In the US: Thursdays, 9pm ET, The CW
There is considerable feminist discourse around the concept of ‘likability’. Female politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, are considered ‘unlikable’ and therefore considered vote-losers, in a way male politicians rarely are. Does anyone think Rand Paul or Chuck Schumer are likeable? No, yet they still get elected and are considered (for some reason) via politicians.
In the UK: Not yet acquired
In the Dark feels like an effort to push ‘the Overton Window‘ on female ‘likability’ using the ingenious aegis of disability. It sees Perry Mattfeld (Shameless US) playing Murphy, a woman whose life is a bit of a mess. She became blind at the age of 14 and was fostered by the owners of a guide dog charity (The West Wing‘s Kathleen York and The Whispers‘s Derek Webster), for which she now ‘works’. I say works, because most of the time she’s getting drunk, waking up from a one-night-stand or both. Or is off smoking with a teenage drunk-dealer who once saved her life.
Mattfield is even more self-destructive than that sounds. “You only care about yourself,” York yells at her after Mattfield has just slept with a married donor to the impoverished charity, resulting in the cancellation of his wife’s $10,000 donation.
“It’s pretty obvious I don’t care about myself. At all,” Mattfield replies.
Which isn’t entirely true, though. While most of the first episode revolves around Mattfield’s self-destruction and self-pity, there is another thread to the plot: the disappearance and possible murder of her teenage drug-dealer friend. That prompts Mattfield to try to persuade everyone that he has disappeared, even though his body goes missing soon after she finds it.
When that fails, she tries to solve the crime herself, with a little help from her friend Brooke Markham (Foursome) and the missing drug-dealer’s cousin/boss (Blood and Oil‘s Keston John).
Likeable?That murder-mystery angle is surprisingly low-key, however. If you’re going into this expecting a full-on crime drama, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Rather, it’s a character study of the self-destructive Mattfield. The question is do you want to spend time in her presence? Is she ‘likeable’?
While Mattfield certainly has charm and a sardonic quality that takes the edge off her self-hatred, you don’t instantly want to spend much more time, as she continues to screw up both her life and the lives of those around her. In and of herself, she’s not especially pioneering, either. Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Fleabag, VI Warshawski et al have all featured hard-drinking, hard-partying, self-destructive women as their lead characters and countless others have featured them as supporting cast – hell, even Thor: Ragnarok‘s been there.
I’m pretty sure In The Dark thinks it’s doing something amazing and increasing the range of female emotions and traits that can be depicted on screen, but largely all it’s doing is adding to the overall critical mass of such characters. No bad thing in itself, but you’ve got to do more than just that to justify your existence.
Given the ending of the first episode, it’s also pretty clear that Mattfield’s character is going on a voyage of self-improvement, so is probably going to turn out all right in the end – and lose its raison d’être in the process.
In the Dark about blindness?Of course, In The Dark can also justifiably point out that none of those characters have a disability. How many times have disabled characters been allowed to be both the stars of shows or anything other than inspiring angels?
Here it has a point – one it makes very strongly, to the exclusion of having much a plot or anything else to make its run-time pass by quickly. It also makes the show somewhat criticism-proof.
Nevertheless, In The Dark is not really coming from its protagonist’s poin of view and isn’t aimed at people with disablities, either. Instead, it’s largely ‘disability tourism’ for the masses, in the vein of The Good Doctor et al. As well as not casting a blind actress as its star, the show is very strongly dedicated to educating the audience about blindness. The show is filled with lines like “I’m not Daredevil. I don’t have heightened senses…” and “Treat her [your blind daughter] like any other kid. Make her do chores. I would have loved that at her age.”
Everyone involved, even those with blind children – Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer playing one such police detective – seem to know nothing about blindness, are willing to say all manner of gauche things and need to be corrected. Regularly.
“I guess that’s why you like sex so much. I guess it’s the only time you don’t have to feel blind,” teenage dealer suggests to Mattfield at one point. Or she could just like sex, maybe? Women have been known to.
Not everything has to be about the disability. Most disabled people can go through life without having to talk about their disability every five minutes with everyone they meet. Just not in pilot episodes of TV dramas, apparently.
Self-containedStill, despite its clumsiness and general lack of any obvious desire to want to make its drama compelling, In The Dark is at least far more mature, thoughtful, supernatural-free and superhero-free than pretty much everything else on The CW. It’s not especially realistic in any way, but it does have some strong qualities.
Nevertheless, I can’t see myself watching any more of it, simply because it’s done everything it really needs to do already. In fact, it would probably have worked better as a TV movie or mini-series.
You won’t gain any more from watching it than you would from merely knowing it exists. But if you do watch it, it won’t be a complete waste of your time.