The Inspectors is a new CBS show about a 19-year-old wheelchair user who works with his mom to solve crimes committed against the postal service.
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.