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The folks who put the 'reality' in TV

TV shows from 'The Agency' to 'CSI' have full-time advisers helping out with everything from lingo to lab layouts.

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2003


Forensics expert Elizabeth Devine has a bone to pick with the way TV has depicted her profession for decades.

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"Nobody chalks bodies," she says of the familiar chalk outlines that have telegraphed "here lay John/Jane Doe" for generations of TV viewers. "I don't know who started that," she says, but it's a good guess that it was a TV show. "People write scripts based on televised crime scenes," she says. "That's why you see chalk around bodies."

These days, the former Los Angeles Sheriff's Department criminalist works fulltime as a producer on the hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" shows, making sure that such gaffes are not perpetuated.

Over on the set, everything is authentic.

"Hook up a few valves in this autopsy theater," Ms. Devine says, pointing to an array of gleaming chrome faucets on the set she designed, and "you could actually do a real autopsy in here, if you had to."

"Although," she adds with a laugh, "you might get hauled in by the Health Department if you tried."

It's hard to imagine such authenticity in the early days of television, but even hit shows such as the 1960s drama "The FBI" tapped bureau expertise, if for no other reason than to keep the story lines fresh. In a time of more competition than ever for viewing eyeballs, it's not surprising that producers - especially of procedural dramas - are turning to experts to give their shows that extra edge.

These shows, which tap into arcane worlds such as espionage ("The Agency"), missing persons work ("Without a Trace"), and medical procedures ("Presidio Med"), require such specialized knowledge that they employ fulltime advisers helping with everything from lingo to lab layouts.

While firing a gun straight or isolating the proper DNA strands for testing may seem like a big challenge to most people, ultimately the toughest test for these highly skilled advisers is balancing fact and fiction.

"The challenge of this job is keeping it real and making it work dramatically, because ultimately drama's more important," says Lisa Zwerling, adviser to "Presidio Med." Like most technical advisers these days, she works closely with the writers and producers.

Please, no kissing in the ICU

Dr. Zwerling says writers and actors want to look like the real thing, so she rarely has to put her foot down. But there are moments, such as the time a writer paired a plastic surgeon and a burn victim romantically - a flagrant breach of ethics.

"For a while, there was one version, of the script where they actually kiss in the intensive care unit," she says, shaking her head, adding this would never happen. "I went into my boss's office and laid down on the floor and said, 'Can we please not have doctors kissing their patients in the ICU, please?' " She won that battle, she adds. The lovebirds kissed in a firehouse instead.

Even longtime producers in the procedural genre find they have to keep on top of the details. Dick Wolf, creator and ongoing producer of the New York-based "Law & Order" shows, says when he decided to bring back the old L.A.-based "Dragnet" this season, he had to tap local advisers. "We've never shot a cop show in L.A.," he says. "The LAPD is very different than most other police forces." For instance, it's based on a military model, and the officers are all young and fit.

New York cops, he adds, "are 30 pounds overweight, but they've got really good eyes." You need to pay attention to the technical details, he adds, because these are the things that make a good procedural drama.

But details alone don't do the job, says former CIA operative Bazzel Baz, who keeps his intelligence contacts fresh while working as a full-time adviser on "The Agency." "Technically what may be correct," he says, "may in fact be boring at times."

In addition, he says, crime shows face additional landmines, such as not giving away so much information that it helps the bad guys. "I'm making sure it's technically correct, and that's difficult in itself," says Mr. Baz. "But what I try to do on 'The Agency' is push them as close to the edge of espionage without revealing sources and methods."

Instead, he focuses on strategy and tactics, says Baz. "We'll get it really close," he says, "but the bad guys in the real world ... they never see us coming."

Besides, adds FBI consultant Mark Llewellyn for "Without a Trace," "in reality, most of the bad guys have been there, they've done it, they know what our capabilities are as far as trap and trace [phone calls] and those types of things, so we're not really giving away secrets."