Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Bridge to My Heart: Why I Returned to Red-Blooded American TV Viewing

Posted By on Wed, Aug 14, 2013 at 5:00 PM

I'm really the last person at Weekly World Central who knows what's what in American TV life. I'm far from being (and probably too old to be) a hipster, but I just can't justify putting serious money down on a TV and cable on a reporter's salary (and even if that changed, I'm still not sure I'd run out the door for that big-screen TV).

However, I'll admit some of my entertainment dollars go to Hulu Plus and Netflix, and last month my road-weary laptop and I have re-embraced regular TV-watching tradition with two shows: Orange is the New Black (the ending of which, frankly, blew my mind) and The Bridge, an FX-produced show airing Wednesday nights.

Let's talk about The Bridge. Of course Mexican actor Demián Bichir, who plays Juarez detective Marco Ruiz, is completely to blame for my late Wednesday night viewings. But it takes more than a pretty face to force me to sit down for an hour-long timeout. I'm pretty sure the reason I'm completely addicted to The Bridge is that it's a TV border story that shows the complicated mess and love for the border region we are all too familiar with in Tucson. It's also a reflection of us that we just have never seen on TV before: The dialogue is bilingual on both sides of the border and the landscape of the families reflects us.

The bridge referred to in the title is the Bridge of the Americas that connects El Paso, Texas with Juarez, Mexico. The show is based on a Danish TV program, but the American producers have transplanted to the borderlands of El Paso and Juarez. What further connects the cities as the TV show unfolds (after four episodes thus far) is the interesting partnership that develops between Bichir's character and the sexy but quirky El Paso detective Sonya Cross. The detectives are looking for a serial killer, but a serial killer with an immigration political ax to grind. There are other characters: a rancher's widow who discovers her late husband allowed an underground tunnel be built under his property from one side of the border to the other; the two newspaper reporters from different backgrounds and moral codes; and the senior detective who knows there's something different about his odd Sonya Cross and helps her navigate the world beyond the workplace.

Because I don't read much about entertainment and what's the latest from TV season to TV season, I didn't know the entire story on The Bridge, but while I watched the first episode it was perfectly clear to me that the character of Sonya Cross has Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder my family is very familiar with. So there: US-Mexico border politics and life, along with Asperger's syndrome. I'm hooked.

I know there have been other characters on TV with Asperger's, but if you're not familiar with the disorder, maybe you thought the detective was socially awkward or down right rude. It's never come up — no one ever mentions it, not even the senior detective that obviously keeps an eye on her or the Mexican detective, who just recognizes there's something different about her, but seems to enjoy working with her anyway.

I think it's hard to capture Asperger's on TV to really do it justice because, I tell you, put five Aspies in a room and each one will be different, although there will be some shared characteristics. But she's got those classic traits down, and it's not for comedy, not overly played and ... well, the best is that she kicks ass despite the disorder.

I learned through a post by John Elder Robison on that the show hired an Asperger's expert with Asperger's (wow, what a concept) to help develop the character. Robison, who also has Asperger's, has a great take on the show, but also a perspective on the disorder when he questions the increase in TV characters with Asperger's that possibly coincides with an increase in Aspie diagnoses, only to end with the American Psychiatric Association making a change to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) last year that lumped the disorder in with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Damn you, Hollywood.

You can read Robison's entire post here, but here's part of his take:

Conveniently, the new classification lets television producers off the hook. Any current TV character ascribed with Asperger’s-like symptoms can no longer inspire real-world diagnoses of Asperger’s, and television can no longer be blamed for the real-world overdiagnosis of the condition. Because, as you now know, Asperger’s no longer technically exists. All you can get now is an ASD diagnosis, and who’d want that? What kind of cache could a three-letter acronym possibly have? None. And I checked the records: As of today, not one single person has reported catching ASD from a television. The fix seems to have worked.

TV is now forced to adapt to this new, Asperger’s-free reality. But this week, with the debut of The Bridge, we met Sonya Cross, who, like those of us veterans who identify as having Asperger’s, is already an anachronism, developed as she was before the term for the condition Kruger has been name-checking in the press was rendered obsolete. So in a way, The Bridge is a kind of period piece, like a movie about female hysteria, but that’s not going to stop me from enjoying it or Kruger’s serious, realistic depiction of Asperger’s.

I suspected that she would be rendered with care, because the showrunners hired my friend Alex Plank to be their Asperger consultant (perhaps he will now have to change his business card). Like me, he is an adult with Asperger’s. He, too, got his Asperger diagnosis while you still could — before those shrinks pulled it out of the catalogue. He parlayed his own eccentricity into a website — Wrong Planet — that has become the biggest Asperger site going, and now advises networks like FX. Judging by the veracity of Kruger's portrayal, his instruction seems to be working. Yet although the character in the Swedish/Danish show that The Bridge is based on has Asperger's, and Kruger has discussed the disorder in interviews, not one character on the FX series makes mention of the word.

So what are you doing tonight? Better be The Bridge.

Here's an interview with Kruger on Asperger's:

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