“Stat!”: Realism in Drama

Yesterday, Bardi posed a worthwhile question about the importance of Fact vs. Story. I spent too much time on Netflix this weekend and wound up down a similar path, so let’s expand!

I’m not one for medical dramas, but I love House. I love the tension, I love the characters, and I love the big, fancy medical words. I spend every episode wondering how they manage to come up with a new uniquely complicated disease or condition every single episode. It almost distracts me from the fact that blood tests don’t work that quickly, hospital administration doesn’t run that way, and no one keeps their job after they bust into an operating room and disrupt the sterility required for safe (see also: legal!) surgery. I’m a sucker for a good story and a brooding middle aged modern-day Sherlock Holmes.

We all know dramas based on real professions are mostly bogus*. My other die-hard fan allegiance is to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Am I the only viewer who knows fingerprints aren’t an exact, magic science? Of course not. But every time I spend 42 heart racing minutes watching Olivia Benson swoop in at just the right minute in the interest of justice with a Hail Mary of epic deus ex machina proportions, I forget how much I know about the true nature of the law. So, what does that mean?

It means that, when done well, the height of the drama you have to offer can trump the pinpoint accuracy of your science (or law). It’s like those romantic comedies about protagonists who love the wrong person (until falling for Mr. or Mrs. Right just before roll to credits), just because they’re beautiful. All it takes is some smoke, a mirror, and a good story.

A lot of people are deeply resentful of a lack of realism. Even when the subject matter is fantasy, sometimes you just can’t win. Apart from other glaring snags in quality, the Twilight Series endured criticism for its portrayal of vampires despite the fact that (okay, as far as we know), they don’t even exist! Vampires, werewolves, zombies, space travel — no material is immune to scrutiny. So then how the hell are we getting away with continuing to tell stories without being absolutely faithful to the confines of reality? By what measure is a story good enough to compensate for a sometimes negligent abuse of physics, chemistry, and biology?

I argue that humor is capable of putting a thick gloss over any glaring flaw. If Detective John Munch wasn’t a paranoid, colorfully opinionated skeptic, I might not always be able to tolerate the deliberately intense drama of SVU. Unless it is completely inappropriate to the tale, humor is one of the most used tools in my arsenal, second only to character arc and development. I would gladly have watched six more seasons of House if there were a guarantee that every character would continue to evolve at a believable and engaging pace. I submit that, as long as your story is powerful, hilarious, or clever, you can walk through fire in flip flops and a bathrobe.

What is the secret to taking certain liberties with reality and its limits? Would you prefer to live in a world where the rules are followed? Are humor and drama poor excuses for ignoring the facts? Or, would you argue that fiction has a right to bend the rules, and that to read fiction is to accept a certain level of unreality?

Congratulations to ‘Shane the Flame‘ for taking Week One.

Monday morning can wait. Belly up to the reading list for Week Two instead.

In the meantime, Week Three has launched for those of you who signed up. Show us your Glitches in 350 words or less.

*Fun Fact: Study (see also: medical professionals Netflix binging) suggests the most factually accurate portrayal of the medical profession is Scrubs.


About RicoChey

I'm just an unmarried, childless, thirty-something high school dropout with big ideas and a small attention span. Weave drunkenly behind me as I meander through my own life: a winding path of musings on life, relationships, food, the few politics I can stomach discussing, and probably really dumb stuff like the ratio of Sex and the City episodes wherein Carrie does and does not appear to be wearing extensions.
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2 Responses to “Stat!”: Realism in Drama

  1. What is the secret to taking certain liberties with reality and its limits?

    First of all, everybody’s a critic, so there’s no guarantee that any novel, film, or TV show will ever meet with unanimous approval (and Hollywood is all about getting the story wrapped up so the sponsors can throw money down). And if it comes close there’s probably going to be at least one deliberate antagonist to raise questions and arguments. I loved the first season of LOST, but after that it seemed to me the writers were probably just guessing and tossing in grab bags of WTF! episode to episode (promise I wasn’t being deliberately antagonistic). I remember shouting out loud during one scene “Do the people at the writer’s table even KNOW what’s going on?”. Voicing such criticism in public of the beloved LOST nearly got me beat up. Two years later the most die-hard fans were tiptoeing toward my “I totally give up” camp and opting to read during regularly scheduled programming.

    There have been a lot of legal/medical dramas with major potential, but in the end the potential gets tossed over for making sure the plot line can be resolved in 50 minutes or less — and is it me, or are the mini mini-series episodes never really successful either?

    It’s a shame when fantasy gets farcical. Since you mentioned the SMeyer series that I shall not name,the main problem that niggled at me was that she failed her self-imposed canon. Gosh… it’s almost like she made it up as she went along. Or something.

    I only have one demand: Make Me Believe It. I don’t care if it actually takes a full month to get DNA results back and this is a 50 minute show — do a time lapse sequence or something — just make me believe that it happened and the bad guys are eventually gonna get the hammer of justice. And one way to ensure the total plausibility of a medical drama is don’t let me see the interns making out in the linen closet after working a 72 hour shift then staying out all night doing tequila shots then saving a child with an unprecedented 9 hour heart surgery. Kthanx. They’re interns not members of the Marvel canon, so their puny little human bodies just can’t survive that kind of chaos.

    I’d like to see more of the flair employed by Jim Butcher in the Harry Dresden Files. Yes I realize there are some issues in this series, but Butcher is a master with setting the laws of Harry’s world and then abiding by them, and doing so with humor at times, and other times with absolute dead pan plausibility. I mean … the wizard animates a T Rex for goodness sake and I was RIGHT THERE! Never blinked. Laughed my butt off, but never blinked. Why? Because it totally fit the purpose of the story, met the criteria laid out by the confines of the canon, and Sue the T Rex totally did what you’d expect a reanimated 65 million year old giant carnivore would do.

    Fiction definitely has a right to bend SOME rules, just not the unbendable rules that exist within the previously stated reality they abide. That makes total sense, right?


  2. Pingback: Weekend Wrap-Up | Brigit's Flame Writing Community

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