Let me start this post with a constraint. This post is not about science-fiction shows or shows that portray obvious über-equipment (like K.I.T.T.). This is about shows that at least try to pretend to display “reality”. I am of course aware that there’s a thin line but I hope than I can show my point during this excursus.
But first this College Humor video:
Technical equipment has always been part of TV shows that play in the “here and now”. And why shouldn’t it? It’s part of our every day life, so it should play a part in the TV shows we are watching. The questions are, what part, how big a part and how realistically the equipment is used. And – to give my conclusion at the beginning – I think the more modern a show is and the more real-world technologies there are the more unrealistic becomes its portrayal.
But let me bring you back to the dawn of time (at least as far as I am concerned). Back in the 1980s I watched a lot of 70s and 80s shows. These were mostly Cop or PI shows in one form or another: The Fall Guy, Riptide, T.J. Hooker, MacGyver, The A-Team, … the list goes on. In regards of using technology (in the widest sense) we can safely pick MacGyver and The A-Team.
MacGyver could build a bomb out of a ball pen and a wire (so to speak 😉 ). But there’s always been a scientific base in what he did, even if they left out some ingredients of his home-cooked explosives. The A-Team on the other hand only needed some steel plates and a welding torch to build the crudest – yet effective – tanks to beat the bad guys. The most advanced technology in these shows was a car phone. Computers were still huge room-filling machines with whirring magnetic tapes.
Then came the nineties but even then I can’t remember any over-usage of equipment in the earlier half. Sure, PCs became more prominent on the screen but I’d say they were used in a somewhat believable way. But I have to admit, I didn’t watch that many “real world” shows at this time, so my memories are unreliable. In the second half of the last decade PCs became more common and they began to have Internet connections. “Normal” characters also began to have cell phones. For example, in the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow’s hacking into the city archives to retrieve sewer system blueprints. That scenario does not scream to me “How unrealistic!”. Many hackers are young and net security had not yet become that big an issue.
The biggest blunders in regards to computer technology came from the movies in those years, not TV shows. I will only say Hackers and The Net. But they became the templates. Somehow writers got it in their heads that computers would make anything possible.
And so the current decade began. Smallville, Alias, 24, CSI, Bones, … again, the list goes on. Computers, cell phones, surveillance cameras, PDAs and don’t forget the satellites became the wands of the 21st century – at least on screen. Suddenly there was a database for everything. Satellites could detect brainwaves from orbit. Computers could enhance pictures from surveillance cameras and could show details that weren’t there in the original footage. Face recognition software could find a person from a bad sketch in no time, even if it had to search 50 million entries. A person can manipulate a surveillance video stream in real-time – from his PDA! A computer can be asked where a certain kind of sand is originating and it will tell you the place down to the mile.
Voodoo and magic combined could not deliver the results computers seemingly can.
I don’t have a problem with it per se. I have a problem with it when it interferes with good story-telling. The computer has become a deus-ex machina. Whenever writers have written themselves into a corner that can’t be solved by good story-telling they don’t decide to re-write the part that led them into the corner. No, the corner-character either goes to a computer himself or he calls someone who sits in front of a computer. “Hey Jane, it’s me, John. Could you please hack into the local pizza stores around 10th street and 5th avenue and look for orders without cheese because the bad guy is lactose-intolerant?” – “No problem, give me four minutes.” (3.14159 minutes later) “I’ve got it. ‘Joey’s Pizza’ didn’t have an Internet connection, but satellite radio frequency detection of that area shows that their WLAN was on. I hacked into the cell phone of a guy sitting in the café on the other side of the street, enabled his Bluetooth and connected to the notebook of a guy in the pizzeria. From there I opened a WLAN port and got into the system. The guy you’re looking for always orders pepperoni pizza delivered to 4711 10th street. I’ve hacked into traffic CCTV and can see him now sitting by the window ….” *facepalm*
They don’t even try to hide the absurdity anymore. When Marshall (Alias) or Chloe (24) are writing voice recognition lie detectors to be used by a cell phone within 20 minutes (not 20 TV show minutes but in-universe minutes) it isn’t even exceptional anymore, it’s just a normal day at the office.
As much as I enjoy these shows, things like that are always pulling me out of the story and destroy my suspension of disbelief. I can’t take them seriously anymore in that regard and that diminishes my enjoyment and I am telling myself that there’s has to be a way of writing a thrilling story without pulling a rabbit out of the hat every other minute. Why bother with the actual murder in Bones when they solve the case with the help of technology that does not exist in the first place? They could find a pile of ashes and Angela would still be able to reconstruct a face and to show where the bullet went through the arm and ripped open the artery. And bug boy Jack would find sediments between the ashes that proves that the murder took place 2.71828 miles north-north-east from where the remains were found which then inevitably leads to the killer.
That’s the reason I often prefer science-fiction shows. They don’t pretend that it’s real what they are showing. There it’s “What You See Is What You Get”. Some writer invented a piece of technobabble and it can be used in whatever way he seems fit. “And how does the Heisenberg compensator work?” – “It works very well, thank you.”
So what I am saying is that maybe writers should think more “backwards”. Go to the end and think about how your character believably got there. Yes sometimes you can use technology and sometimes it even can be a bit unrealistic. But don’t use it as a Swiss army knife to solve every problem your character encounters. Trust me, the viewer will appreciate it.