The ABC medical drama Private Practice, a spin-off of the popular Grey’s Anatomy, has been a favorite of mine since it began in 2007. The show is about two private holistic medical practices in Los Angeles. They do a little bit of everything: psychotherapy, fertility, alternative medicine, pediatrics, sexology, general practice, genetics, and super duper obstetrics. And they make house calls.
At the beginning of this season, they brought on two new characters. One is a wealthy, powerful, and dashing older doctor who owns one of the practices and wooed the then-director of the other practice to come run his new practice instead. The other is a doctor doing cutting edge genetic research and pushing the boundaries of medicine and other people. Oh, yeah, he’s a wheelchair user too. Not only is the character a wheelchair user, but the actor, Michael Patrick Thornton, is too. Pretty sweet. One of the main premises of Private Practice is to push the boundaries, and ever since Thornton’s character came on the scene, they have been pushing harder every episode. They have tackled disability research and practice issues, prosthetic issues, and reproduction issues. While there has been a heavy dose of ableism overriding these storylines, there is no doubt the boundaries are being pushed.
Further pushing the boundaries, these three characters are involved in a “love triangle.” It has been building slowly so that, in the style of truly good TV, we get a little bit each week. The owner of the practice, William, and the director, Naomi, have been dating for a while. However, Gabriel, Thornton’s character, has been emotionally supportive of Naomi over the past couple of months. Enter Naomi’s conflict between the two men.
So, what is Private Practice doing right? Well, there are actually a number of things. First and foremost is that they hired a disabled actor to play a disabled character. Imagine the genius. There has been a lot of discussion on the Internet and in the media as of late about disabled characters and the actors, who may or may not be disabled themselves, playing them. Kudos to the Private Practice crew for hiring and keeping a gimp! Secondly, Thornton has stuck around for a bit. He hasn’t been on for one episode to teach the audience something about disabled people like we usually see on TV. He’s become part of the cast, someone we see on a regular basis. Gabriel is a jerk a lot of the time, but he’s shown a softer, kinder side, bringing me to the third thing they’re doing right: making a disabled character multidimensional. He’s not just the jackass, or angry, or super nice and wouldn’t hurt a fly, he’s real with all kinds of personality. Fourth, the rest of the staff treat him like they would anyone else. On the other hand, Naomi recognized and acknowledged early on that she was unsure of how to manage him as his boss because of the fact that he’s disabled. Once she realized that she did not need to use kid gloves with him, they had a much better working relationship. Double kudos! Fifth, they have made him part of the love triangle. When Naomi began having feelings for Gabriel she talked to her friend, another doctor, Addison, about it. Addison asked if the chair was holding her back. Naomi said, “Oh, no, I don’t even see the chair anymore,” and the conversation continued. No long discussion or teaching moment, it was just a natural part of their conversation. Naomi and Gabriel have kissed and touched, and Naomi sat on Gabriel’s lap on two occasions. As things heat up between the two couples, good TV must produce conflicts. This time the conflict lies not only in Naomi who is torn between two men but also within the men themselves. We learn William has ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is gradually becoming disabled and is fast-tracking progressive research so that he can benefit from what he hopes will be positive results. William’s symptoms are not easily noticeable yet – Naomi is unaware of his disability – so when he leaves for Switzerland, she takes the next step with Gabriel. The best part of this episode is not just that Naomi and Gabriel have sex but also everything that happens prior to the sex. Naomi wants to pursue their relationship – though it seems to be, on the surface, only about “feeling better” about another issue in her personal life – but she is unsure how to proceed. She asks one of the psychotherapists in the practice about this and he recommends the sexologist. After a shy and awkward discussion about sex with Gabriel, the sexologist – not at all shy – gives Naomi a book about sex with the disabled and recommends that she talk with Gabriel. Later, Gabriel finds the book, laughs about it, and assures Naomi he can, indeed, have sex and they do. Naomi realizes that she must break up with William. Gabriel tells Naomi that William has ALS and is in Switzerland getting treatment, that he wants her to know before she breaks up with him. Finally, we find Naomi buying a ticket to fly to Switzerland. Either way it ends up, Naomi is with a disabled guy, so that is a definite plus in my book. The bottom line is that they approached and delved into the topic of disability and sexuality in a real way.
So, what is Private Practice doing wrong? They must be doing something wrong, right? Well, there’s not much but one thing that stands out as bothersome was the first time Naomi and Gabriel kissed. Naomi asked Gabriel, who has a standing chair, to raise it so that they would be level to each other. All benefits of standing chairs aside, that was a major ableist heteronormative move. On the other hand, Gabriel used the standing maneuver first when he raised his chair taller than Naomi in one of their first encounters. In that situation he used his changing height to his advantage in a workplace squabble with his boss; he towered over her a bit and intimidated her. Also heteronormative and ableist. Also challenging the stereotype of the disabled as weak or easily overpowered, or just plain short. Good and bad in there. The genetic research Gabriel does is generally ableist, but most genetic research is, so I can’t fault them too much for that.
Private Practice pushes the boundaries, and I like not knowing what is coming next. Best of all, I almost never can make up my mind how I feel about one situation or another, which is probably the point. I know this much though – they are getting disability right.