Do you ever wonder how much of your favorite crime show is actually true?
I recently asked myself that question when I started to binge on The Blacklist on Netflix and after watching one after another after another, I found myself wondering whether the FBI is truly as incompetent as portrayed on the show.
Could there really be all these psycho, criminal masterminds out there that the FBI isn't even aware of?
The thought made me shutter especially when I heard the writers had former FBI agents as story consultants.
But recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a top writer on The Blacklist and I couldn't help myself. I had to ask if any of it was based on true stories from the FBI consultants.
His reaction made me feel silly for asking. Of course, there's nothing to the stories!
Basically, the writers would concoct the most heinous criminal their imaginations could possible come up with and fact check with the FBI as to whether there's any sliver of a chance someone like this person could be operating under the radar.
And since pretty much any scenario could possibly happen for some period of time, pretty much anything goes with the creation of these villainous criminal monsters.
The existence of these criminals felt so real when I was watching the show that this led me to wonder...
How many of my decisions have been influenced by mere TV fantasy?
I immediately recalled an experience I often tell as a joke when people ask me why I'm no longer practicing law.
I tell them that one day, about six weeks into my first year of law school, I was sitting at the very top of this auditorium style classroom in 1L Torts and as we discussed the minutia of some common law principle that I've since happily repressed, a thought occurred to me - I didn't want to be a lawyer, I just wanted to play one on TV.
After all, what did I know about the reality of law practice? I didn't have anybody in my family that was a lawyer. I barely knew any lawyers. I worked for one lawyer as a receptionist and I thought it was so boring, that on more than one occasion, I wanted to stick a pencil in my ear to end it all. I ended up rationalizing that I would practice a more exciting area of law - whatever that may be.
Yet, I seemed to think I knew enough about what a lawyer does based off of TV shows and movies. It wasn't until I entered law school that I got a dose of reality. Unfortunately, most of what a lawyer does isn't visually compelling enough to make it on screen and so I had to discover the hard way that this wasn't going to be the career I thought it would be.
But I'm not the only one that has made such a mistake.
I experienced first hand, juries upon juries of people that believed jury duty and courtroom trials were going to be like Law & Order or CSI.
This happens so much that it's now customary for lawyers to have to remind jurors that this real life trial isn't TV. After all, nobody wants to pay enough taxes to fully fund an expensive operation of cutting edge technology for the district attorney's office. So sorry CSI fans but we're not going to have a DNA analysis done for this trial!
But that point has also raised new questions for me - how much responsibility does the entertainment industry (including story creatives like myself) have in representing reality? Is it even possible for a TV show to be successful without all the imaginary heightened drama that certainly make for great entertainment?
With the recent rise of Reality TV showman, Donald Trump, as the Republican candidate for U.S. President, these questions have never been more relevant or important.
Trump's role as a reality TV host of The Apprentice has outshone more important facts about him such as his lack of understanding of what can or cannot legally be accomplished within our government structure.
But can we blame the people who watched Trump week after week, year after year, being portrayed as "the" expert in the business arena, for not being able to tell the difference between reality and Reality TV?
Hell, the entertainment industry has deemed shows like The Apprentice as "Reality TV" when it's not really showcasing true reality as it unfolds but rather, it follows the structure and direction of the show's writers. That's purposely confusing!
Then there's recent research that illustrates this point with frightening clarity. Michelle C. Pautz, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton, gathered responses from audience members regarding their trust in government before and after viewing either Argo or Zero Dark Thirty.
If you haven't watched either film, they have a rather simplistic (indicative of the film medium) and favorable outcome (indicative of Hollywood's love for happy endings) where U.S. government agents are successful in their respective missions at hand.
After viewing one of the films, Pautz found a distinct amount - between 1/5 to 1/4 of the audience members - had changed their opinion about government to one that was more favorable.
Now, before you say that a 1/5 to 1/4 isn't that big of a percentage, consider that the only thing that happened to change these participants' minds was watching a two-hour movie - within that short time and with nothing more than a fictionalized version of past events made people change their opinion of government!
But Pautz is quick to point out that there are many things that influence the political spectrum and the public's opinions about government. So, we can't put the brunt of the responsibility on the entertainment industry. After all, it's hard to decide when or where life is depicting art or art is depicting life.
Regardless, two things are clear to me. One, I'm not alone in being influenced by TV shows, and films for that matter, and that these mediums do skew our sense of reality to some degree.
Two, unless we want to miss out on some amazing entertaining content, we bear the responsibility to be self-aware enough to know whether we are basing our decisions on reality or fantasy.
So next time you find yourself ready to believe in something or someone just because you saw it on TV, take a time-out and remember that it's only entertainment!