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What do you do if you receive tomorrow's newspaper today? That's the underlying premise of the fanciful, and highly successful, CBS-TV series: Early Edition. It would be of little interest to Canadian Blind Monitor readers except that one of the main characters in the series is blind.
Marissa Clark, played by sighted actress Shanesia Davis, is a funny, intelligent, intuitive, and decent woman. She is one of the two side-kicks of Gary Hobson, played by Kyle Chandler. She is also blind, and the way her blindness is handled makes Early Edition worth commenting upon in these pages.
In the story, Gary Hobson receives the next day's issue of the Chicago Sun Times. He spends his time trying to alter the headlines by preventing tragedies. He must do this without explaining where he got his advance information. Only his two friends, Chuck Fishman, played by Fisher Stevens, and Marissa Clark, are in on the secret. They help him pull small children out of the path of speeding locomotives, prevent basketball players with heart conditions from going on the court, and stop planes fated to crash from taking off. Marissa is an active participant who travels independently on the subways and buses to help head off some disaster in the making.
According to producer Lillah McCarthy, both Chuck and Marissa bring out different sides of the main character, Gary Hobson. Chuck is a bit of a devil. He wants to know the results of horse races and sporting events before they happen so that he can get rich. He believes Gary should lighten up and have more fun with the newspaper. Marissa is an irreverent angel who sees the humor in everything, but reminds Gary that the newspaper is a gift he can use to do good in the world. We wanted the characters to be realistic not one-dimensional, but the inter-play between good and evil impulses was certainly part of our plan. Marissa's blindness was just one more characteristic that we thought would make her more interesting.
Blind characters have appeared on radio and television for years. They have almost always been either helpless and dependent objects of pity or miraculous super heroes who could perceive color by touch and travel effortlessly in new places by snapping their fingers and listening to echoes.
Marissa Clark is neither helpless nor amazing. She is simply a character like any other character on a one-hour television show. She is competent at her receptionist job and a little nervous about going back to university. She has ex-boyfriends that she dumped and is nervous about the new guy who just asked her out. In other words, she is not just a caricature of blindness. Her blindness is one aspect of a fairly developed TV character.
If anything, her blindness is a bit under-developed. No one ever asks her companion if she wants cream in her coffee. No one ever comes out of the blue and attempts to drag her across a street she didn't intend to cross. No one ever appears to be uncomfortable about her blindness. Her communication with her guide dog, Spike, is not realistic at all. Instead of forward, she says, Come on Spike, let's go. Spike somehow knows where she wants to go. He never needs correction or direction.
Despite these technical flaws, the depiction of blindness in Early Edition is refreshingly upbeat. I watched the show for several weeks before I realized that one of the characters was blind. My eight-year-old daughter pointed out that the lady must be blind because she used a guide dog some of the time and a white cane on other occasions. I didn't believe it at first because blindness never seemed to be part of the plot. I was finally convinced when Marissa used a Perkins Brailler to take notes.
Executive producer Lillah McCarthy commented, When we first pitched the series to the network, they were a little apprehensive about the blindness. They kept asking me if I were really sure I wanted Marissa to be blind. But once they accepted the idea, they were extremely supportive. They insisted that the opening credits of the show depict Marissa reading Braille.
I asked Ms. McCarthy how she had avoided the usual sensationalizing of blindness. I've always believed that people should be depicted on television as real human beings despite their superficial characteristics. I wanted the characters on the show to have depth. Blindness is part of this character, but not her only characteristic. The actress who plays Marissa also happens to be African-American, so I needed to avoid stereo-types there as well.
Shanesia Davis is a life-long resident of Chicago where Early Edition is filmed. She is quoted as saying: Playing a blind woman is a wonderful challenge. Shanesia took it upon herself to do research at the Guild for the Blind in Chicago. The series' writers also did some research on blindness. That is where they learned how their depiction of a working guide dog needed improvement. According to Lillah McCarthy, Miss Davis has learned to unfocus her eyes so that she can appear to be looking in the proper direction without making eye contact. It is quite challenging for her to follow the visual instructions of the directors while appearing to be unable to see. Blind actors have developed methods for doing this, but a sighted person playing a blind role is working without the advantage of the alternative techniques of blindness. It is no wonder that Shanesia Davis finds the role challenging.
There are some who would argue that a blind actor should have been found to play the role, but that misses the point. The significance of Early Edition is that blindness is portrayed as just another normal characteristic. In the long run, this will be good for aspiring blind actors. The few successful blind actors, such as Tom Sullivan, always play blind characters in roles where blindness is central to the plot. The more blindness is portrayed as incidental, the more opportunity aspiring blind actors will have to play a wide variety of roles. Some day it will be commonplace to attend a performance of Hamlet and discover that the Prince of Denmark is blind.
Blind people are not used to seeing themselves portrayed positively on television. As a child, I remember being awed or embarrassed by the few blind characters I encountered. No one could ever describe them as ordinary people. I once said to a friend: We will have come a long way when there is a character on a TV show who just happens to be blind. Then I'll know we are making a dent in public attitudes. With the production of Early Edition, the dent has been made. Our momentum is increasing. The stumbling block of conventional thinking is crumbling slowly, but it is crumbling. It is through small steps like these, as well as our major organizational efforts, that we are changing what it means to be blind.