The new religious themed CBS fall family drama “Joan of Arcadia”, has gotten critical praise for its novel approach to dealing with everyday issues of right and wrong. The series, which centers around a teenaged girl who has contact with God while she goes about her daily life, is also breaking new ground by delving into everyday issues that those of us with disabilities must face and deal with everyday.
In its premiere episode, the eldest child in the family, Kevin Girardi played by Jason Ritter, is introduced as a newly injured 19 year-old wheelchair user whose parents worry that their son needs a push in order for him to start living a normal life despite his disability.
Kevin, his mother insists, should start looking for a job and he should learn how to drive in order for him to be independent.
Kevin slowly and gradually gains the confidence to face his fears and must face life’s challenges one battle at a time. From the outset, it is clear that producers intend Kevin’s disability to be a major theme throughout the course of the series.
In a subsequent episode Kevin lands a job at the local newspaper as a fact checker, thanks to a copy editor and part-time reporter, who he meets when she comes to interview his father.
Kevin is forced to deal with the perception of one of his colleagues that he was hired not despite his disability but because of it. He overhears a conversation between his boss and another reporter who remarks “We do get a tax break from the government for hiring him.” Frustrated and hurt, Kevin decides to quit his job.
Kevin decides to level with his boss, when he informs her of his decision to quit. He tells her that quitting, “must be a gimp thing.” After a frank discussion about perceptions in the workplace about minority groups, Kevin decides to stay at the paper and subtly shows the ignorant reporter that he is a valuable part of the team.
What is particularly refreshing about the series is its reluctance to be preachy about the issues it skillfully addresses. It shows Kevin as an average guy not as some cardboard cut-out. He sometimes uses his wit and sarcasm in order to cope with the curve balls that life hands him.
Though it is too early to say how realistically Kevin’s disability will be played out as the series progresses, it is encouraging to see a TV series with producers who seem to be genuinely interested in developing a character who has a disability and must still deal with the same issues as every other young adult. Further, they seem interested in probing some of the issues that those of us with disabilities deal with and must work so hard overcome.
Thus far the character has been played ably by Ritter. Kevin has the right mixture of confidence and vulnerability that will make him a fascinating character to watch. Given the producers apparent commitment to the character, it is unfortunate however, that an actor with a physical disability was not cast in the role. Too often in Hollywood, able-bodied actors are allowed to act disabled to much critical acclaim and success.
The history books are full of actors who have won prestigious awards for the portrayals of those with disabilities, Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for Best Actor his role in 1990’s My Left Foot, TV Star Larry Drake brought home two Emmys for his role as Benny on L.A. LAW, and most recently William H. Macy won big at the 2003 Emmy Awards for his work in Door to Door.
Once again, Hollywood has missed an opportunity to give a person with a disability a chance to showcase their talent.
Nonetheless, the producers and actors on this new series deserve kudos for their attempts to portray Kevin with authenticity.