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September 5, 2015

Eight real world moments in reel TV

by Allison Waldman, posted Mar 24th 2008 2:02PM
Boston Red SoxThe world of primetime TV are primarily set in the real world. The real world based on the fiction they create. So, Law and Order -- in all its incarnations -- is set in New York City, but it's not the real five boroughs. The newspapers they read are not The New York Times, the Post or the Daily News. For contemporary TV fiction, reality is on the margins of the storytelling because you can't really set those characters in a real world. However, when the two worlds intersect, the results can be magic. Here's 8 big-time, primetime examples:

1) Cowboy Up Time
Remember the episode of Lost when Ben wanted to convince Jack that he was in communication with the world outside the island? To prove that he was telling the truth, he showed Jack a video of the Boston Red Sox winning the world series in 2004. You can't get more real than that, right? And yet it was used in one of the most out of this world shows on the air. In fact, using Lost's own terminology, the Red Sox video is a constant truth in a universe that's a complete fiction.

2) House Calls
The medical realities on Grey's Anatomy, House and ER are rooted in science fact. In fact, every weird and bizarre ailment that only Gregory House can diagnose are based on 100% real medical cases. However, the whole differential diagnosis system that he uses was created by the writers.

3) Broadway Betty
There are many great examples of how TV shows have used something actual to create verisimilitude. On Ugly Betty, sending Henry and Betty to see Wicked on Broadway was a terrific blending. When Betty watches the musical unfold and hears Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) sing "I'm Not That Girl," she relates the lyrics to her own impossible situation with Henry. The connection could not have worked with a fake Broadway show.

4) Peacock Realism
It's not only dramatic series that use snippets of truth to embroider reality. On 30 Rock, the sketch show within the sitcom, The Girlie Show, is shot in the GE Building (at 30 Rockefeller Plaza) and it's aired on NBC. Kenneth is an NBC page working for the network and wears the real NBC badge. It's not a fake network, like the one depicted on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and it makes a difference. If anything, the irreverence of Tina Fey's writing on 30 Rock is heightened by the fact that she biting the hand that feeds her every time she makes a joke about NBC, GE and Jack Welch.

5) Just Jests
Sometimes reality comes in the form of a throwaway, a line. On Two and a Half Men, when Charlie was celebrating his success as kiddie song star Charlie Waffles, he puts on a DVD of the ultimate singer to children, Raffi. He looks at the TV and says, "Oh, Raffi, you magnificent son of a bitch." How better to underscore what Charlie was doing professionally? Even on a dumb show like Welcome to The Captain, Saul's character is rendered sillier because of his constant references to his stint as a big time TV writer ... on Three's Company.

6) The Write Stuff
Literary allusions can be used in truthful ways to make a story more interesting. On Lipstick Jungle, Wendy -- the movie executive -- and Nico -- the magazine editor -- flew to Scotland to meet J.K. Rowling because they hear she's written a prequel to Harry Potter. They never meet her, but they sure use her name to make their realities seem based in today's world. And on New Amsterdam, John remembers a time when he was a field doctor during the Civil War. His assistant in that past life gives him a book of poems he's written called Leaves of Grass. Yeah, that Leaves of Grass; the nurse is Walt Whitman.

7) Real Guests
Sometimes the touch of reality comes in the form of a guest appearance. On The Sopranos, Christopher's movie, Cleaver, wasn't authentic, but the New York Jets head coach eating at Vesuvio's was Eric Mangini – the real coach -- in a cameo. And after all the times that Eli Stone had visions of George Michael singing, the singer finally made a real – for the show's reality – performance in San Francisco.

8) Real Wrong
For the most part, reality can be used in positive, creative ways. But it doesn't always work. The classic example of good intentions gone wrong was on The West Wing. After 9/11, writer Aaron Sorkin wanted to address the tragedy, but he couldn't use the actual incident because the man in his West Wing was Jed Bartlett, not George W. Bush. Sorkin came up with an episode called Issac and Ishmael to address some of the questions the real world was facing in the wake of the recent -- unnamed -- terrorist attacks on the United States. It was oblique and arch, more like a civics lesson than a dramatic episode, but at least his heart was in the right place.

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Someone who watches the show might have to clear this up a bit, but I think Jean Claude Van Damme guested on CSI: Las Vegas, as himself. True to form, he was then killled off...

The interesting thing in this is that therefore Van Damme is dead in every show which crosses over with CSI, or which uses the CSI: Vegas set. Therefore Van Damme is dead in The Office, Heroes, Medium...etc. etc. Slowly The Dead Van Damme virus is infiltrating the Tommy Westphall (St Elsewhere) universe!

(I think this deserve's it's own posting - see how many shows TV Squad can get to name drop than Van Damme is dead!)

May 13 2008 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

No mention of Entourage and its prevalent use of cameos and name dropping?

March 25 2008 at 1:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Pete, I'd like to take away 25 Yankee wins too, but it isn't going to happen.

March 24 2008 at 6:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Toby OB

If Jack had looked closely at that clip of the Red Sox celebrating their 2004 win, he would have seen Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon mixed in with them. If he knew his actors, he might have then figured Ben was showing him a faked version.....

What was also great about that scene from "Wicked" when the witch was seeing "I'm not that girl", was that we'd then see Marlo Thomas in the audience with Daniel Meade. And Marlo was 'That Girl' back in the 60s!

March 24 2008 at 5:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mike m

During JAG's run, they had clips on the television of President Bush and Clinton before him, in order to place it in the real world. They also went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and dealt with the Taliban issue, and terrorist threats. Oddly, they did NOT use CNN, but ZNN...the other issue was that the JAG officers did a lot more than a normal JAG does...but still, it felt part of this world. Seeing your president, and then the new president's inauguration(when Bush took over), and seeing a country at war, really helps to make you feel like it's real. You don't see most shows acknowledge there's a war going on.

I can't think of any other show that's gone that realistic...

March 24 2008 at 4:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What about the other side of the coin... where a TV show creates something that they try to pass off a real, but in real life doesn't exist? Take Dawson's Creak for example... I forgot who it was, but someone was sitting on a park bench that over looked the Boston skyine... when in reality if they were actually sitting in that spot it would be in the middle of Boston harbor. This always bothered me for some reason.

March 24 2008 at 3:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

30 Rock is great with this stuff.

I remember cracking up during the episode where the PI was hired to investigate Jack Donaghy and he mentions a cousin Tim who was involved in fixing some NBA games.

Great stuff.

March 24 2008 at 3:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Student of The Game

First of all, #2 doesn't belong here. I understand the medical cases are based on facts, but unless the show directly refers to the specific real-world case, it's out of place on this list. Hasn't "Law and Order" been doing the same thing with law cases for 15 years? I'd say the same about #8, except your point is true -- it was basically bringing the real world into the show.

Also, re: #7, "The Sopranos": How about Christopher meeting Martin Scorcese outside a restaurant back in Season 2? What made that moment even better was Michael Imperioli actually starred for Scorcese in a little movie called "Goodfellas."

March 24 2008 at 3:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Timing is everything this was just posted today about I&I. And as one comment says at the time it may have been too fresh, but I saw it much later. The thing about it was it's not tv, it's a short play.

March 24 2008 at 2:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Red Sox winning is all you need on a TV show. :)

March 24 2008 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Oreo's comment

>> The Red Sox winning is all you need on a TV show. :) >>

If only someone would use Ben's magic box to undo that particular piece of history...

March 24 2008 at 3:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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