The old Raymond Burr series about a tough-as-nails paraplegic ex-police chief was never exactly enlightened. But as a disabled kid in the 1960s and 70s, I clung to it with near religious fervor. For me, Chief Ironside was a model for refusing to be defined by others’ limited expectations. I came to rely on him as a kind of lifeline.
I never could walk or even stand, but like the hardboiled cop I didn’t want to be underestimated. I felt determined to live a full, active life--to strut my stuff.
So I welcome the return of “Ironside,” but with a note of caution. Will the producers screw it up?
To be sure, the original program had flaws. It never talked much about the Chief’s disability. Yet that was partly what made the portrayal so appealing. It was simply an aspect of his character. It didn’t define him, just as mine wouldn’t define me. I knew his fictional physical limitations were different from my real ones. But for me, just seeing a guy in a chair who was fearless and in charge was revelatory and redemptive.
The old show had other shortcomings, too. Ironside rarely had to explain himself to others, as I was always having to do. “I can’t walk,” I would answer nosy strangers. “I was born this way. … It’s a neuromuscular weakness called spinal muscular atrophy.” On “Ironside,” no one asked because everyone knew. He’d been shot in the line of duty. His reputation preceded him.
He also had a knack for materializing on the upper floors of buildings with no elevator, and apparently never had a problem finding an accessible bathroom. Late in the series, he even drove his own van without adaptive hand controls!
Nevertheless, the show introduced me, and much of the world, to a wheelchair-accessible van, complete with automatic lift. Ironside's office had a built-in ramp and speakerphone, too. I didn't have any of that, and you'd better believe I wanted it all. The empowering paraphernalia had the effect of magic, especially compared to the other prominent image of disability on TV in those days--the pitiful kids on telethons.
Granted, my memories are hopelessly tinged with nostalgia, as will be my appraisal of the new version. I’m bound to tsk-tsk every little difference—such as moving the series from San Francisco, a source of endless plot lines in the days of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom, to New York. And switching the composition of Ironside’s hand-picked team, if not eliminating it altogether, seems a no-no. In the original, his crew included one of TV’s first female police officers (two of the first, actually, considering a cast change in year 4) and a smart young African-American man who frequently faced down racism as he rose from the Chief’s assistant to a full-fledged attorney.
Not to mention the casting of the lead role. Instead of a heavyset, gruff-yet-avuncular old white guy, we now have his opposite in buff, middle-aged Blair Underwood (who, like Burr, became famous playing a TV lawyer).
But none of that matters. The new show could still win me over. Yes, some will complain about a nondisabled actor once again portraying a paraplegic. Even that doesn’t faze me, though, if he plays it well. And by well, I mean realistically.
Indeed, a touch more disability realism than the original managed would be most welcome. No, it shouldn’t overwhelm the story. We don’t need to see Ironside’s bladder and bowel procedures. This isn’t a documentary. But every now and then, couldn’t the new Chief wrestle with equipment failure, pressure sores, strangers’ stupid questions, or architectural barriers?
Let’s face it: Simply presenting a tough guy on wheels isn’t enough to impress anyone anymore. Not in the age of Stephen Hawking, “Push Girls,” or “The Sessions.” Audiences are smarter than they used to be. To get the willing suspension of disbelief, you've got to infuse some convincing details.
Better still, the new show could have a social conscience. It could address the economic and political inequities people like me face.
But let’s not get carried away. If it doesn’t do any harm, that might have to be good enough. Of course, I could be pleasantly surprised. I never imagined we’d see so many people in wheelchairs riding city buses as we do today, or that Michael J. Fox would return to prime time with Parkinson’s (as is happening this fall). Disability inclusion has come a long way.
Perhaps the original “Ironside” helped make this progress possible. Its new incarnation could play a similar role, as long as it recognizes its potential to open people’s eyes to life’s possibilities.