Disabled Characters on Television: Auggie on Covert Affairs
A number of people have drawn my attention to the USA show Covert Affairs that recently started airing in the United States, and a few days ago I sat down with the pilot and gave it a whirl. The show centres around Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a woman who has just joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and almost immediately we are introduced to Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), the tech expert, who also happens to be blind.
Like a lot of shows focusing on work for intelligence agencies, Covert Affairs wants to impress us with neat technological tricks, so they provide a shot of Auggie and Annie walking down a corridor with Auggie using what I guess I would describe as a ‘laser cane.’ It’s a handheld device that projects a grid which I think feeds back either to his hand or to the earpiece we rarely see Auggie without. Auggie makes some self deprecating jokes about being blind, flirts with Annie, and establishes that he has a very sensitive sense of smell. The ‘blind character with heightened senses’ smells of disability superpower (warning, link goes to TV Tropes) to me, but, ok. It was a reasonably strong scene; Auggie wasn’t desexualised and he also wasn’t depicted as helpless.
There were a lot of things I liked about Auggie’s characterisation in the pilot. He’s a professional, with skills that are respected. Other characters don’t make a huge production out of his blindness when they interact with him. I particularly liked the scene where the characters are out at a restaurant and he started flirting with some women at the next table and instead of a ‘he’s blind! HORRORS!’ scene, it was treated like any other television interaction between young, attractive people flirting with each other.
There were also some things I did not like. I am inherently grumpy with the disabled character as sidekick trope; it looks like Gorham and Perabo are getting equal billing, though, so I’m hoping that he is going to break out of the sidekick position and have an opportunity to be his own character, rather than just support/backup/comic relief for Perabo.
And then we got to the scene where Annie and Auggie are breaking into a morgue. Annie creatively comes up with a way to spoof the biometric scanner at the door, the door opens, she whisks in, and Auggie…is left standing outside, looking confused and disoriented. Apparently we are to believe that the character with heightened sensitivity didn’t hear Annie accessing the biometric lock and opening the door, and despite his keen sense of smell, he couldn’t follow Annie’s perfume as she moved away1.
So, here’s Auggie, looking forlorn, and then he shouts ‘Annie!’ and she looks guilty, darts back, grabs his arm, and pulls him along inside with her. Keep in mind, again, that we have seen Auggie, in numerous scenes, navigating a wide variety of environments without having to be guided anywhere.
Now, this show is using consultants, and Gorham specifically worked with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to get advice from actual blind people when he was preparing to do this role. This puts Covert Affairs a rung above a lot of other shows that depict disability and apparently think they can do so without doing any research because, you know, how hard can be it be, right? So, what did Gorham learn about the experience of being blind?
“I can’t just pick up my cup of coffee, have a drink, grab my pen and get up and walk across the room. I mean there’s literally nothing that I can physically do that doesn’t require me thinking it through, asking, ‘How am I going to do that’?”
“We had our first ‘walk and talk’ through the hallways. Well, the hallways turn. Which is fine if you’re sighted and you’re walking with three people and then all three of you can turn down the same hallway in the middle of the conversation and talk. But if you’re walking with a blind guy and if he’s not physically touching you, and you two turn, he’s not going to know that you’ve turned,” recounted the actor. “We did it for four takes, and I kept thinking, ‘something’s wrong.’ And then it suddenly occurred to me: ‘We have to start over.’ I have to be holding on to her the entire time otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. So things like that happen occasionally. But again, it’s kind of fun, because it’s really new.”
Ah. So this is where talking to consultants gets you.
Now, this was only the pilot, and as a general rule, I do not judge shows on their pilots alone. I’m going to watch a few episodes to see how the characters develop before I weigh in on any final way on how I feel about Covert Affairs. The show is still shooting, so I will be curious to see if Auggie’s characterisation shifts in later episodes in response to viewer discussions of the show.
Did you watch the Covert Affairs pilot? What did you think of it? I focused on Auggie’s characterisation in this piece, but there were a lot of other things going on in the pilot that are also worthy of some discussion!
- I really wish I was kidding about the perfume/sense of smell thing, but it came up multiple times during the episode, like in the scene where he follows her into the bathroom by tracking her perfume. ↩