Authenticity on Television

On the DorothyL digest, a mailing list for mystery fans, someone wrote:

Someone said they couldn’t watch Hawaii because they lived there, and someone else said they couldn’t watch CSI because of all the mistakes.

That’s how I feel about medical shows. First, it’s too much like being at work. Second, none of them get it right. That includes ER and especially Diagnosis Murder. I spend too much time yelling at the TV, and don’t enjoy it. I can’t do the “suspension of reality” thing with medical shows. So I gave up watching them, and watch the shows with subject matters that I don’t have a background in.

I hear this complaint a lot… so I decided to reply, and here’s what I said:

It doesn’t bug me that characters on TV can always get a parking space on a busy street, right in front of where they are going… or that buildings identified as “Police Headquarters” or “Community General Hospital” are actually something else in real life…or that a street a character drives down in a chase doesn’t actually intersect with the next street we see the car on… those are simply the realities of creating a fictional reality… of using the “real world” as stage.

As for the medical, legal, and forensic gaffes in shows like Diagnosis Murder, Missing, and Hunter (to name a few shows I’ve been associated with), there are lots of reasons. One, sometimes reality doesn’t work for the demands of telling a compelling, fast-moving story in 46 minutes (do you really want to wait weeks for DNA on “CSI”? Or doesn’t it make more sense for story-telling purposes to get it in 10 seconds?). Two, we aren’t doctors, FBI agents, or cops… nor are we writing/producing documentaries… errors of fact are inevitable. And three, accuracy isn’t our priority… entertainment is. It’s all make-believe anyway. As long as you are entertained, does it really matter? We always make up things that don’t exist in fiction… and sometimes where reality and fiction collide, there are errors. I shrug most of them off.

5 thoughts on “Authenticity on Television”

  1. Getting a DNA reading in five minutes works on Star Trek. Getting it on CSI kills it for me. It may be make believe, but if some of the details are glaringly wrong, so much for suspend disbelief.
    Or, as Twain put it, truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to the facts.

  2. What TV does is mess with those who know more than the average person does. So the reason CSI drives me bonkers is because well, I was trained as a forensic scientist. If I hadn’t been, I suspect I would have twigged to some degree of inaccuracy but not nearly the same amount that I do. Having said that, I can sort of put up with it with the orig and Miami shows, but New York? No way. Especially because they actually kind of go out of their way to approach verisimilitude and then take a few too many wrong turns into fantasy-world.

  3. I understand your frustration with some TV shows… but they are entertainment. Do I believe you can get kicked fifteen times in the face and not bleed (let alone still be conscious?) No, but I still enjoy Jackie Chan movies. Do I believe you can leap through a plate glass window and emerge without a scratch? Nope… but TV and movie characters do it all the time. If you use reality as a yardstick when viewing shows like CSI.. or movies like BOURNE IDENTITY, you will be disappointed. TV and Movies don’t sell reality, they sell escape from reality.

  4. I had a roommate who used to tell me what was wrong with every show he watched with me. Drove me up a wall because A) I didn’t know but more importantly B) I didn’t care. Do I think Alias or 24 could really happen? Probably not. Do I care? No, because they are such entertaining shows. And, ultimate, that’s what I care about.
    Now if I found a show about accountants, maybe I’d have some complaints, but since that’s not the case, I don’t.


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