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Television Collision: Why Off the Map Turns Me Off

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In the world of serialized television Shonda Rhimes has established herself as a household name fairly safe for network executives to trust to bring in “the numbers“ and guarantee success. The basis for this trust is, of course, Grey’s Anatomy and the subsequent extension of this trust was justified by Private Practice.
I myself quite enjoy the antics at Seattle Grace (Seattle Grace-Mercy West, yeah, yeah, I refuse to make the change), even though I see some validity in the arguments CC2K’s Big Ross made against the show recently.

However, Shonda Rhimes hasn’t achieved Joss Whedon status in my book. Meaning: I am not willing to follow her blindly, trusting she will lead me to an emotionally rewarding, well thought-out, creative, cathartic place with her vision. Case in point: I stopped watching Private Practice after approximately twelve episodes, because I could not bear any more “adults” behaving more like teenagers than any teenager I have ever met. Seriously, if you thought Grey’s Anatomy was bad in the incestuous and law-suit-inviting romantic quarrels it portrayed, don’t ever tune into Private Practice. Guys, I guarantee it will make you want to blow your brains out.

Having seen the first two episodes of Off the Map – Rhimes’ newest brainchild – I long for the days I though watching grown women behave like sixteen-year-olds was bad television. Off the Map veers so far off the map of good taste, it baffles me it was greenlit in its current state. Not even the fact that Zach Gilford, one of my favorite Friday Night Lights alumni, who recently made a very satisfying reappearance in that gem of a show, is getting a wider exposure starring in Off the Map can give it any redeeming value.

Just in case you’ve missed it, here is the premise of Off the Map: somewhere in South America (the exact location is never given, as if all South American countries are the same and easily interchangeable at will without any adjustments having to be made) a few American, Australian and “native” doctors are trying to run a clinic, which gives medical care to all the people living within a 200-mile radius.
And since they have insufficient funding, what would make more sense than inviting some young American residents, whom you don’t have to pay a lot of money, to help out and give them a chance to “boost their CVs” by a visit to the jungle?

Fine, alright, I should stop mocking the premise. It isn’t all that bad when you really strip it down to its bare bones, even though the underlying “sense of mission” (the German word “Sendungsbewusstsein” fits so much better here) annoys the hell out of me. But you have to at least grant Rhimes and team this much: they acknowledged this is a possible accusation against them by naming the first episode “Saved by the Great White Hope”, therefore indicating at least in spirit they are aware that not everyone needs saving by “us snooty white people”.

Sadly, this remains largely lip service, since the show’s reality is permeated by prejudice, stereotypes and precisely the “white preaching” that inspires hatred in those deemed “inferior”, “unenlightened” or “stuck in the past” by the dominant Western society. While the experienced doctors already working at the clinic are sufficiently aware of how to work with the local culture – or more precisely, work AROUND the local culture to still get their way – the American residents they have invited to work there display a baffling ignorance about everything, ranging from their language skills to their social skills.

If indeed we are to believe that the Old Doctors (which is what I choose to call those who already work there, the Bailey’s and Shepherd’s in Off the Map) had hundreds of applicants to choose from to fill the three resident positions, then wouldn’t it be logical, sensible and mandatory to pick three residents WHO ACTUALLY SPOKE SPANISH?????
Given the percentage of people in America who speak Spanish, I refuse to believe that not a single one of those people went to med school and is actually interested in traveling to a country where a language that might very well be their second mother tongue is spoken as an official language!

And even IF for some inexplicable reason these three white-as-they-come residents were the most medically qualified to choose for the program (a fact I can’t believe either, because the specialty of plastic surgery, which Zach Gilford’s character has chosen, is NOT one of the existential skills needed in a place lacking such rudimentary medical care as having more than three bags of O negative blood in stock), you would think that them having lived in America all their lives, a country with roughly 45% Hispanic/Latino population, and having consumed the pop-culture of said country, would lead them to at least such a basic understanding of the Spanish language that they would know what the term “gringo” means! Hell, I am German with an Italian background, studied French, Latin and Ancient Greek in high school and even I know what “gringo” means! Could you make the character of Zach Gilford any less likable by adding complete and utter ignorance to his arrogance and his “I am a gift to womankind” attitude?

