TV's take on poverty is rich in foolishness

December 26, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

It kind of serves me right for not tuning in to Turner Classic Movies.

When the clock strikes 10 on Tuesday nights, I'm usually in front of the television set watching the ABC show Boston Legal, more for William Shatner's nonpareil performance as the egomaniacal, over-the-top lawyer Denny Crane than for anything else. Perhaps I should have cut my losses and tuned to other channels after the episode in which Crane, forced to defend a murderer/rapist, shoots the guy in the kneecaps.

"Denny Crane," Crane says to his soon-to-be-former client, who is doubled over in pain.

As fate would have it, a couple of weeks ago the show's writers, producers and directors decided to give their take on the plight of America's poor, whom Hollywood has apparently rediscovered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The episode opened with Crane leaving the subway with his friend and fellow lawyer Alan Shore, played by James Spader.

They pass a homeless black man lying on the ground who sticks out his hand and says, "Change, please." Crane and Shore pass the man as if he wasn't there. The homeless man, Randall Kirk, picks up a rock and pitches it toward the two, striking Crane in the back of the head.

"Now if you don't wanna give me no change, that's fine," Kirk tells Crane and Shore. "But how about the courtesy of a response?"

"You want a response?" Crane asks. He whips out a paint gun and shoots Kirk between the eyes. Then Crane tips the gun to his right temple in a mock salute.

"Denny Crane," he tells Kirk.

The writers and directors for Boston Legal could have played this scene for laughs and stopped right there. But NOOOOOO. They decided to make their statement about the oppressed, downtrodden poor.

Kirk shows up at Crane's law firm, demanding $100,000 as compensation for being assaulted. Kirk then gets a lawyer, who quits after Crane tells him why he and his client won't win.

"It's about money," Crane tells the lawyer. "I've got it. He [Kirk] doesn't. I'll win. Denny Crane."

So Shore, brimming with compassion for "the poor," (and apparently forgetting that Kirk initiated the chain of events by hitting Shore's best friend in the head with a rock) decides to defend Kirk.

"He deserves to be compensated," Shore tells Crane. After this line, the writers decided to get really silly.

"You know we've got 37 million people in this country living below the poverty line," Shore tells Crane. "Thirteen percent of the American population. They don't get education. They don't get health insurance. For God's sake, they don't even get rescued when they're dying."

America's poor don't get education? The folks who work at Boston Legal must have been on Captain Kirk's starship Enterprise for the past 40 years. Haven't they ever heard of Title I?

Apparently not. But it was passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It's been funded over the years to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars. Its purpose was specifically to educate the poor people who writers for Boston Legal swear America isn't educating.

"Today we reach out to 5 1/2 million children held behind their more fortunate schoolmates by the dragging anchor of poverty," President Johnson said after he signed ESEA.

Americans have made efforts to provide health insurance for the poor as well. I'm not sure how many Hollywood types have heard of Medicaid, but it does exist. Not all poor folks qualify for Medicaid, but to imply that all of America's poor don't get health insurance is a reckless misrepresentation of the facts.

But why let facts get in the way of a television show's plot? Why suggest that people like Randall Kirk have to adhere to a certain standard of conduct even if they are poor?

Not once in the episode was it suggested that Kirk was wrong to hit Crane in the head with a rock. It's as if the writers and producers of Boston Legal believe that if you're poor and black, you're exempt from certain expectations about what's considered appropriate behavior.

Homeless and unemployed? Then it's OK to lie around outside of subway stations begging for change.

Do people ignore you?

Why then it's perfectly reasonable for you to crease them with a rock. Hey, if you happen to have a switchblade handy, then you could really perform an attitude adjustment. I wish that last sentence were hyperbole, but I don't think it is. The folks at Boston Legal really believe it.

"He threw a rock, Denny," Shore tells Crane at the end of the show. "He'd had enough of being ignored, neglected. He rose up and threw a rock at some rich guy."

That sounds like the kind of justification that leads to robbery and felony murder, disproportionately committed by black criminals against whites.

It also smacks of the hard bigotry of no expectations.

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