um, WHAT?

Sep. 20th, 2011 11:51 am
eruthros: Aang from Avatar:TLA facepalming (Avatar - facepalming aang)
[personal profile] eruthros
I haven't been paying much attention to the new tv schedule, and I had mostly dismissed Alphas as soon as I saw ... anything about it (fyi it started airing in July). But the detention center in the show is in upstate New York, so I keep seeing links about it. Which is how I came across this interview with Zak Penn in which he talks about the premise and characters of Alphas:

(disability fail, half of the tv tropes pages on disability especially disability superpowers, mostly about the autism spectrum)
So Gary Bell, played by actor Ryan Cartwright on SyFy’s "Alphas," is certainly groundbreaking. An autistic young man who's able to see electromagnetic signals, he's one of five super-powered human overseen by Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn) as they track rogue elements out to harm others.

"Alphas" co-creator Zak Penn said in an interview last week that he and partner Michael Karnow were inspired by the works of groundbreaking neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks as well as their own desire to ground their series firmer in reality than most superhero stories.

"Just from the very conception, we set strict rules for ourselves. After working in the 'X-Men' world, you have a character whose mutant ability is that he can turn into a ball of gas and fly into outer space. OK, that's cool, but I just don’t know what the rules are – the rules are whatever we want them to be," he said. "The X-Men generally does a good job of that – a very good job, which is why I'm such a big fan of it, but it's on a much bigger scale. Our goal was to do something where it's all about the brain, it's all about things that exist, just push a little bit further.

"Part and parcel to that, we came up with the idea very early that, when you read a lot of Oliver Sacks case studies on people who have extraordinary abilities, it usually comes at a price. I remember reading about Einstein that the part of his brain that processed visual and spatial relations was enormous, but his language center or speech center was a little bit stunted, which explains why he didn't speak until he was 5. To me, that makes a certain amount of sense – I'm not sure all the fans always get it – but that's the downside. Your brain pays in one way for whatever else it can do. Sometimes the cost is pretty high and sometimes it's pretty low.

"With Gary, given that that’s the case, it was inherent that one of these characters was going to have Asperger's or autism. If you read enough Oliver Sacks books, you're going to come across a lot of people like that, so we realized we just had to do that. Once we decided that, we had to ask: How do we keep this as real as possible? How do we make sure we avoid the trap of him being the 'magical autistic kid who always says the right thing and never does anything wrong.' I know a lot of kids with autism and I know a lot of people with autism, and they're just like the rest of us. They have great sides, but they have flaws and they have faults."

In episode 4 of "Alphas," named "Rosetta," the team meets Anna (Liane Balaban), who seems more severely disabled than Gary. The two develop a rapport – and perhaps more – before it's discovered that she directs activities as part of Red Flag, a terrorist cabal.

"With the Anna character … we said, 'OK, how do we violate your expectations?' Just because she seems to have tremendous infirmity, that doesn't mean she’s a wonderful person, which is the way things usually work in TV and the movies," Penn said.

"It's funny, because I was talking to the actress who plays Anna – who we will see again, I can tell you – that people talk about the character and have a tremendous amount of sympathy for her. Sometimes even the writers will talk about how she's pretty justified in what she's doing, and I'll have to remind them, 'Yeah, except she does actually order people to get killed.'
(That's only part of the interview; here's the link to the rest of it.)

I have some sympathy for his attempt to make characters with disabilities more complex, but omg it's so embedded in the disability superpower trade-off and the idea that that's how the brain works, aaaaah, that whole section about extraordinary abilities coming at a price has me flailing in their general direction. And omg, like, wow, you made a PWD - a person with a "tremendous infirmity" - evil instead of sympathetic! That's totally new and cutting edge and not a tv trope at all! It's not like at fifty percent of serial killers on cop shows are serial killers because of OMG mental illness or anything! Gosh, I'm so happy that you've showed up to fix the stereotypes about inspirational disability with someone who kills people!

After I'd pretty much ignored Alphas to begin with, I'd seen a couple people mentioning Gary as a superhero who is also autistic, which had piqued my interest a little. I'm bummed out to learn that he is a superhero because he's autistic, or autistic because he's a superhero, because there's ~a price~ to be paid.

Date: 2011-09-20 04:39 pm (UTC)
sasha_feather: Old, cranky McKay from Stargate: Atlantis (Get Off My Lawn)
From: [personal profile] sasha_feather
You just haven't read enough Oliver Sacks! Then you'll understand.

Date: 2011-09-20 04:54 pm (UTC)
meloukhia: An expanse of snow with a line of footprints wandering through (Snowy footprints)
From: [personal profile] meloukhia
And again, why, if you're going to have disabled characters, would you want to consult actual people with disabilities? Just read more Oliver Sacks!

Date: 2011-09-20 05:55 pm (UTC)
meloukhia: Protesters sitting on the ground and making peace signs at a surrounding line of riot police.  (Resist with love)
From: [personal profile] meloukhia
Oh, wow. Well, that's an improvement over some shows (and goes to show you I didn't bother reading the article) but as always, serious sideeye at the idea that no autistic actors would have been suited to the role, or that autistic consultants couldn't have been hired directly to work with the actors, writers, and producers.

(I don't know if this happened here, but I cannot tell you how many times I get asked to 'consult' for free on stuff, and I will do it in situations like this where it's a major media portrayal and I want to have a fighting chance at having it done right. Needless to say, I'm never offered compensation, rarely get thanks, and often find, when the portrayal actually hits the public, that I was basically totally ignored.)

Date: 2011-09-20 10:23 pm (UTC)
trouble: Sketch of Hermoine from Harry Potter with "Bookworms will rule the world (after we finish the background reading)" on it (Default)
From: [personal profile] trouble
OH GOSH. Remember that one time we were asked to consult for free on something and then what we said was twisted up and turned into something exactly opposite of what we said? GOOD TIMES.

Date: 2011-09-20 10:25 pm (UTC)
meloukhia: Two ice cream cones, with sprinkles. (Ice cream cones)
From: [personal profile] meloukhia
Hrm, let me see if I can refresh my memory...OH YEAH. Yeah I do remember that time! Those WERE good times.

Date: 2011-09-20 10:27 pm (UTC)
trouble: Sketch of Hermoine from Harry Potter with "Bookworms will rule the world (after we finish the background reading)" on it (Default)
From: [personal profile] trouble
I've occasionally had incredibly similar conversations to this one with people who were "historic" consultants.

Date: 2011-09-20 05:48 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Servalan looks inappropriately delicate and sincere. (b7 -- servalan is very pretty)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
I agree with you in wincing at all the disability --> compensatory superpowers thing, but to be honest, after too much time spent dealing with the usual media portrayal of autism, a badass female autistic supervillain who kills people actually seems like quite an improvement.

(I'm not going to watch the show. I'm just going to imagine her as an autistic Servalan and be happy.)

Date: 2011-09-21 12:27 am (UTC)
ryca: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ryca
She seemed to have more than a speaking problem - she didn't make eye contact and couldn't seem to communicate through writing or sign language; that's why Gary had to figure out that she *had* a language. It was a really interesting take on things, though, I thought.

It's a shame about the "trade-off" thing, and most especially sad that the actor has had to do all of the research himself. I really do like that actor, though.

It's an imperfect show, but I've been enjoying it. To me, having not seen the article, it's seemed more like they were trying to make the characters a bit more complex and realistic than we usually see.


eruthros: Delenn from Babylon 5 with a startled expression and the text "omg!" (Default)

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