January 18, 2011

No Indians in Off the Map

I watched Saved by the Great White Hope, the pilot episode of Off the Map (airdate: 1/12/10). It was about as bad as I thought it would be. Here's what the LA Times had to say about it:

Young doctors try to heal patients, themselves in 'Off the Map'

Sappy situations abound in the South American jungle where the expatriate doctors ply their trade in the message-laden ABC series.

By Mary McNamara
Created by "Grey's Anatomy" writer Jenna Bans, "Off the Map" is so inspirational and message-laden it would not be out of place on Oprah Winfrey's new network. By the very nature of the work, everyone involved in "Off the Map" is instantly credited with a certain amount of heroism. Clinic veterans, Drs. Zee Alvarez (Valerie Cruz), Otis Cole (Jason George) and Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson) may look momentarily askance at their newest recruits, but the three young doctors have not come to the jungle to pad their privileged resumes (as the jaded and exhausted Alvarez suggests). They are here to find Rebirth, Resolution and Redemption.

Alas, it all plays just as sappy as it sounds, even with the gorgeous and ridiculous distractions of make-do medicine—after Lily treats a patient mid-zip line, Ben transfuses him with coconut milk when the blood stores run low (kids, don't try this at home); Tommy saves a medicine-wary tubercular family using only the power of his voice and the soulfulness of his eyes (he speaks no Spanish); and Mina deals with the ho-hum-until-it's-not nature of clinic work.
Comment:  Off the Map is the opposite of shows set in New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, where the settings give the shows context and color. It apparently has nothing to say about race, religion, culture, or politics. It's a modern medical ensemble show crossed with a Tarzan movie or Gilligan's Island, and it's about as realistic.


Off the Map is intentionally vague about where it takes place: "somewhere in South America." It's about like having white settlers meet anonymous Indians somewhere in the Wild West. It's an excellent example of how the lack of details makes a show bland and generic.

Let's look at where the show should be situated, but isn't:

  • Commercials for Off the Map have called the location the "Wild West" and said it's "halfway around the world." The "Off the Map" name suggests it's supposed to be incredibly remote. But halfway around the world from the United States is the middle of the Indian Ocean. South America isn't that remote.

  • Fuller says he traveled 5,000 miles to get there. That suggests the location is somewhere on the northern edge of the continent: Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, the Guianas, or northern Brazil.

  • Keeton says the nearest medical clinic is 200 miles away. I'd be somewhat surprised if a single spot in South America is that far from medical help. Maybe in the center of the Amazon jungle--but these people are on the coast. I'm willing to bet that only Antarctica has 400 miles of coastline (200 miles in either direction) without a medical clinic.

  • New doctor Fuller says there are three topless beaches nearby. The first big medical case involves an elderly man caught on a zip line through the treetops. These things imply tourist resorts...but nobody has a better medical facility than this struggling clinic?

    So people hike 200 miles through the jungle to reach topless beaches where the slightest accident could kill them? And no tourist resort, seaside port, oil company, or village on an Amazon tributary is close enough to offer help? That's flatly ridiculous.

  • At the end Keeton points out the constellation of the Southern Cross high in the sky. Wrong. The clinic is probably located near the equator, and possibly in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Cross wouldn't be visible from there.

  • The doctors jump off rocky cliffs that I think we've seen in Lost and Hawaii Five-0. It's a clue that we're in a magical jungle land where nothing is specific to the location and everything is possible. As the article says, you wouldn't be surprised to find a Hawaiian leper colony, an Indonesian rubber plantation, or the Dharma Initiative around the corner.

  • Culture and language

    The setting's culture is about as vague as its location:

  • Dr. Alvarez, the lone Latina, makes a couple comments about imperialist white doctors. Charlie the boy guide/translator calls Fuller a gringo. Some patients speak Spanish and some signs are in Spanish. Other than that, there are literally no cultural or political markers. The story could take place in any Spanish-speaking jungle in eastern Asia, equatorial Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean.

