Monday, September 22, 2014

CSI ... Is Getting It Wrong, Right?

Robert Ellis
One of my favorite things about putting together a new story, no matter what the medium, is doing the research. I love to get out of the office and actually walk through a story. Whether it means touring the morgue at Yale University Medical School (which scared the life out of me), or climbing to the top of the Capitol dome (which was thrilling) -- it just seems to add something to the experience of telling a story and creating characters solid enough to jump off the page.

Years ago I went to a lecture by a forensic criminalist from Orange, California. The event was sponsored by Sisters In Crime and held at the library in South Pasadena. After a brief introduction, the criminalist began playing a sequence from the popular television series CSI. As the TV detectives processed a crime scene, the criminalist would stop the program and point out the mistakes they were making. After a few minutes he switched off the video projector and turned up the lights. Unfortunately, the detectives from CSI had managed to ruin the crime scene and destroy every piece of evidence they touched. Everyone in the audience laughed. Then the criminalist went on to say that the easiest way to get off jury duty these days was to admit that you're a fan of CSI. No one on the either side of the aisle would be able to trust your judgment because so little of the TV show is real. "You may love the program," the criminalist said with a smile. "It may be the hottest franchise in town, but you've been tainted! Brainwashed!"

This weekend I was watching an episode of THE BLACKLIST (the one and only time I ever will) and the same thing was happening. The so-called facts were completely made up. The episode, entitled "Milton Bobbit," was from season one and originally aired on March 31, 2014. In this case the error was about touch DNA. I had researched touch DNA for my novel MURDER SEASON, so I was awed by the inaccuracies as I watched. According to the main character, Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader), touch DNA could be picked up from a fingerprint. As Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) was nodding like she was listening to the word of God, I laughed out loud. Touch DNA requires living skin cells, period. Only if someone grabbed something with enough force to break through the layer of dead skin cells could their DNA be left behind.

Does doing the research and getting it right make a difference? Well, if you're basing your answer on a work's popularity, if you're thinking about the success both of these series share, it would seem not. At the same time, in what other world is being inauthentic the new standard? How difficult would it be to do the research? The technology behind touch DNA may be immense, but the concept is pretty easy to understand. If you were going to talk about it, wouldn't it pay to actually know something about it? Wouldn't the reality make the story even better? Don't get me wrong, if it's a toss-up between story and reality, the story always wins in everything I write. But knowing the reality, and just how far you can bend it, being authentic, is a big part of the job, and in my mind, makes all the difference in the world. 

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