Breathing and the Small Screen


The other night, I caught the second episode of “Parenthood,” a new TV series loosely based on the hilarious and often bittersweet 1989 movie with Steve Martin.

This new series, which marks the second attempt at translation for the small screen, retains the large, multigenerational family of the original movie. The episode I watched portrayed one set of parents in this family discovering their 8 year-old son has Asperger’s syndrome.

But this isn’t a series about Asperger’s or even the autism spectrum. It’s about the experience of raising children and being a child – in all kinds of circumstances, through all sorts of challenges and sacrifices, and fraught throughout with joy and heartache. “Parenthood” includes a single mom and a stay-at-home dad, among other parenting types, and nestling an Asperger’s storyline into this framework gives the writers and producers the chance to raise awareness of it in a truly compelling way.

That’s the key, really – to entertain people if you want to teach them about something. Embed an issue like Asperger’s into a fictional show through engrossing storylines and relatable characters (though it’s too soon to tell if this series is any good yet), and people might just pay attention and learn.

Take asthma.

(You knew this was coming.)

Along with a major national campaign along the lines of Michelle Obama’s one for childhood obesity, asthma really could use a television show, too. Rather, we need a TV series that includes asthma as a significant plot point.

Because the message, it ain’t getting through.

I maintain, still, that what perpetuates asthma myths in the public psyche isn’t a lack of resources or information. We have plenty of those. The problem? Disseminating that information through a medium that people who aren’t living with asthma will actually notice.

Think about this for a minute:

Did you go anywhere near the American Lung Association or websites like this one before your kid was diagnosed? If you have asthma yourself, then maybe. If you’re bronchospasm-free like me, though, then not likely. Before my daughter started experiencing flares as a baby, I certainly never did much (read: “any”) reading up on flares and beta-agonists and corticosteroids – because why would I?

No one reads about asthma for fun, so the best way to smash the hated Oh, it’s just asthma refrain is to ambush people with a strong dose of bronchial education. Through entertainment, of course.

ETA: At TEDMED this year, Neal Baer will apparently give a talk called, Does Hollywood Affect Our Perception of Medicine? That seems promising, though as Executive Producer for “ER” and “Law & Order SVU,” Baer will most likely speak about television and general medicine, not chronic illness. Still relevant, though.

As far as our issue goes, a television series only about a child with breathing problems would bore people to tears and it would probably rely on the tired and limiting asthmatic-as-weakling stereotype, anyway. Placing that character within a complex drama/comedy, however, and sometimes using the lung issues to examine broader themes within the context of the show would work.

Asthma has never, to my knowledge, filled this role on television in any meaningful way.

The closest example I’ve seen is the movie “As Good As It Gets.” Here’s the trailer:

Carol (Helen Hunt) is a single mom whose son, Spencer, suffers from severe, uncontrolled asthma. While his health isn’t the focus of the whole film and there are several subplots all portraying how people try to make connections one other, asthma has defined the circumstances of Carol’s life. She waits tables and lives with her mother, who helps care for Spencer, and she has no social life, at all. Early in the movie we watch her bring a date home, only to see him leave while Spencer’s ill in the back bedroom, citing,

Too much reality for a Friday night.

That’s a perfect line. It describes exactly how I felt about my own life when my daughter couldn’t breathe regularly. All that middle of the night stuff, her hacking away until her throat hurt, the throw-up bucket and my staying up to watch movies in the middle of the night with a four year-old who was flaring so much she just couldn’t sleep – it all felt like too damn much reality sometimes.

Another great line, when Spencer starts to improve under the care of a good doctor but Carol still fears leaving him with a sitter, comes from her mother:

Spencer is okay. You’d better start finding something else to do with your free time. If you can’t feel good about this break and step out a little.

Carol replies a couple of lines later:

I don’t know… It’s very strange not feeling that stupid panic thing inside you all the time. Without that you just start thinking about yourself — and what does that ever get anybody. Today, on the bus there was this adorable couple and I felt myself giving them a dirty look …

Which is also perfect. There’s so much truth in those few lines. They hit so close to home, I can’t tell you how much.

My specifics are different from that character’s. So are my frustrations.

But what nonstop worrying over a child can do to a person? The way that changes you? How it hollows you out and drains you, makes you afraid to want or makes you lose the ability to want anything for yourself? That’s a message that applies to all sorts of characters and settings.

Writing an asthmatic character in a major television series could make a whole lot of people understand the condition better and care about it more. “As Good As it Gets” shows us it’s a useful dramatic device as well.

Picture it:

- Kid coughing until she throws up!
- Driving to the hospital at 2 am!
- Grappling with employers and would-be employers over time spent caring for a sick child!

You’ve probably got a thousand anecdotes in your back pocket, am I right? And while you probably find them more *heart-wrenching* than *entertaining,* they are most likely the stuff of good television. And by extension, good education.

(Script source here. James L. Brooks and Mark Andrus, authors)