November 22, 2010

Native Tongue in Medium

The TV show Medium had a Native episode recently: Native Tongue (airdate: 11/5/10). Here's what Medium is about:

Medium (TV series)Medium is an American supernatural and dramatic television series that premiered on NBC on January 3, 2005. Its lead character is Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette), a medium who works as a consultant for the Phoenix, Arizona district attorney's office.For a detailed synopsis of this episode, see Medium Watch:  Native Tongue.

Basically, Zahn McClarnon and Jesse James Youngblood play two Navajos who have robbed a bank. The episode begins with McClarnon returning to the trailer where he lives. Someone in a flame-retardant suit is waiting for him and demands to know where "it" is. McClarnon tells him but the guy sends the trailer up in flames anyway, killing McClarnon.

In the Phoenix area lives Allison Dubois, a psychic who gets random flashes of the past, present, and future. This time she sees McClarnon die in a dream and wakes up unable to understand anyone. They're all speaking "gibberish" (actually, the Navajo language) as far as she's concerned.

The episode mainly uses Allison's inability to communicate with her husband as a metaphor for, well, her inability to communicate with her husband. Their relationship seems devoid of chemistry, charm, or humor, so it's not very interesting. It's hard to believe this show has lasted seven seasons.

Story problems

[**spoiler alert**]

The focus on Allison's family obscures several story problems:

  • Why did Allison get a flash of this particular crime and not another? Why did it affect her in such a strange way? The show provides no answers.

  • The criminal has committed a rather imperfect crime. His flame-retardant suit should be easy to track. His getaway car leaves tire imprints on the dirt road. Most of all, he learned of the bank robbery when the robbers boasted of it in a bar filled with Navajos. You don't think someone might've noticed two non-Indians listening intently to a Navajo bar conversation?

    Fortunately for the criminal, the police don't seem to do much detective work. Instead, they rely on Allison for flashes of information. Too bad these sudden insights are dramatically unsatisfying.

  • Stupid criminal tricks

  • The criminal comes up with the "brilliant" idea of sending linguist Jane Livingston to spy on the police investigation. Livingston didn't know Allison would have a language problem, but she helps Allison by translating English to Navajo. In other words, she speeds up an investigation that would've slowed down without her.

    This is obviously stupid. Criminals are supposed to flee and hide, not offer themselves as consultants.

  • The criminal refers to himself and Livingston sarcastically as "palefaces." He says he speaks five "fairly useless" languages, including Navajo. He calls Youngblood's character "Tonto." Okay, he doesn't like why did he become an "anthrolinguist" specializing in Navajo?

    It's ridiculous for someone to spend years studying a subject he hates for little or no money. What was he going to do if he didn't stumble onto the bank robbers...rob a bank himself? How about quitting the field and going into something else, bright boy?

  • How Medium handles Navajo

    The show handles the language issue by having everyone speak English with Allison unable to understand them. The exception is when she goes to the office and hears everyone speaking in a foreign murmur. I couldn't tell what language it was, but I'm guessing the show didn't hire a roomful of Navajo speakers. It sounded a bit like Japanese to me.

    In this scene, Livingston speaks "Navajo" on the phone and we (and Allison) hear it as English. So I'm not sure anyone ever speaks Navajo. Clever of the show to avoid potential trouble, but in a story about language, some actual Navajo would've been good.

    Livingston says Navajo is "dying." I think the proper classification at this point is "threatened" or "endangered." It may start dying eventually, but I don't think it's there yet.

    Livingston should be upbeat about whatever she's doing to protect and revive the language. Saying it's dying is one step away from lamenting it as dead and thus not worth saving. It's the linguistic equivalent of calling Indians a vanishing breed.

    Language issue highlighted?

    A few commenters were happy the show raised the issue of endangered Native languages. I wasn't impressed. Zahn McClarnon is Standing Rock Sioux and Irish, and Jesse James Youngblood is Latino, I believe, so the show didn't use Navajo actors. In fact, it didn't show any Navajo people or the Navajo reservation. And I don't think it used any words of the Navajo language.

    The show gives us nothing but a couple of flashbacks of "Navajos" robbing, suffering, and dying. The overall impression is that Indians are lowlifes and losers. In that context, mentioning the "dying" language isn't worth much. Viewers will conclude that the language is dying because the Navajo don't care enough to save it.

    Normally, I wouldn't mind if the Native characters were criminals. But look at the underlying message. Non-Indian linguists are trying to preserve the Navajo language. Navajos are drinking and committing crimes. Mainstream culture is normal and healthy; Navajo culture is marginal and unhealthy.

    How to counteract this impression? Navajo bank robbers are okay, but complement them with a range of Navajo characters. Give us Navajos who are working to stop alcoholism or language loss. Focus on the Navajo world, for once, not the white world. When your plot is white cops investigating dead Indians, it's not much of a Native episode.

    For more on the subject, see Adam Beach in Hawaii Five-0 and "Pocahontas" in Parenthood.

    1 comment:

    John R. Platt said...

    I used to watch this show religiously -- it was clever and well-acted. But something shifted a year or two ago and Allison became the most annoying character on TV: shrill, un-wise, unable to communicate, whiny, and weak. I'm glad I stopped watching before this episode aired.