Chris Chan’s Writing Workshop: In Plain Sight and Getting the Moral Wrong
There are times when an episode of a television show completely misses the point. Its entire perspective is skewed, sometimes because it works too hard to demonize one character or to bring about a fake conclusion. I’ve seen more episodes with problems like this than I can count, but one that’s stuck with me for several years is the episode “Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” from In Plain Sight.
In Plain Sight was a series about U.S. Marshalls and the Witness Protection Program. Each episode would show a character entering the WPP in Albuquerque, and the issues that resulted from having to start a new life. Sometimes the witness in question was a criminal, sometimes it was a totally innocent person thrust into uncontrollable circumstances. Depending on the episode, the narrative might be driven by the witness’ misbehavior or by villains trying to track down the suspect, or some other kind of problem caused by being transplanted into a new life.
“Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was an episode based around an African-American teenager witnessing a gang shooting, and the resulting need for her entire family to be relocated. Here is a portion of the IMDB summary of the episode:
When teenager Iris McBride witnesses her boyfriend, Lawrence, being shot by a member of a violent Hispanic gang, she and her family must enter WITSEC to prevent retaliation for her planned ID and testimony. Iris's arrogant father, Dr. McBride, now Dr. Morris, goes ballistic, refusing to accept his forced circumstance, making life difficult for his family and the Marshals alike. Fed up with his new lifestyle that he feels is beneath him, he tries to make his wife choose him, and their old life, over his daughter.
The problem with the episode is that it decided to make the father, Dr. McBride, the antagonist of the story. Dr. McBride is a successful physician. He lives in a big, beautiful house. He’s built an incredible life for himself through decades of hard work.
And now, in the space of a day, it’s all taken away from him. He, his wife, and his two daughters are rushed halfway across the country and moved into a small, shabby apartment. His name is taken away from him. It’s made clear that he’s very close to his large extended family, and he’s told he may never see them again. His career is gone. His patients have to be cared for by other doctors, and it’s possible this may adversely affect their health. In short, his life has been destroyed. The bottom line is this: HE HAS A RIGHT TO BE UPSET.
The above summary is emblematic of just how cruelly the storyline seeks to slime him. All his hard work is erased in a moment, and he’s dubbed “arrogant.” His standard of living is shattered, and he’s criticized for being “fed up” with his reduced circumstances. He wants to continue being a doctor, but the only place he’s allowed to work is at a free clinic, which means he won’t get paid. It’s a bit vague how the family will support themselves, but it’s implied the government pays for the family’s run-down apartment and groceries, but he is being denied the opportunity to live above the subsistence level. And his parents, siblings, cousins… they’ve been cut out of his life. Dr. McBride is a victim here, not a villain.
But the show paints him as a selfish monster. It expects him to coo over his witness daughter, assuring her that it’s totally fine that his life has been destroyed, that as long as the four of them are together, it’s O.K. But it’s not. The show tries to push the line that the family is all you need, but he has so many other relatives he loves. The nuclear family is all the show cares about, apparently. Indeed, the show goes out of the way to forget the rest of the family. What happens if a McBride who isn’t in WITSEC is kidnapped by the gang, who announces that the Dr,’s mother will be killed if his daughter won’t recant her testimony? There’s no reason for everybody to assume that the McBrides outside the four core characters are safe.
Dr. McBride is played by Wendell Pierce, a terrific actor who seems to realize that the script’s heart and head are in the wrong places. He’s not “arrogant,” he’s indignant, because he is being twice victimized. His daughter and perhaps his entire family are targeted by a violent gang. The gang is the villain of the story, not Dr. McBride. And now the government tells him to shut up and take what he’s given. Frankly, there’s something vaguely racist in the way a formerly successful Black man is told to shut up, forget his dreams, accept the theft of his identity, and embrace his new, impoverished lifestyle. All of Dr. McBride’s feelings are valid and understandable. He’s being crushed, debased, and attacked. And he’s treated like a monster.
One marshal shouts at him, telling him how his daughter’s braver than he’ll ever be. His wife insists she can’t be separated from her daughters, which is understandable, but now Dr. McBride’s mother is now separated from her son. What of her heartbreak? And Dr. McBride’s comment about leaving WITSEC when his daughter goes off to college is a fair point– he’s sacrificing everything for her. Will she stick around for them after high school?
The apology Pierce is forced to deliver at the end is a travesty. The condemnation levelled at him by his elder daughter struck me as the angry sneer of a self-absorbed adolescent, who may be doing something brave by testifying, but she also needs to recognize the harm that’s been done to her father. If the show had allowed him his dignity, by recognizing his sacrifice and acknowledging that he is totally justified in feeling this way, the episode would work because it would be honest. He’s stuck in a terrible situation and the government won’t let him escape. He’s being crushed by a program that’s trying to save him by destroying him. The fact is, this is a far more morally complex situation than the show acknowledges, and the episode’s moral compass is broken. It asks the viewer to pretend that Dr. McBride is completely off-base, when in fact pretty much anybody else would have similar feelings in this situation.
In Plain Sight liked to portray itself as a show about new beginnings, starting afresh, and letting go of your past. Perhaps it was, but more often than not, the show’s narratives centered around people being forced to live a lie, shoved into a false identity that could keep them physically safe but not emotionally and psychologically protected. Instead of embracing new beginnings, it was often about stifling your true self. Ultimately, “Iris Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is emotionally and intellectually dishonest. Dr. McBride deserved better.
Chris Chan’s first novel, Sherlock’s Secretary, will be released on November 5th. His book Murder Most Grotesque: The Comedic Crime Fiction of Joyce Porter was published by Level Best Books on September 7th. His first non-fiction book, Sherlock & Irene: The Secret Truth Behind “A Scandal in Bohemia” is available for sale at Amazon.com and the MX Publishing website, as well as at Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping there). It is also available in a Kindle edition.