Thursday, December 20, 2018

Acceptable Breaks from Reality?

The TV Tropes site has a page called "Acceptable Breaks from Reality," about the "unrealistic" things regularly allowed to happen in fiction and film in order to move the story along, even though the elements aren't true to life:

Acceptable Breaks

This trope came to mind when I watched last week's episode of NCIS, a favorite series I've faithfully followed since its inception (even though I didn't completely like the star, Gibbs, at first and could hardly stand Agent Tony DiNozzo for the first season or two). Despite my fondness for the show, I'm often distracted or outright exasperated by some of their routine plot devices. One of the most "acceptable," which bugs me anyway if I stop to think about it, falls under the TV Tropes category "The Main Characters Do Everything." They seem to have only one medical examiner, Dr. Mallard, and one assistant, Dr. Palmer, doing all the autopsies. This large, busy organization has only one forensic technician, who literally does everything, including conducting DNA tests instead of sending them out to a specialized lab. In one episode, while the forensic tech was absent for some reason, two of the regular agents temporarily took over her lab and analyzed evidence. With no training or certification in that field? Yikes. Yes, I realize programs want to keep the focus on the stars and don't want to pay a lot of actors to play minor characters just to make the staff look realistically large. How much would it cost, though, to have a group of extras in the background or walking in and out of the picture so that the spaces devoted to autopsy and forensics would appear to be populated in a lifelike way? The program does that for the main NCIS office. In those scenes, the stars are far from the only people on the set.

Most of the time, I don't think about this issue while watching the show. Nor do I gripe too much about the "murder of the week" template, despite the fact that real NCIS agents (as far as I know from having been a Navy wife for thirty years) work more on such crimes as burglaries and assaults in Navy housing than on murders and terrorist conspiracies. The former types of investigations, admittedly, wouldn't be very exciting unless a body turned up before the first commercial. Some other "breaks from reality," however, actively grate on me. For instance,the agents frequently travel to other countries in the course of investigations, although they're based in the Washington, D.C. area, their presumed jurisdiction and operational purview. And they often go to other cities for brief interviews with potential informants instead of calling on the phone. That office must have a lavish travel budget! Last week's episode included several of my "pet peeves." Usually, the number of days covered by an episode isn't specified, so the audience may assume, with a little indulgence, that enough time has elapsed for lab tests to get done. This one, however, explicitly begins and ends on Christmas Eve. The forensic tech uses her superhuman skills to determine whether an unidentified baby is the child of a dead murder suspect. In real life, DNA analysis takes between 24 and 72 hours to complete. (I looked it up.) Yet she gets a result from the DNA paternity test in only an hour or two, judging from how much story time the rest of the episode spans.

Throughout the series, the agents constantly delve into official records that they shouldn't be allowed to access without warrants. Maybe that issue can be overlooked in the interests of streamlining the action. Entering private dwellings without warrants, however, is a more glaring violation. In the referenced episode, two agents talk the suspect into letting them into his apartment, even though they don't have a search warrant. So far, okay. But then they force their way into a closed room he has forbidden them to enter. No warrant, no permission from the occupant, no probable cause. In an actual case, any evidence they found would be tainted. At some point the suspect produces a gun, and one of the agents shoots him dead. We never hear a word about her being suspended pending investigation, as she would be, or even a passing comment about that possibility. For that matter, throughout the series the agents are continually involved in car chases and shootouts with no apparent repercussions.

Then there are the often unintentionally humorous "flyover country" slip-ups in occasional episodes. I know that in many movies and TV series, southern California stands in for almost everywhere. But couldn't film technology have deleted the mountains from the background of a scene allegedly set in Norfolk, Virginia (on the Atlantic coast, a half-day's drive from the nearest mountain range)? As a resident of Maryland, I was especially amused as well as mildly annoyed by an incident when the agents visited the Carroll County sheriff. (Why, I don't remember; that seemed like another interaction that could have been handled by phone.) According to its website, that department is "a full service law enforcement agency" with a staff of 260 employees. To the writers of NCIS, the word "sheriff" must have been free-associated with "Mayberry." They have the sheriff claiming he can't leave the office because there's nobody on the premises except himself and one deputy.

Minor "breaks from reality" to avoid slowing down the story are one thing, but critical research failures or the appearance of just not caring are another. What unrealistic details in movies and TV programs can you overlook for the sake of plot streamlining, and which ones make your teeth grind in exasperation?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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