Last night’s episode of Glee, “Wheels,” focused on Artie and put the entire club in wheelchairs for a performance. It also attracted a lot of attention and some controversy. A number of actors with disabilities expressed disappointment that Artie is played by an able-bodied actor, Kevin McHale, rather than by an actor who does use a chair. Darryl “Chill” Miller and Geri Jewell are working actors with disabilities, but they’re some of a very few on television, in film or theater.
I haven’t watched a lot of Glee thus far – it wore a little thin for me after a few episodes, I did find it somewhat stereotypical, and I was desperate to learn about the characters who weren’t part of the two white, heterosexual, maybe-baby love triangles. Tina, particularly, was underdeveloped initially, unless a quiet Asian woman was what they were going for. “Wheels” brought me back out of curiosity, and I’m torn.
- Glee is charming, and darkly funny, and I want to like it (no matter how often it disappoints me).
- The episode is rare in its focus on a person with disabilities, and having that out there, and McHale’s enthusiasm for the role, are all good things on some level.
- The messages about physical accessibility were really well-done. Throughout, accessibility for the entire school, rather than just Artie, is emphasized in discussions of ramps, buses, and inclusion in school events and organizations.
- The introduction of Becky, a girl with Down Syndrome, broadens the understanding of what disability is in Glee‘s world – it’s not just wheelchairs.
- I am disappointed about the casting, and the lack of actors with disabilities representing themselves on TV. The longer actors with disabilities don’t play these parts, the harder it is for them to get experience and work and get other parts down the road.
- I had some qualms about the dancing, related to the hype that surrounded it and lack of acknowledgment for a history of wheelchair dancing.
- The tired practice of putting able-bodied people into chairs to “understand” a disabled experience rubbed me the wrong way.
- The revelation of cheerleading coach Sue’s sister, though, provided too pat a reason for Becky’s inclusion – and reiterated the humanizing linkage of athletic characters and their siblings with disabilities that seems so prevalent on TV lately.
The roughly equal lists up there suggests that I don’t know whether I liked this episode or not. Have other folks seen it? Did you like it? Are you rooting for Artie/Tina? Am I overlooking an obvious reason to appreciate this episode, or Glee generally?