Television writers are responsible for dreaming up any number of wildly imaginative scenarios, from an Albuquerque chemistry teacher who begins cooking incredibly pure methamphetamine, to a group of twenty-somethings with impossibly affordable apartments across the hall from each other in New York City. But when it comes to creating memorable characters, both actors and showrunners sometimes need to reach beyond the writers room for help in understanding the constraints and strengths certain circumstances might impose in certain situations. At the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday, the stars of two NBC shows, the much-loved family drama Parenthood, and Ironside, the new drama about a wheelchair-using cop that will premiere this fall, talked specifically about how technical advisors have helped them play characters with medical issues that give them new perspectives on the events around them.
Max Burkholder, whose performance on Parenthood as Max brings a rare nuance to the portrayal of people with Asperger syndrome and autism on television, said that the subject was new to him when he joined the show in 2010, and that his work with a doctor who was a technical consultant to the show was critical in helping him suss out Max’s thought patterns and reactions.
“In the beginning we used to have meetings every episode. Jason was usually there with the director of the episode and a doctor who specializes in working with children with Asperger’s, and we would sort of go over the things that Max would do, the ways he would react in certain situations,” he explained. “But as the series has gone on, I feel that I’ve been able to sort of figure out what Max would be doing without the help of others as much, and I’ve sort of figured out who he is as a character and how best to portray him both representing the autistic community in a good way and also the uniqueness of Max that Jason created.”
And Blair Underwood, who plays the titular detective in Ironside, NBC’s remake of the 1967 classic police procedural about a detective who uses a wheelchair, said that David Bryant, his technical consultant, had a major impact on everything from the wheelchairs the show uses, to the producers understanding of the culture of the New York Police Department. The showrunners decided to cast an able-bodied actor to play Ironside, because ten to fifteen percent of the show takes place in flashbacks before his injury, and they said that using CGI to work an actor with a disability into those scenes would have been cost-prohibitive and extraordinarily time-consuming, given the quick turn-around time on network television production.
“Before we shot the pilot we spent many, many hours together just kind of doing what he does, going out in public. He said, ‘Just take the chair and go around your neighborhood, and go out.’ We’d go out to dinner and everything, and spend a lot time. The first thing I noticed was there were no handles on his wheelchair. And I said, ‘Dude, why don’t you have handles on your wheelchair, man?’ He said, ‘Why would I want to? Why would I want
somebody to help me out? I’m independent–whatever I can do for myself, I’m going to do for myself.’ So the first thing we did was cut the handles off the wheelchair.”
Underwood explained that Bryan had also educated him about how different spinal injuries can be, which is one of the reasons Ironside is depicted as having an active sex life with able-bodied partners. Underwood had assumed that Ironside wouldn’t be able to have sex, but the producers decided that Ironside would have been injured at his T12 vertebra, but that his nerve endings remained intact. And he said that watching the documentary Murderball had given him a sense of how men who use wheelchairs handle their sexual and romantic lives.
Showrunner Kan Sanzel said that Bryant also gave him context on how cops with disabilities serve in the NYPD. And he said he hoped that Ironside could help change the perception of what people with disabilities can do in an occupation like law enforcement.
“There are actually a couple of patrolmen, there are two patrolmen, as far as he knows, who have prosthetic limbs. There are no detectives in wheelchairs in the NYPD,” Sanzel said. “And I had this discussion with him saying, you
know, ‘[A detective in a wheelchair is] a big conceit, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Five years ago, it would have been a big conceit. Now I think it’s reaching a place where it could be very plausible.’ And I think, actually, we discussed this, that it may be that this show is the kind of thing that breaks down a lot of perceptual barriers that makes something happen in a year or two or three.”
It’s an ambitious dream. But if Ironside, Parenthood, and other shows with characters with disabilities, or characters who are non-neurotypical want to show where people in those circumstances can end up, it’s important to have good technical advisers to help those programs be accurate and sensitive about where their characters are starting out.