said had disabilities … an opportunity for me to represent a community of people that I meet every day who do more before 9 a.m. than I do in a month.” Hopefully, he says, the audience will see this character in a completely different way and say, “I don’t see this on television. Ever.”
Parenthetically, he notes, “I have never felt an ounce of depression around those with disabilities. I have felt an ounce of inspiration. Then I learned that I shouldn’t say that!”
Consulting Help From an SCI Pro
All this is well and good: A go-getter kid in a chair who is out there — like the famous fictional quad sleuth Lincoln Rhyme — outwitting the bad guys. What gives the show its authenticity, and much of its depth, are the people surrounding Preston. One is his off-screen instructor in Wheelchair 101, Alex Jackson, 28, a C5-6 complete quad from a car crash as an infant. A recent graduate in communications from College of Charleston, Jackson is a local activist who writes his own blog, Tuesday Talk With Alex. The show found him through Dr. James Krause, director of the Center for Rehabilitation Research in Neurological Conditions at Medical University of South Carolina.
As Morgan cohort Sara Krajewski says, “Alex wears a lot of hats” on set. He doesn’t just advise Preston on how to make a proper transfer or position his body in a chair. He guides the production crew in things like ramp design and what the room of a 19-year-old wheelchair user would look like.
He focuses on the smallest of details. “I helped the actor with scenes to look as natural as possible,” he says. “Originally, for instance, the producers wanted Preston to be holding papers as someone else pushed him. I told them to have the person walking next to him hold up the papers and talk about them as the character pushed himself.”
“Other examples,” he continues, “include a cutting board for carrying plates on his lap or wearing gloves to protect his hands while pushing his chair.” The details tell the tale. He also rounded up some real wheelchair racers from Atlanta and elsewhere who showed Preston the ropes of wheelchair competition and appeared alongside him in the episode centered on racing.
Both Jackson and Morgan attest to the effort that Green made to accurately portray a wheelchair user. According to Morgan, “Bret spent weeks experiencing daily routines using the chair.” He even stayed in the chair between takes. Jackson did see a few flaws — “his trunk moved around more that the average person with SCI.” Alex is a tough grader.
Greg Gadson: The Real Thing
Along with Jackson, the on-screen co-star who best demonstrates the show’s commitment to getting it right is a double-amp named Greg Gadson. Gadson is a legendary black Army colonel, now retired, who served as an artillery officer in every war operation from the first Gulf War through the NATO force in Bosnia to Afghanistan and back to the protracted Iraq War. He lost both legs when his armored vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Baghdad and has a chest full of medals attesting to his courage and leadership.
Quick story: Gadson was the co-captain of the Army football team at West Point. In 2007, well after his accident, a West Point classmate and then a member of the coaching staff of the New York Giants, Mike Sullivan, invited him to hang out with the team on game day. After a rousing locker room speech from Gadson, the Giants won that day, then went on a 10-game winning streak, ending with their victory in Super Bowl XLII. Gadson was in the clubhouse and on the sidelines the whole time, and in recognition of his contribution, he was given a specially designed Super Bowl ring.
Gadson’s only previous acting role was as Mike Canales, a legless Army vet, in the 2012 global crowd pleaser, Battleship. In The Inspectors, Gadson plays David Cole, Preston’s PT instructor and life mentor. He is the father figure the kid needs to help him through the vicissitudes of paralysis, not to mention the vicissitudes of adolescence. As Morgan explains, “Even if Preston weren’t in a wheelchair, Greg would still be a great motivator and teacher.”
“In the very first scene of the show,” Morgan explains, “we see Greg putting Preston through the paces of a hard workout. Greg tells him that when he woke at Walter Reed Army Hospital, legless, he started to work on finding his ‘new normal.’” That is, in essence, Preston’s personal quest throughout the series.
The Gadson character works his way into Preston’s life and is seen in non-rehab occasions like a family discussion about girls or the local wheelchair race. Preston’s mother, played by veteran actress Jessica Lundy, also gives her son sound advice. In one episode, Preston feels weird about an attractive girl in school. His mom tells him paralysis isn’t a weakness and that, as Morgan paraphrases, “it has helped give you more of a life, not less … if a girl doesn’t see those things in you, perhaps she is not worthy of you.”
Having counseled and encouraged many returning wounded warriors coming back from the terrors of Iraq and Afghanistan, Gadson instinctively knows how to motivate his fictional charge. When they hired him, he says, they told me, “We like the character you are going to bring to the part.” In many ways, it’s not acting at all.
“It’s working through the emotions,” Gadson says. “I tell people that when something like this happens in your life, you have to move through the spectrum of emotions, as painful as that might be. You can put it on the shelf for a while, but eventually it will rear its ugly head and you will have to deal with it.”
Doing a show like The Inspectors for a Saturday morning audience of 13 to 16-year-olds and their parents, all watching on the kitchen TV, is daunting. Kids are a notoriously fickle viewing crowd and according to Morgan, this is only the second scripted show like this that CBS has tried in this time period since the 1991 children’s TV dictate. The first? Saved By The Bell.
“The format,” Morgan explains, “is a procedural drama with kid-appealing comedy added in … on one hand it has to be a convincing story line. On the other, it has to look like an orange juice commercial.”
What many disability activists outside the entertainment business often don’t consider is that however a show like The Inspectors tries to show paralysis in a truthful and positive light, it doesn’t really matter if the show doesn’t work as entertainment. The audience, not the high-minded creators, is the final arbiter of survival and in this case, it’s an audience of kids, and hopefully mom and dad, too, who must be entertained by a 19-year-old crime-solving heartthrob in a wheelchair.
That said, if The Inspectors works on Saturday morning, what’s to stop it or a variation of it from working on Thursday night at 8:00?