Warning: Do not tune into NBC’s new “Ironside” with any expectation of a show resembling Raymond Burr’s series of 40 years ago. As star Blair Underwood himself attests, they really didn’t keep much outside of the name and the central conceit of a disabled lawman operating his own team. Oh, and Underwood’s Robert Ironside tipples a bit of bourbon at the end of a long day, an homage to Burr.
This “Ironside” is as different from that one as 2013 is from 1967, when the original began. This Ironside has much more in common with technical advisor David Bryant, who became a paraplegic after a ski accident he suffered at age 19. Bryant serves as a model of self-sufficiency for Underwood. The handles have been removed from his wheelchair, and Ironside’s wheelchair. This Ironside is gritty and, be prepared, he has wheelchair sex.
According to Underwood, with his character’s level of functionality, post-spinal cord injury, “those nerve endings still work.” And the “Ironside” team obviously feels compelled to show us, considering their star is the guy who had viewers’ pulses racing as a dream man on “Sex and the City” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
Underwood has worked hard to master his wheelchair technique. He’s endured tumbling over. He’s learning how to pop wheelies. After being shot — as we see in the pilot’s flashbacks – Ironside, he pointed out, had to learn “how to drive, how to get in and out of his car, which is a big deal, how to get in and out of bed, how to work out. He had to learn his center of balance. He’s paralyzed from the armpits down, so he’s a little different from [the previous] Ironside, who was from paralyzed from the waist down.”
Why doesn’t Ironside use an electric wheelchair? ”He wants to do everything he can on his own. That’s an added device,” noted the handsome star, whose resume also includes “L.A. Law” and “In Treatment.” ”My mother is in a wheelchair, and my father, for years, would not get an electric wheelchair because he wanted to push her. There’s something about that sense of responsibility that says, ‘I can do this.’ Or in his case, ‘I can do this for my wife.’ In Ironside’s case, it’s ‘I can do this for myself.’”
Underwood’s mother, Marilyn, has multiple sclerosis — which makes his portrayal of physical challenges especially meaningful.
He calls the show, which debuts Oct. 2, “a crime drama wrapped in a character study.” Some critics have called it things not nearly so nice. But flawed thought it may be, ”Ironside” has potential — especially with the charisma and acting chops of Underwood — if you can put Ray Burr’s gruff but genteel chief out of your mind.
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