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.
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Forensics expert Elizabeth Devine has a bone to pick with the way TV has depicted her profession for decades.
"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.
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."
In many cases, Baz says, audience tolerance is more of a challenge than revealing secrets. "The most difficult thing on our show is: How far can we go with what's getting ready to happen out in the real world and how far do we push it before the audience gets a little too scared?"
This is equally true for the grisly crime shows. The CSI shows have been noted for their graphic gore, but Devine says audiences respond as long as the detail is helping them understand how to solve the crime.
"We bring you into the body," she says, "and show you what we're talking about."
This approach has the added benefit of getting viewers past technical jargon. "That's one of the reasons people watch our show, because it's cool," says Devine. "When we say, 'the stab wound pierced the aorta,' we're going to take you in and show you where that is and why that wasn't necessarily good for the victim."
However, consultants can do only so much to make the show realistic. It takes actors who really understand to communicate the humanity behind the procedures. "I actually had to take them through a training program," says Baz, about the cast of his show, with additional intervention for some individuals.
In the Thanksgiving episode, he says, the actor Jason O'Mara was locked up. As Baz watched, he says "there was something missing." The actor agreed.
"So, I took him into another part of the set and actually put him inside a small box for 30 minutes and didn't let him out." The actor got it, says Baz. You can try this at home, he adds. "If you want to know what it's like to be incarcerated, climb underneath your sink for 30 minutes," he says with a laugh.
Despite the success of the procedural these days, not every crime show feels the need for technical advisers. "There's something about Columbo that's bigger than life," says actor/producer Peter Falk, who brings his familiar alter ego back in another TV movie Jan. 30 on ABC.
Columbo doesn't use technical advisers. "He's not any more real than Sherlock Holmes is real," he says. What he looks for in his scripts are great scenes. "A good clue provides a scene," he says. "Something can be technically accurate, but if it doesn't provide a scene," he says with a shrug, "who cares?"
Every crime-show consultant has his or her pet peeves. Forensics expert Elizabeth Devine, producer of CBS's "CSI" and "CSI: Miami," runs a clean shop, and insists the "CSI" shows depict that reality.
"My biggest thing is eating in the lab. That's what offices are for," she says. "I lost a lot of battles, particularly [show lead] Dr. Robinson eating in autopsy. There's just absolutely no way anyone would do that, because it's so disgustingly gross in there and it smells terrible."
Then there's the issue of identity for undercover agents. "I'd like to see people live their cover a little more," says Bazzel Baz, a former CIA operative who advises on "The Agency." "I'm always amazed at how we're able to float in and out of every country in the world in the same face with no disguise and the same name. You know, you'd think they would stop you at the border and say, 'Mr. Stiles, weren't you here last month spying on our country?' "
Medical TV dramas frequently take license, particularly when it comes to being clean, says Lisa Zwerling, adviser to "Presidio Med." Flipping through the channels, she said she saw surgery being performed. "It ... looked like someone's office with a desk that they had just put a sheet over and put a patient on," she says, shaking her head. "No one in the room was wearing a mask, which is one of my personal battles. I know you hate putting masks on people, but it just screams wrong to have people in a sterile field operating on a patient without masks on."
Despite decades of cop shows, law-enforcement details still aren't always correct. "The ones that probably bother me the most are when I see somebody's civil rights being violated just blatantly," says Mark Llewellyn, FBI consultant for "Without a Trace." "It's just little things, like going into somebody's room when they don't have permission, they don't have a warrant, it's not an incident to arrest. Those types of things bother me more than anything."