Television Review

On the Air and Outside
Television's treatment of homelessness occasionally rises from its fallow bed of stereotypes
By Michele Marchand

One of my housemates comes downstairs sometimes and catches me watching one of "my shows." "What're you doing?" she asked one Monday night as I was slapping my forehead in frustration with an episode of Ally McBeal. "Why do you watch these shows if they're so frustrating and stupid?"

"You've got to know your enemy," I told her. "And if your enemy is popular culture...." "Well, better that than Presidential politics," she replied. "Because if you paid attention to that you'd just have to slit your wrists!"

As the appearance of homeless characters on mainstream television shows has increased, I've been sorely tempted to slit my wrists. I've been even more tempted while researching television shows on the Internet: the amount of TV material posted on the World Wide Web is horrifying. Need last week's Ally McBeal transcript? Next week's NYPD Blue episode synopsis? A chatroom for West Wing nuts? All these and so much more can be accessed easily at official and/or fan-created websites.

The dramatic rise in homeless characters on TV comes after years of shows like ER, NYPD Blue, and Law and Order which have featured them solely as part of a gritty atmosphere: the great unwashed, men and women who are psychotic, raving, filthy; who arrive at the emergency room or police station to get a bath, a change of clothes, a meal ticket, or some meds to feed their addictions.

Like the mystery novel genre, television shows have started to portray homeless characters with more prominence and more complexity, but this trend is not without its problems.

David E. Kelley on Homelessness

Both the problem and prominence of homeless characters on TV were made clear on recent back-to-back nights of dramas from gifted writer-producer David E. Kelley. The Practice, Kelley's high-powered Sunday night legal drama, repeated an episode entitled "Trees in the Forest," in which a homeless pedestrian is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Another homeless man is the sole witness, and identifies the responsible Mercedes-and its wealthy driver.

Mr. Snow, the homeless witness, has the requisite serious mental health issues. When asked whether he knew the victim, Snow replies, "Nope, he's a homeless man, bigger bum than me." Then he reports there was actually a second witness - his penis, with its big pink eye. Assistant District Attorney Helen Gamble is not amused, and we watch her first frustratedly dismiss Mr. Snow when he arrives at her office to apologize for blowing his statement, then pointedly avoid eye contact with another homeless man who's cleaning her windshield at a stoplight.

Of course, then there's the equally requisite faith transformation for ADA Helen. Just before she has to make her closing statement in this case, Helen learns Mr. Snow has had his throat slit in "a beef with another homeless guy. They both wanted to sleep on the same heating vent. He lost." Obviously moved, Helen makes her closing statement to an impassive jury:

"If a man dies in a forest and nobody hears him cry...then he doesn't make a sound, does he? The other day I was stopped at a traffic light and some bum came up asking to wash my windshield. I couldn't tell you what he looked like 'cause I never looked at him. I never look at 'em. Do you? Easier not to. But when you run one of these bums over...maybe we should stop the car. Take a look. I guess that's the question for you to go back and there any intrinsic value to human life? Or does he have to be somebody? I don't know. It's your call."

The wealthy, fearful Mercedes driver is acquitted. Behind the end credits we see Helen walking pensively down the cold, mean streets of Boston past homeless men huddled around burn barrels, strategically placed on every streetcorner.

Cut to the next night's Kelley show, Ally McBeal. This season Ally has already found herself attracted to a homeless man who panhandles her and then makes prescient comments about her psyche. Mercifully, that homeless character was actually just an undercover cop. In the more recent episode, a homeless man known as "Mr. Bo" is eventually revealed to be the father of Melanie, a day care teacher who was fired because she has Tourette's syndrome. (Melanie is played by Anne Heche in a recurring part this season.)

Ably defended by Ally McBeal's colleague John Cage, Melanie resumes her job, and occasionally takes her class to visit a mentally ill homeless man nicknamed Mr. Bo. When John accompanies Melanie to Mr. Bo's streetcorner, Melanie engages in the following exchange with her father:

Melanie: "Oh, you don't smell good. Last shower?"

Mr. Bo: "Christmas."

When Mr. Bo learns of Melanie's relationship with John, he starts to stalk John, wanting a good wrestling match with his daughter's paramour to test his mettle. John has Mr. Bo jailed, then drops charges and achieves an uneasy peace with his lover's father.

Mr. Bo: "Hey, you got supper plans? I got a piece of salmon for the hibachi."

John: "Homeless people eat salmon now?"

