Making TV Seem Real: How Much Research Goes Into TV Shows?

Grey's Anatomy - ABC

Source: ABC

Some television shows are so good they feel almost real, like the actors could actually be living that life and doing what they’re doing on screen. But if you needed someone to defuse a bomb, you probably wouldn’t want Kiefer Sutherland (24) messing with the red and yellow wires, and if you find out you have pancreatic cancer, you might not want Hugh Laurie (House) advising you on your treatment options. That’s because they are, of course, just actors reading the scripts, and while some of the script writers on television shows have advisers in the fields they’re representing, others do not, leading to sometimes wild inadequacies. Which leads to the question — how much of an effort do shows make to back up their plots with research? The answer, it turns out, that most shows with some sort of technical or real-world aspect usually make some attempt to draw in real-world information, but almost never at the cost of plot or the writers whims.

House and other medical dramas are particularly guilty of throwing in inaccuracies because it makes the show more exciting, or simply out of ignorance despite science advisers.  It’s not something their unaware of, it’s just the way television works, at least according to actor Jesse Spencer (Dr. Robert Chase) in an interview with Time Out. He is particularly aware of the less-than-realistic details of the show, coming from a medical family with three siblings and his father all doctors.

When asked how his medical family members felt about the aspects of the show related to their livelihood, Spencer was brutally honest. “They couldn’t watch it. They were very nice about it. It’s frustrating to watch if it’s in your field ’cause, as medically accurate as House was, we take creative license … Cops don’t like cop shows, doctors don’t like doctor shows, lawyers hate lawyer show,” said Spencer.

Grey’s Anatomy has critics of its own — even if half the characters don’t have Lupus, there still are a number of glaring medical mistakes. That isn’t to say that the show never hired advisers to help keep some of the medical details realistic — all one has to do is take a look at their IMDB page to see that there are a number of medical technical advisers. But to be fair, there are practically a million episodes of that show by now, which means sometimes the writers have to get creative, and there’s no way they’re going to get everything right in a soap-drama show like that, nor do they even try. And some mistakes, while glaring, are only obvious to certain people, like VHL Family Alliance Executive Director Joyce Graff.

The TV surgeon removes a significant portion of the pancreas. But pancreatic cysts in VHL are almost never dangerous, and are not sufficient to warrant operating on the pancreas, which is the last organ you want to touch,” said Graff, according to

Picking apart medical shows to demonstrate their mistakes is a fairly common practice on the web, particularly from members of the medical community or students doing their residency. But those aren’t the only shows that depart from reality unintentionally. In fact, American Idol, a reality TV show, proves that most of the people on it are indeed just acting. According to Vulture, Steven Tyler, who is one of the show’s judges, managed to mispronounce what one can assume was meant to be the word Diminuendo, instead saying “innuendo.”

Numb3rs is an example of a show that gets it half right at least, though given that it’s another show that’s based in a field where the real experts go to school for nearly a decade sometimes to properly understand all the nuances and realities of a certain subject matter.

On the one hand, it does a fairly decent job of explaining complex mathematics actually used by mathematicians and statisticians to laymen. On the other hand, the show still manages to get some things wrong, according to a piece written by Dr. Judith A. Palagallo, mathematics professor. Some of these things are nit-picky — like mispronouncing terminology that the actors aren’t familiar with and the directors and editors don’t catch. Others, are more significant to the mathematical community.

While the producers consult with mathematicians during production, terms are sometimes mispronounced or used incorrectly. Little attempt is made to show how mathematicians actually think, and mathematics is often presented as consisting entirely of formulas, rather than concepts and logical connections between them,” said Palagallo. Clearly everyone has beef with something on TV, but the reality is that most shows do at least make an effort to have technical consultants on staff – with the possible exception of Dr. Who, which has its own method of explaining big concepts.

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