You can see, this show has me all kinds of riled up and only two episodes have aired until now. Let me get this straight: I am all for the unrealistic, ridiculously romantic yet twisted amorous endeavors that can ensue in a situation as outlandish as working in a run-down clinic in the middle of the jungle somewhere. Sooner or later everyone is going to jump everyone’s bones, it’s an issue of availability and proximity. I am all for characters with so much baggage, you’d run screaming if you had to date any of them in real life. And Off the Map provides this aplenty, so that part I don’t mind.

It’s the backdrop it uses, the intrinsic assumptions it makes about South American culture and its population and in the implicit stereotypical thinking that is revealed in every line and every scenario the writers concoct. They may be unconscious of it, but their creations reveal just how unaware they are of their own prejudice.
OF COURSE the people “somewhere in the jungle of South America” believe a girl who has epilepsy is possessed by demons and they can get into her head via the scar she has on her chin from a fall when she was a little girl (which is neatly fixed by our plastic surgery resident, who – approximately at least ten years after the original accident – sews up the chin scar so nicely, you can hardly notice it anymore). And OF COURSE you have to work WITH the Medicine Man in order to get the girl to take her medication.

Here is an excellent example of what I mean by the implicit prejudice: Zach Gilford’s character openly confronts the Medicine Man and tells him his voodoo ceremonies and belief in demons are hokum and won’t help the girl. Instead she should be taking the awesome pills Western medicine can provide. The Medicine Man, the girl and her mom are offended and walk away. So one of the Old Doctors tells the resident how to do it right: you have to work with the Medicine Man. Result: the Medicine Man is going to do his ritual for the little girl and just incorporate the pills as a part of them.

Now, on the surface this may look like the Old Doctor has found a way to help the girl, and he even explicitly states that he can’t rule out the Medicine Man may actually possess some powers, since he helped him get rid of ugly migraines once (they were two panthers fighting in his head), and yet this is just another instance of “the Great White Hope” riding in and saving the day in a statement that reads: “Leave them to their quirky beliefs. As long as we can trick them into still using our modern medicine as well, there’s no harm in them believing that ridiculous stuff about demons.”

The irony here is that the Old Doctor who deals with the Medicine Man is actually Black, but in this instance he is part of a larger group established as “the culturally dominant”, meaning he is American and therefore displays the same prejudices as the white Americans on the show.
I would very much like to point to something Dr. Eric Foreman once said on House, when Dr. House had lied to a Black patient about which heart medicine to take, because the patient had refused to take medicine specifically designed for Blacks.
To wit, Foreman said:

 

“Every slave master thought they were doing the black man a favor. Negro can’t take care of himself, so we’ll put him to work. Give him four walls, a bed. We’ll civilize the heathen. Tell you what. Stop doing us favors. If you’re right, and we end up back in the jungle with lousy blood pressure medication, it won’t be on your head.”

By no means do I want to imply we should deny help in the form of medical expertise to those who need it and can benefit from it. My argument is this: humility goes a long way when offering help. And if there is one thing Off the Map lacks, it is humility. The whole show until now seems like a big exercise to show how, indeed, the Great White Hope rides in and saves the day yet again, even though the show makers try to claim that is precisely not what they want to portray.

Yet the residents haven’t bothered to learn a word of Spanish, even though they must have known months in advance that they had been chosen to go “to the jungle” and there is precisely ONE native doctor working at the clinic. Any concept for providing long-lasting, substantial help to the people of the region would have native residents at the clinic, who managed to fight their way into medical school despite grappling odds against them, and give them a chance to apply their skills, “boost their CVs” and do some good “for their own people” on top of it. The key to any effort of “helping the people to help themselves” is always training, teaching the local population all the necessary skills they need to take care of themselves, with the firm intent to leave them to their own devices once they are able to do that.
The one way NOT to help anyone is by swooping in and saying “Here, let me do it for you”.

I could go on, but I feel I have given you enough of my reasons to take offense at Off the Map, even though I am not immediately represented or misrepresented by any of the characters on the show. What gives me great comfort is the fact that I am by far not the only TV critic who perceives the show as offensive and mildly racist (see: here and here and most importantly here, a scathing review done New York Times style). What gives me greater comfort still are the relatively weak Nielsen ratings for the show, of which I am sure network execs had expected more, because of mentioned household name of Rhimes.

Do I see a ways for the show to improve? – Many. Do I think it will actually happen? – I lost my naiveté pertaining to the TV world a loooong time ago, so no.

Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.

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