The view expressed in this post are the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the blog team as a whole.
Well folks, I said I wouldn’t do it—that I’d wait until the show was more mature—but, last night, I found myself on the couch watching my first episode of the NBC comedy Growing Up Fisher. The show, as billed at the beginning of the episode, is “based on a true story” of a blind lawyer who only ‘outs’ himself as blind after his divorce, before which time his son and his friend (or relative, I don’t remember) had devised many ways to conceal his blindness. This episode was centered around Mel’s dilemma–to ‘come out’ before or after his law firm secured a very lucrative deal–, his son’s discovery that he doesn’t have to pretend to be blind to get a girl to like him, and the rocky relationship between his daughter and his ex-wife.
“But hang on,” you say, “the show is about a blind guy—don’t you want to get behind that?”
As a blind person, of course I do. But the thing is: whenever I hear of a new movie or TV show featuring a blind character, my first thought is very rarely a positive one. This is not because I don’t support the portrayal of people with any kind of disability in the media, because I do (very strongly, I might add); however, I would be very hard-pressed to find any portrayal that is neither bursting with sickening sentimentality nor crushed by blatant inaccuracies. And the thing about this latest foray into the world for a blind person is that it stays clear of both those things, but still manages to tick all the check boxes of “blindy” stereotypes by doing something just as detrimental. It uses Mel’s disability to a comedic advantage—a plot device that just happens to also be able to pull on people’s heartstrings while simultaneously boosting ratings. I’m sorry if I sound callus, but this is how the show came off to me. And this isn’t even taking into account the disjointed storyline and terribly stilted dialogue. Oh no, those things just erm…bolstered my opinion.
I’m not going to get into the finer details of the episode, because, frankly, I checked out too soon to let them really sink in. However, I will say that the storyline seemed very much contrived to get the most laughs from the most absurd situation, such as Mel’s son’s “brilliant” idea to pretend that he was blind, since he was walking his father’s guide dog in harness–which, by the way, I don’t think is protocol. In addition, The multiple plot lines that swung between the father-and-son and mother-and-daughter dynamics made it difficult for me to feel a connection toward any of the characters, and also made me wonder why the second storyline had even been included. Perhaps there were points I missed from not having watched the pilot episode, but it seemed as though the mother-and-daughter scenes were only thrown in because the powers that be did not feel that the antics of a blind guy and his dorky son would be accepted as enough of a story for a half-hour show.
And that’s pretty much what it was for me, Mel and his son were only comedic placeholders and not characters I could get behind and root for. Maybe the general public would not feel the same way, since the blind character is quite a novel sight (no pun intended) on the small screen, but as someone who actually lives that life, I didn’t appreciate the way that blindness was a sort of comedic add-on, rather than an actual lived experience. And, it’s probably just me, but the narration from Mel’s son as an adult made it seem like the show was trying to imitate The Wonder Years, and it fell far, far short of that mark. Sure, there was a point to the episode, which was that one does not have to disguise one’s true self to be liked by others, but it was so general a theme that Mel’s blindness appeared even more as just a means to that end.
One of the scenes that stood out to me came at the end of the episode, when Mel finally told his business associate that he was blind. The scene went into a flashback of Mel performing feats that blind people generally wouldn’t be accredited as doing, such as taking a very expensive car for a test-drive. After thinking about all the things he had seen Mel do, the associate told Mel that he was like a superhero, a phrase not uncommon in sighted-to-blind interaction, but one that serves only to isolate a blind person as someone beyond the norm. Now, I could have missed Mel’s response to this, because I was pretty much over the show before this scene, but from what I remember, he did not correct the assumption. Without getting into the social and psychological nitty-gritty that such comments–or, on the other end of the spectrum, demeaning comments–can have on a person, the show makes it seem that Mel really is super and different, and that it is humorous because he could have saved himself and his friend a lot of time and energy if he had just accepted his superhero status sooner.
I will admit, that maybe, in a subtle way, the show does touch upon issues surrounding the perception of blindness by the blind person and the people in his life, but I think that the comic outlandishness of the situations he and his son find themselves in overshadow this good intention. And while I’m on the topic of comedy, the only time I even thought to laugh throughout the entire episode was at the beginning. The narrator asked something like, “Why does he have a guide dog and a cane? Because you can’t hit a car with a guide dog”, during which time you hear traffic in the background and Mel whacking a car with his cane. Other than that, though, the alleged humor, as well as pretty much all the dialogue, fell quite flat. I know that it is just a sitcom, and as such is really only supposed to be lighthearted entertainment, but I had hoped that it’s “mass appeal” would somehow make it a steppingstone to changing the portrayal of people with disabilities in the media at large, but from what I saw last night, it will have to change the way it approaches Mel and his blindness to achieve this.
I might watch Growing Up Fisher again next week, if only to see where it goes, but for right now, it’s one of those shows that populates my “meh” list. I think it could have potential, because at least there is a prominent blind character on network television, but that alone won’t guarantee its longevity. For one thing, Mel is not the first blind character on a network sitcom–there was a blind character in the show Go On, and from what I remember, his blindness was also a convenient comedic device. But also, blindness issues aside, the show lacks the warmth and authenticity that would help the poorly-delivered jokes to perhaps resonate better with the audience. Maybe, if it gave audiences more heart and less outrageous yet unfunny situations, it could be a voice, albeit an offbeat, funny-ish voice, calling for more characters with disabilities in the media. And then, maybe those characters can finally show people the reality, which is, yes sometimes very funny, of living with blindness, or CP, or CF, or whatever else just adds to the beautiful diversity of the human condition.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my take on Growing Up Fisher. You can disagree, or point out things I missed, because, as I said, I really wasn’t into it. In fact, I encourage you to chime in and correct anything I may have gotten incorrect. I do want the show to succeed so that audiences and directors alike can realize that people with disabilities do have stories that need telling–and that there are people with disabilities that can do that telling themselves. I for one have always loved acting, and it is a sort of dream of mine to one day write a Hallmark movie. But that’s all beside the point…
Thanks for reading!
P.S. One of the shows that does get at the lived experience of disability (as much as it can) is NBC’s Parenthood. It is more of a drama with comic moments rather than a sitcom, so that probably makes it easier to showcase the reality of autism for Max and his family, but show’s like that give me hope. And, maybe my opinion of “Fisher” could have been colored a little by the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the show that directly precedes it. About A Boy is made by the creators of Parenthood and is also a sitcom, but it’s actually funny and authentic, and Minnie Driver is in it, which makes it just awesome. 😀