After dining al fresco, John departs with Melanie, and they both agree that Mr. Bo is probably happy with his chosen lifestyle.

Cops and Homeless Characters

A few weeks later, in an episode entitled "Writing Wrongs," NYPD Blue featured a homicide adjacent to a homeless camp on the Hudson River. The witness to this throat-slashing is Nicholas, a homeless man with the requisite serious mental health issues, whose pallet-constructed camp includes a TV (which he's wired for cable) and a microwave, in which he prepares his ramen noodles.

Although, in convoluted language, Nicholas explains to Detectives Sipowicz and Sorenson that the victim had a beef with another homeless man named Diego, their investigation isn't conclusive. Sorenson, who's obviously moved by Nicholas, arranges for him to be taken into protective custody while the detectives continue to search for Diego. Sorenson ends his shift by bringing Nicholas a pizza and soda pop. "You're one of the good people," Nicholas tells him. "You are too, Nicholas; you hang in there as best you can," Sorenson replies.

The next episode begins with a body found in an alley - Nicholas. Sorenson returns to the station house and demands to know why he was released. The desk sergeant explains that "the homeless guy left in the middle of the night. Letting a bum sleep it off - what do you think this is, Mayberry RFD?"

The detectives continue to search for Diego, but then Nicholas's parents come into the station. They explain their son was a stellar student, comes from a wealthy family, and probably could be living on Park Avenue. They had written him numerous unanswered letters offering help; he contacted them to let them know he was OK the day before he was murdered.

After Diego is arrested in the murder of the first homeless man but refuses to confess to Nicholas's murder, Nicholas's father comes in again to share his suspicions about his gambler son-in-law. The son-in-law is brought in and eventually confesses to killing Nicholas, hoping his wife would inherit enough money to cover his gambling debt. He picked Nicholas to murder because he was sure the police wouldn't be so tenacious about solving the murder of a crazy homeless man.

ER and Sally Field ER

This is the show I most often slap my forehead about for its stereotypical and reductive portrayals of homeless characters. On ER those characters are always crazy or chronic public inebriates. They're usually violent (e.g., the mad genius student who stabbed Dr. Carter and Lucy the intern) or smelly.

But this year ER has sponsored the glorious return of Sally Field to episodic TV, and it's been quite a star turn for Field. Playing intern Abbie's mother, Field arrived at the ER unexpectedly last fall, having been evicted from her apartment and burnt the bridge of connection to her son. Although she charms the other residents, it doesn't take long to figure out she has bipolar disorder.

We watch helplessly, as Abbie does, while Field goes through her cycles. Abbie is alternatingly seduced and frustrated by her mother's energy, and finally says, "I just can't do this any more," refusing to let her continue staying at her apartment. Then Abbie relents, and we watch her hold her sobbing mother at an El station. Next episode we hear the mom has had a brainstorm and returned to Florida. (Field is returning to this role starting in May, sweeps month.)

Mixed Enemy

Homeless women who've heard I was writing this analysis have reacted strongly: the reductive portrayal of homeless characters on television hurts them. "Yeah, they're never working; they're always mentally ill," one woman said. "Or if they're sympathetic the characters are helpless victims of society."

Notable in its "helpless victim" portrayal is The West Wing, a show I find too saccharine to watch. In the episode viewers voted most popular, "In Excelsis Deo," Presidential aide Toby becomes involved in planning a formal military funeral for a homeless veteran who's found dead on the street with Toby's card in his coat. The final scene, with its 10-gun salute and audio overlay of "The Little Drummer Boy," made most of my friends cry, and then call me to tell me I have to start watching this show. The West Wing fan-created website declares, "If this final scene doesn't make you tear up, you're simply not an American."

Recent portrayals, in addition to being more prominent, have also been more nuanced: with Mr. Bo and Sally Field's characters particularly, we get to see all the aspects of complex characters. My friend Pat, who watches the same shows, said, "They are increasingly showing delight in the eccentricities of people we love."

And we have gotten to see context-family relationships, sometimes heartbreakingly estranged, sometimes oddly close. We get to see homeless and mentally ill characters acting ridiculously, lovingly protective of their children. All these characteristics are closer to the people we know and love.

But TV is a mixed, insidious enemy. These shows still tiptoe around, or sometimes come crashing over the edge of stereotype. They don't have to. If we're sophisticated enough to navigate personal relationships in our lives and our work, surely we're sophisticated enough not to need stereotype to make us outraged about or empathetic to homeless people.

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