Dr. Fuller: Look, little man, when I was a kid I had this pet hamster…and then one day I came home from school and he was gone. I guess I left his cage unlatched. And eventually I found his body underneath my bed.
Charlie: I’m not gonna die under your bed.
I’ve already discussed my love of ridiculous medical melodramas ad nauseam, so today I feel obliged to bring up a less thrilling aspect of Off the Map. In the scene depicted above, Dr. Fuller attempts to repair his relationship with Charlie, the local boy who helps out at the clinic. Dr. Fuller is initially annoyed by Charlie’s constant presence and questions, but eventually he realizes that he can help Charlie become a doctor, and Charlie can help him become a better person.
So here’s the rub: in all these shows where first world meets third world, or East meets West, or rich meets poor, why is the relationship between two characters of different backgrounds always set up this way? The privileged character offers some sort of material goods or skills to the less privileged character, but the latter always encourages some sort of spiritual improvement in the former.
In Off the Map, and other television shows like Outsourced or even Gossip Girl, people who come from advantageous backgrounds are soulless and empty. Dr. Fuller becomes less close-minded and disrespectful through his interactions with Charlie and other South Americans; Charlie on Outsourced becomes less xenophobic after his Indian culture study sessions with Gupta, and Blair Waldorf sprouts a seedling of a soul after her encounters with Dan (because yes, to be from Brooklyn in a world of Upper East Siders naturally means you’re poor as dirt).
In return for their mystic wisdom into the nature of human behavior, these supposedly disadvantaged characters are often given material means of improving their lives. Their privileged benefactors can’t offer advice gleaned from a lifetime spent on the streets, but they can offer medical training and higher social status (it remains to be seen what Charlie owes Gupta on Outsourced).
If this trope were reversed, we’d undoubtedly decry the privileged for their condescending attitudes to the less privileged. I also can’t think of many elite television characters who would want to learn the tangible skills of the poor. Blair Waldorf, a struggling writer? Never! She’s fine with being an editor like Jackie O, but writing is for the common people.
I wonder if this relationship only appears on a certain type of melodrama. I’ve yet to see it occur on a comedy, but I’m inclined to think that may be because most comedies lack the innate self-righteousness of the socially dichotomous melodrama. I’m hard-pressed to think of a comedy with the same definite boundaries between two distinct classes of people. Will Community erupt into class warfare? Can Leslie Knope impress some feminism on Ron Swanson in exchange for hunting lessons? Stay tuned!