When uncomfortable viewing provides not-so-light relief – comedy drama There She Goes
by Sabrina Russo
Is there any subject off limits to humour? Like most, I wince at jokes in poor taste or which are degrading. But on the whole, I think there’s a time and a place in which almost anything can be funny. When it comes to jokes about minority or vulnerable groups though, it all becomes a bit more…complicated. And more so in the awkward crossroads where humour meets mainstream TV portrayals of typically-excluded or underrepresented people – when is it ok to laugh? Who’s allowed to laugh? Is the humour nuanced? Are the characters three dimensional? More diversity on television is obviously something to aspire to… but it’s tricky. We want it to shift perceptions, move things forward and create empathy, not mock or reinforce stereotypes.
I was thinking all these things on a weeknight in mid-October, as I sat down with my husband to watch new BBC4 series ‘There She Goes’, a show that described itself as “a comedy drama about the day-to-day life of a family looking after their severely learning disabled nine-year-old girl, Rosie”. It stars David Tennant as the fallible, sarcastic but ultimately human dad and Jessica Hynes as the competent, pragmatic and wryly funny mum. The creator of the show, comedy writer Shaun Pye, was inspired by the success of recent series depicting less-than-perfect parenting like ‘Outnumbered’ and ‘Motherland’, but wanted to bring to it his own perspective as the father of a child born with a rare chromosome disorder. It’s not typical comedy fodder, but that’s kind of the point.
The show is autobiographical. The anecdotes are outrageous but real (in the first episode you learn Rosie has a habit of ‘hiding a poo’ somewhere in the house, and we see her family casually sniff behind radiators and inside doll houses to find it). The dialogue is raw and the humour is decidedly dark and un-PC. The story unfolds along two contrasting timelines - one in 2006 in the months leading to and following Rosie’s birth, and the other in 2015 as the family have adapted to their own chaotic, exhausting but clearly loving version of ‘normal’. In the first we follow Emily (Hynes) as her concerns for her baby mount but are dismissed by family and health professionals, and she becomes isolated and depressed. Meanwhile Simon (Tennant) turns to drinking too much and avoiding his wife and his domestic responsibilities. Fast-forward nine years, and everyone is clearly in a better ‘place’, and the family looks solid. They have coping strategies that border on the ludicrous and it’s these cack-handed ‘disabled-parenting hacks’ that form the basis of much of the humour, more so than Rosie’s behaviour. They often get it wrong, making difficult situations worse. There are undoubtedly funny moments. There are also heart-breaking and deeply uncomfortable moments.
I’ve never needed a trigger warning before (lucky me!) but I might have if I’d tuned in accidentally. As it happens, I actively sought out this particular televisual gut-punch. In July, a few months after my daughter turned one, she was diagnosed with a rare chromosome disorder. She’s missing a fragment of DNA and is delayed in all aspects of her development. She’s a happy, charming baby who we adore. But the six months before her diagnosis, when doctors assured me my baby was fine, just a bit floppy, maybe a little slow, were torture. She was chilled! Relax! As test after test came back normal, I could nevertheless see that she couldn’t hold things, couldn’t sit, couldn’t eat, and wasn’t growing. I felt gripped by an unspeakable anxiety.
Watching Emily’s anguish as a new mum in the 2006 storyline brought it all back, like opening a not-yet-healed wound. When she confesses to not being able to face taking Rosie back to baby singing classes because “being around normal children makes me feel sick”, I felt an embarrassed pang of recognition. She says out loud some of the ugly thoughts I’ve never voiced. And yet she’s lovable, she’s a good mum, and you know it’s just her pain talking. Happily, the future (2015) storyline sees Emily at ease with herself and her family. She laughs, she plays with her older son, she has a fulfilling job, she clearly loves and has a deep connection with her daughter.
One of the most surprising things about discovering your child has a disability actually has nothing to do with them, but more the mirror that they hold up at you. It’s not always a reflection you’re proud of - the shame you experience for having negative feelings about your child’s condition, about wanting to ‘fix’ them, the guilt about your own grief. Acceptance of your child’s diagnosis has to go hand-in-hand with acceptance of yourself. Pye wrote of his decision to include that dark time of his life in the show: “I put myself in the position, as I was in 2006, of a parent being told that ‘something is wrong’…Would I not want some recognition that having such a child can be emotionally very hard? Would I not take some succour from seeing another mum and dad finding it all a bit shit? And it being okay to think and say terrible things because thinking terrible things doesn’t make you a terrible person?” (i News, 9 Oct 2018).
Having found, in the months since my girl’s diagnosis, an online community of other parents dealing with rare genetic conditions, it’s been interesting to see their reaction to the show. Many, worn out by the daily grind of explaining their child’s obscure condition to neighbours, colleagues, teachers, doctors and government bodies, felt seen and understood. They identified with the situations, the frustrations, the surprising moments of hilarity. Some parents though were hurt and upset. The comedy felt cruel to them. They seemed less concerned about the notion that the general public might be laughing at the antics of a disabled child, and more that the show might be getting cheap laughs from how hard it all is, that people might be amused by a parody of their experience. And of course, the family in the show is comfortably affluent, white, middle-class, in a lovely London house, with all the privilege that implies.
It seems clear the show isn’t really interested in wider political questions of representation of disabled people as such, or of protecting anyone’s sensibilities – it’s just one family’s story. Audiences - whether they be living with disabilities or not - are able to appreciate the humour on different levels, or not at all. To my mind, the show brings some of the realities of raising a disabled child to a mainstream audience, and that’s got to be a positive thing. But its real success is, to my mind, how beautifully flawed and real the parents are, how they’re constantly winging it. It ‘normalises’ special needs parenting and makes me feel like maybe I can do this too. And though the storyline may be unique, the depiction of life with a disabled child (equal parts messy, sad, joyous, mundane, and extraordinary) feels universal, and ultimately hopeful.