Fiction is Reality on Television

When I was hired on Diagnosis Murder, I naturally figured my career was over. There I was, in my early 30s, stuck on a show that was considered by The Industry as programming for the elderly and the last professional stop for TV writers on their way to the Motion Picture Home themselves.
How could this have happened to me?
At the time, the series was mired in the bottom of the ratings. The exec producers were about to bring back Andy Griffith as attorney Ben Matlock for an episode as a ratings stunt. Matlock had only been off the air for a year or so, and people weren’t exactly marching in the streets, waving their dentures and colostomy bags in the air, clamoring for his return.
But I could understand the impulse. Bringing back beloved TV characters is a sure-fire way to get ratings… for good reason. We have strong emotional attachments to TV characters. We know all about them. We know their history. We know their dreams and aspirations. We know the most intimate details of their personal lives. They are so familiar to us that they are like members of our own family.
In a sense, they are. They are part of our shared, cultural family. And to us, they will always live on. So it’s only natural that we still think about them and that we wonder how their lives have changed since we last saw them.
But I was pretty certain nobody missed Matlock. At least not yet. But there was a character I missed. Joe Mannix. The epitome of the cool private eye in the 1970s. I wondered what happened to him and how he fit into the world today. I suggested we ought to bring Mannix back. My writing partner, William Rabkin, and I met with Mike Connors, who played Mannix, and convinced him to assume the iconic role one more time. We found a Mannix episode from 25 years earlier, brought back the entire guest cast in the same roles they played before, and used the old footage for flashbacks.
When I started writing the script, and typed the words “Joe Mannix” for the first time, I was thrilled. I remembered why I had become a TV writer in the first place. Because I love television and TV characters (I’ve kept every TV Guide that’s come into my hands since I was 10 years old. Scary, huh?)
We depicted Mannix as he always was, the tough, hard-charging PI, unwilling to face his own mortality, refusing to acknowledge a dire heart condition, and the fact he was growing too old for the job. Not only did Mannix figure out whodunit, and patch up his bad ticker, but he also saved my career.
The episode aired and was #14 in the ratings for the week. After that, Bill and I became the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder, and it remained in the top 25 programs under our aegis. Not surprisingly, we made a habit over the years of revisiting beloved TV characters on the show — or at least bringing back familiar actors in roles similar to the ones that made them famous.
I didn’t do it for the ratings spike as much as I did it for myself. I am, first and foremost, a TV geek and, deep down, I think we all are.
TV characters are real to us. Too real, in fact, to some people.
But it’s not just the characters who can become real to us. Sometimes, so can the world they live in, especially for network TV executives.
The TV series C.S.I is fictional. The way the characters behave, the scope of their investigatory responsibilities, their legal authority in a case, their relationship to the police detectives, and the lightning-fast scientific results they achieve have absolutely no basis in reality. As a veteran homicide detective I know likes to say, Star Trek is more realistic than C.S.I.
But success is its own reality to television network executives. So while you and I may know C.S.I. is fiction, it’s real to the people who develop TV shows. If you’re writing about crime on television, you’re required now to incorporate the world according to C.S.I into your fictional universe.
The best, and most obvious, example of the inescapable CSI-ification of cop shows is the venerable Law & Order. If you look at the early episodes of Law & Order, there isn’t a single C.S.I. tech in sight. At most, one of the detectives might refer to information that “just came in from the lab.” Now, in every episode, there’s a talkative C.S.I. tech at each crime scene and the detectives have to make at least one obligatory stop at C.S.I. HQ to get a multi-media briefing from some colorful tech in a lab coat. Because if the detectives didn’t acknowledge the story-telling liberties and dramatic devices of C.S.I., the crime story just wouldn’t be real or contemporary or “cutting edge”…well, not to network executives, anyway.
I recently wrote a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed murder mystery series, for one of the big three networks. The first note I got was to add a regular C.S.I. character to the show, even though the series concept had nothing to do with that aspect of homicide investigation. The network’s argument, of course, was that the show “didn’t seem real” without a visit to the crime lab, even though the proposed series isn’t about cops (If the pilot gets filmed, which I won’t know until after the new year, I’ll let you know if the CSI character remains… I suspect he will).
Did Columbo ever talk to the C.S.I. folks? How often did the cops of Homicide or NYPD Blue consult anyone at the crime lab?
There are, of course, hundreds of examples of successful cop shows and legendary detective heroes who solved crimes without a heavy reliance on technology, forensics, and the story-telling conventions of C.S.I. But that argument won’t work with network executives because those shows and characters, with the success of C.S.I., have instantly become “dated” and “old-fashioned” in their eyes (even a western, in order to be “contemporary,” had to include forensics… though that didn’t help Peacemakers stay on the air).
So it doesn’t matter if C.S.I. is totally fictional, it’s the new fictional reality by which all other fictional realities will be measured against by network executives for fictional authenticity… at least until another cop show becomes a break-out hit and redefines the way we tell crime stories on television.

2 thoughts on “Fiction is Reality on Television”

  1. Nice blog, Lee! I heard about you from Roger Simon.
    I do have a request, please, please have the people who do the lighting turn on the lights. (If you want to know what I mean, I blogged about it yesterday April 7). CSI’s near-total darkness (even in the daylight of the desert or the beach) punctuated with pigment-saturated color is annoying. I wouldn’t mind it much if it weren’t that the laboratories are the darkest of all, which leaves me wondering whether a good lawyer would be able to get the judge to throw the case out of court because, “your honor, the investigators couldn’t see in that room”.


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