  • Alvarez and Charlie appear to be secondary characters, so Americans dominate the clinic. Cole the black doctor also appears to be a secondary character. So no brown-skinned foreigners tell the white good guys what to do.

    Moreover, the Americans seem to be the only employees. One nameless Latina nurse does get a few of seconds of screen time, but that's it. This ensures that the heroic whites will solve every problem themselves.

    Basically the story is about the great white doctor Keeton and his three white acolytes. Despite all the brown background characters, it's one of the whitest shows I've seen.

  • As the LA Times notes, it's absurd that people would sign up for a foreign program without taking language classes to prepare. And the show milks the language problems to an absurd degree. For instance, Fuller gives an impassioned speech about how his pride ruined his career to a patient who can't understand him. Charlie translates this as, "He's a good doctor," and that's enough to persuade the man.

    Worse, when an old woman keeps showing up at the clinic, new doctor Minard tells her to go home. Minard emphasizes this by speaking slowly and clearly in English. Despite having three doctors and an unknown number of others who are bilingual, she doesn't ask for help. Not until the woman keels over does Minard think, "Hmm, maybe she was actually here for a reason. She wasn't just sitting here to annoy me like some ignorant welfare recipient who wants a handout."

  • When Keeton gives a pep talk, he lists three remedies found in the jungle and says, "Medicine began here." What he means is that Indians discovered or invented many of the medicines and techniques still used there. But Keeton doesn't credit Indians with being the first to practice jungle medicine. Maybe his great white ancestors, the Europeans who conquered the continent, made the discoveries.

  • Conclusion

    It's ridiculous for a show set in a South American jungle, the home of many Indian tribes, not to mention Indians. It's also ridiculous not to mention any of the possible political or cultural conflicts. Are ranching, mining, or oil-drilling operations intruding on the local residents? How do the residents even earn a living: by subsistence farming or working for a mega-corporation? Are any drug lords or anti-government militias operating nearby? What's the unnamed government's position on economic development, environmental protection, and indigenous rights? Does the government lean to the left or right? Is it pro- or anti-American? Etc.

    Off the Map doesn't answer or even ask these questions because they'd intrude on the show's theme. Which is that Keeton the great white "humanitarian" is going to save the primitive brown-skinned people from their own folly. The locals have no healers, no leaders, no authority in their own homeland. They're merely suffering subjects for the white doctors to cure.

    Alvarez the lone Latina seems to be more of an administrator and a scold than a doctor. She disappears for long stretches while the white doctors handle the most pressing cases. Her big moment comes when the black doctor Cole tells her to chill out because the Americans know best everything will work itself out.

    Cole doesn't have much more to do than provide bits of POC wisdom. When Fuller reports that his patients are dying, Cole's big moment is telling Fuller to go back and cure them. In other words, giving the white doctor his big chance is more important than saving lives at risk. If the brown-skins died, Cole presumably would tell Fuller: "Try harder next time, white boy."

    The whole setup is incredibly paternalistic. Even though Off the Map is about "ugly Americans" learning to be better human beings, it handles the subject in an ugly fashion. The great white doctor has all the answers; the people of color serve him as flunkies or patients.

    The show's worldview is rooted in the early 20th century, when white missionaries and doctors were the only ones who could save the "dark" regions of the world. It's an insult to all the Latino and Indian people in South America who are taking charge of their lives. Who don't need Americans to help them.

    Forty-five years ago, the TV series Daktari had a similar premise. But the black characters in Daktari were more fleshed out than the nameless South Americans who serve as patients in Off the Map. Off the Map is a big step backward in the portrayal of indigenous peoples and cultures.

    For more on what Off the Map missed, see Amazon Indians Weren't Savages, Cameron's and Weaver's Anti-Dam Films, and Amazon Indian Students on the Net.

    1 comment:

    London Mabel said...

    Luckily the show is so bland it won't last. It's all the things you say, AND I could care less about the characters. Ugh.

    The creators of Northern Exposure tried a show like this called Going to Extremes (only it was a medical college in the Caribbean.) I was quite young at the time, I can't claim it was racially well done, but at least it was charming and had fun characters.