23 November, 2009

I was just thinking about Carnivale

because I love it so much and everything, and I always seem to briefly mention it in posts where I'm complaining about Glee. Although other people might disagree, I think Carnivale is an example of a show with disabled characters made by someone who actually respects people with disabilities.

The show is sort of hard to explain; it's ridiculous and I love it. It's a really slow-moving soap opera about a traveling carnival in the 1930s, and by the way two of the main characters are superpowered beings who are fated to enact a battle between God and the devil. Dan Knauf, the creator of the show, described the idea as, "What if you wake up in the morning and you're the Antichrist?" IT'S HARD TO EXPLAIN OKAY? I just think it's neat because it takes all this supernatural stuff and puts in a painfully ordinary context. The "hero" of the show, Ben, is a monosyllabic, spacey guy who's embarrassed by his powers and tries to stay awake as much as possible so he doesn't have prophetic dreams. And so on. The period stuff is also astonishingly good, as far as I can tell.

Now that I actually run through the characters in my head, I'm not sure what I was thinking saying that most of the disabled characters are played by disabled actors. A blind character, a paralyzed character, an intellectually disabled character, and a character with a limp are all played by nondisabled actors--there are plot reasons for most of these casting choices, although the scenes where they appear without their disabilities are brief. Also, understandably I think because it's hard to find Siamese twins, the Siamese twins and some other minor circus freak characters are played by actors who don't have those conditions. And the character with a limp is presented as being really torn up about it. And there are a few heartswelling moments where Ben cures physically disabled people by laying on of hands. Wow, what the fuck am I talking about? Why do I think this show is so great on disability stuff?

Well, if I recall correctly, there are several episodes where guest actors with actual "circus freak" conditions were cast. And that's something. There's also a physically disabled actor who plays an important role in several episodes (to say more would be a massive spoiler). But the main thing is MICHAEL J. ANDERSON, an actor with dwarfism who plays one of the main characters on the show! Now that I'm thinking about the show really critically, I guess I can see how Anderson's character, Samson, might be a "magical disabled person" character; he's quirky, wise, doesn't have much of a backstory, and delivers the exposition-y speeches at the beginning of the episodes just because it looks cool (in the context of the show, Samson doesn't know the information he says in the speeches). However, I think that it would be unfair to frame the character as simply "magical" because many other Carnivale characters have "magical" qualities. Also, as I think I mentioned when I was talking about Kurt on Glee, I think that what's important is not whether characters are stereotypical, but whether they come off as real humans. Samson is given tons of screentime and lines and does, to me, come off as a real human. He isn't the protagonist of the show, and there is a particular role that he usually plays in the plots, but he sometimes makes decisions that reveal surprising aspects of his character. He's just really cool.

And also, I just can't understate the importance of casting a really talented actor with a disability as a regular in the show and making him one of the major characters (the show has a lot of regulars, some of whom aren't featured very much). Actors with dwarfism often appear in movies and TV shows, but don't often get to stick around once the novelty has worn off. Michael J. Anderson was really given a chance to show how awesome he is for a long period of time, instead of being used as a tool to show how surreal and wacky something is.

And then, the coolest thing! This woman, Bree Walker, has fingers and toes that are fused together. She is (was?) a news anchor who, after wearing prosthetic hands for several years, decided to openly display her real hands. She now appears in movies and television shows playing people with her genetic condition; she also has a reality show, I think. She contacted the makers of Carnivale, pointing out that a lot of people with her condition used to be circus freaks, and telling them her ideas for a recurring character she could play on the show.

And yeah. She got it. She was on three episodes of the show playing Samson's ex-wife who joins the carnival with her new husband. The makers of the show actually thought it was legitimate for someone with a disability to be like "hey, I have this condition, and there's no one with my condition on the show, and I'm a good actor, so can I be on it?" They didn't think their vision of what the show should be like was so massively important that they couldn't listen to a disabled person's point of view, and accept her suggestion. Cool!

Dan Knauf has said that his interest in circus freaks stemmed from watching his father, a wheelchair user, be discriminated against when Knauf was growing up. Now that I've written this whole rundown of the show, I can see that there are potentially problematic elements, but I can't bring myself to be too bothered by them; I think, overall, Knauf's respect for disabled people is very obvious in the decisions he made with the show.

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