Chasing Shadows Casts Raises Questions about Asperger’s in Dramas

Chasing Shadows is a 4-part crime drama by ITV that just might turn into a regular series if fans support it. But observations about its character portrayals are less than exciting. The drama has been said to wrongly represent Asperger’s Syndrome in its characterization of one of the actors. The complaint is about the trivialization or misrepresentation of a specific condition, although it still leaves writers open to the charge of using sort-of-autism as a behavioural flavouring, Go figure.

Chasing Shadows

Reece Shearsmith plays a blunt, obsessive detective in ITV’s new missing persons drama, but this diagnostic vagueness does a disservice to people who really have Asperger’s.

To the presumable bemusement of those affected by the condition, the autism spectrum has become a fashionable fictional accessory. The daddy of the genre, Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, remains a long-running stage hit, while a protagonist with something like Asperger’s features in another best-selling book, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project.

Two of the most successful recent TV crime series – Sherlock and The Bridge – involve detectives who lack emotional empathy: Saga Norén, played by Sofia Helin in the Swedish-Danish co-production, is intuitive but rude, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s investigator seems to have a far more psychiatrically precise isolationism and obsessive compulsion than he had in the original stories.

And now, perhaps as a result of the obsessive list-making of previous hits to which TV executives can be prone, comes Chasing Shadows (tonight, 9pm, ITV), in which Reece Shearsmith is DS Sean Stone, a detective who, kicked out of the murder squad for foolishly telling the truth at a press conference, is transferred to work with a missing persons charity, identifying the vanished who are most at risk of being killed, where he ignores colleagues, obsessionally categorises case-files and, when asked whether he has any idea how the parents of a possible murder victim must be feeling, bluntly replies: “No.”

This is an extreme instance of the increasing problem in TV crime fiction of telling the murder cops and the murderers apart – and Shearsmith is perfectly cast to continue this narrative trend. Having appeared as the uxoricidal Malcolm Webster in ITV’s The Widower earlier this year, he becomes surely one of the few actors to have played a serial killer (or, as DS Stone would pedantically insist, “multiple murderer”) and a detective in successive TV projects. And Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston), the missing persons-searcher who becomes his sidekick, subliminally makes the connection when she tells her mother that Stone is “as close to an actual psycho as you can get”.

In common with Haddon, Simsion and the writers of The Bridge, Rob Williams’ scripts for Chasing Shadows never specify the precise wiring of the investigator’s mind. When Ruth complains to a police colleague of Stone’s that she finds him intolerably brusque, she is reassured: “I’m not entirely sure if it’s medical but it’s not personal.” Such diagnostic vagueness avoids the objection of trivialising or misrepresenting a specific condition, although it still leaves writers open to the charge of using sort-of-autism as a behavioural flavouring, like Morse’s taste in beer or Sherlock’s violin.

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Chasing Shadows may not portray asperger’s syndrome correctly. but the drama is very popular and could be turned into a regular series. The 4-part drama will play out and fans will determine it’s future as it does. They might have to get characterization a bit more believable for Chasing Shadows to last long-term.

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