Don’t TV Writers Use Google?

by Kevin Jon Heller

As some readers may know, I spent four years writing television in Los Angeles — law, cop, and terrorism shows — before becoming an academic.  When I wrote scripts, I prided myself on accuracy: although I occasionally took artistic license, I always tried to get the law and facts right as best I could.  So it bothers me to no end when television shows use plot devices that even cursory research would indicate are inaccurate.  A recent case in point: an episode of White Collar, an enjoyable trifle of a show about a con man who gets captured and has to work with the FBI.  The entire episode is built around a cold-blooded killer who pretends to be an Interpol agent in order to extract information from various main characters on the show — all of whom are supposed to be extremely sophisticated about the world of law enforcement. Just one problem…

Interpol, of course, doesn’t have agents.  Its job is to facilitate communication and cooperation between various police agencies around the world.

Seriously, this isn’t rocket science.  There is even an entire internet page dedicated to cataloging all of the various popular-culture references to Interpol agents.  It took me 30 seconds to find using Google.

5 Responses

  1. Never thought I’d read about White Collar on Opinio Juris 😉 But I wholeheartedly agree with your point. Some TV-shows are just unwatchable for lawyers (and I guess police) due to the ridiculous errors of fact.

    But I don’t think White Collar is especially bad. Take CSI for example. That show almost exclusively consists of inaccuracies and exaggerations…

  2. Thank you, Kevin, for bringing up such a key point in this academic forum!!!

    Being a poet and fiction writer myself, I totally agree with Kevin as regards the most essential importance of research when building the reality framework of fiction narrative. Whether it’s for TV, books or cinema, or even just oral fiction, the requirement is a must.

    I’d go even further by stating that this issue lies at the heart of a writer’s commitment to himself and to the story he’s creating plausibility.

    Fiction imitates reality. In order to attain this end, the fiction writer is to be very aware of how he presents reality’s features into his work so that the story is believable. Otherwise, he’s missing the whole point of creativity.

    As already stated in Aristotle’s Poetics, the laws governing fiction writing are need and plausibility.

  3. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was premised on a lie. Now everything from my childhood has been ruined.

  4. Let me make a nerdy point here (forgive me, Kevin) – InterPOL does have officers (, who can indeed at times operate locally, but at the request of the local government. The question is one of jurisdiction – whether they have the authority to use coercive power or not. Without the local government’s authorization, they (usually) do not.
    (Also, there are some complex and interesting issues of attribution of conduct which arise because a) most Interpol staff are seconded by national police forces of member states, even those operating at HQ; and b) most day-to-day Interpol activity is carried out at national coordination centres which are indeed parts of each state’s police forces, although at the same time exercise Interpol functions… See at – page 15 and ff.)

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