May 22, 2024

Realism vs. plausibility

Back in the days when the classic version of Hawaii Five-0 was part of our regular Thursday night viewing, there was a span of a few weeks during which we saw Steve McGarrett blown up on a boat (no significant injuries), splashed in the face with gasoline (which didn't keep him from shooting the perp), blown up in a car (the lasting effects of which were mainly confined to the guy who ordered the hit on McGarrett), and variously shot at, punched, and targeted for mayhem. It's nice to know that none of this got in the way of our hero catching the killer by the end of the hour, including cases in which I'm fairly sure the Hawaii State Police wouldn't have jurisdiction. If, there is, the Hawaii State Police even existed, which they don't.

Even if you're not in Hawaii, though, you can still repeat this pattern in most classic TV shows of this kind: Mannix gets shot at and beaten up pretty much every week, with no symptoms of post-concussion trauma (expect a future revival of the series to be sponsored by the NFL), and I think that every cop on TV has shot at least a couple of people in every episode without even being put on paid leave, let alone going before the grand jury. Does this bother my viewing? Not in the least! Yet put me in front of a show like Law and Order or Chicago P.D., and I'd spend every moment of forced viewing complaining about everything from inadmissible confessions to the likelihood of a police detective being able to afford living in a Manhattan loft without accepting some kind of graft from the syndicate.

Therefore, the question before the house is why I demand certain things from current television shows, while I let other things go in the classic genre. Is it selective enforcement of logic, or is it merely a symptom of something deeper?

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My theory, and that's all it is, is a combination of original thought plus ideas cribbed from sources I can no longer locate, so if you're one of those sources looking for credit, forgive me for swiping your ideas. (And let me know, so I can do it again.)

You don't really expect me to buy that, do you?
I could probably write an entire book on this, but in brief, my theory is that classic television didn't attempt to create the same level of "realism" that exists in today's shows. Instead, the main characters— McGarrett and Mannix, to name a couple— represented archetypes, symbols of something greater than simply an individual character on a show. I recall reading somewhere that Mike Connors, the actor who played Joe Mannix, admitted that his type of private detective, a throwback to Spade and Marlowe and the rest, had already been gone for decades by the time the series premiered in the late 1960s. I've read elsewhere that the life of an actual private detective is, for the most part, pretty dull; most of them have never shot anyone, and they're much more likely to investigate an employee accused of dipping a finger in the till to checking out a scandalous murder that invariably introduces them to a bevy of glamorous and deadly femme fatales.

But would we watch a show like that? Probably not, unless it was a reality show on Discovery.

From the get-go then, a show like Mannix was never intended to be that realistic. You might see him bleed from the corner of his mouth, but for as violent a show as it was said to be in the day, you see more gore in the average trailer for a Scorsese or Tarentino movie. As such, while it was far more serious and deeper than, say, a cartoon, you were meant to watch it for something other than hyper-realism. From the simple good-vs-evil showdown to a commentary on current events to an allegory of the human condition, these shows were trying to sell you something that was not meant to be believable in the small bits, just the bigger ones. Call it a non-science fiction form of fantasy, in which heroes can be shot, beaten, and subjected to all manner of abuse that the human body was never intended to endure, all in pursuit of the larger goal of entertainment, with perhaps a message or two on the side.

What these shows often did have going for them, though, was logic. Take Mission: Impossible, for example. Could there be a government agency that really comes up with the kind of intricate plots for which the IMF team was famous, composed of incredibly beautiful women (Barbara Bain) and darkly handsome men (the rest of them), with a success rate of 100%? I can't say for certain, but I suspect not. And yet if you try to watch Mission: Impossible with an eye toward that kind of realism, you're done for. What you do find, however, is an exceptionally logical plot. Once you suspend a certain level of disbelief, you find that every element of this week's scheme makes sense and flows logically from one element to the next. If there is a roadblock that pops up, it's perfectly reasonable to think that the minds responsible for cooking up such a plan in the first place could ad-lib their way out of any trouble. Think of it as improv theater for the national security set, and you've got it made.

In contrasting these shows with the fare served up today, I describe the difference in one phrase: realism is not plausibility. You may disagree with me on this, but I believe the contrast between realism and plausibility is more than a distinction without a difference. If you watch an episode of any given police procedural today, you find out that people do, in fact, bleed when they're punched or shot, and that the world in general is a messier place than it looked back when. Fine.

But in other ways, these shows seem far less plausible than their counterparts from the olden days. When I look at these impossibly hip detectives, with their incredibly ability to tap into virtually any computer system in the known universe in less time than it takes for this laptop to boot up and go through a virus scan, I have to wonder. When I see them living in the incredible lofts I mentioned earlier, I wonder why Internal Affairs isn't looking into their finances. When I see a celebrity "consultant" like Richard Castle (remember him?) allowed to not only sit in on interrogations but ask questions as well, I wonder what the accused's attorney is going to say about this in court.

OK, you're thinking, I get it. You don't like what's on TV today. (Not completely true, but we'll let it pass for now.) You prefer the old shows to the new ones. (I'll readily plead guilty to that.) But aren't you trying to have it both ways?  I don't think so, and here's my explanation as to why.

The idealized policeman?
In an attempt to make today's characters deeper, more realistic, and often with a deep psychological backstory that gets parceled out in drips and drops via flashback, the show's creators make it that much harder to view them as mythic archetypes. Whereas the classic Steve McGarrett was a stand-in for the entire system of American justice, the McGarrett of the reboot was just another hot-shot detective with a hipster wardrobe and a military past that occasionally sends him into places like North Korea. That's when you get to the "give me a break" point in a show, because you're being asked to believe something that just isn't plausible, and in doing so it doesn't matter how grimy the city looks, or how much blood flows from someone's bullet wounds.

Part of this, I suppose, is due to the growth of ensemble television, and the concurrent fact that casting a single actor as the star of a regular series, a la Mannix, with only a supporting cast, would probably be prohibitively expensive, unless you're HBO or Netflix. Ensembles rarely leave room for mythological giants in their midst. But I do think I'm on to something here. I don't get upset when something unrealistic happens to the protagonist in one of my classic TV shows, because I don't view him as simply an individual—he's more than that. I don't know if there's ever been a lawyer like Perry Mason in real life, but I also don't know of a better ambassador for what the American legal system should be than Mason. A show like The Good Fight may present a more realistic view of the courtroom, but I don't think it would inspire you to realize just how perfect our system of justice should be.* Likewise, when I read the late Efrem Zimbalist Jr. discuss how many FBI agents told him they were inspired to join  the agency because of his show, I ask myself if that could happen today. Note that I don't say it couldn't happen, but I can't help thinking you'd be more likely to sign up for N.C.I.S. in order to play with the cool computers and meet goth scientists.

*Yes, I know it isn't that way now and probably never was, but it thrills the imagination in the same way that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution make the heart skip a beat: we may not follow either of them today, but that doesn't make their principles any the less stirring.

Archetypes and myths were the stuff of which heroes were made. Realistically, we tell ourselves, heroes like that don't exist, or are rarely found, which is why we don't find them on TV. We don't believe in heroes that much, or in anything else for that matter. We're too cynical, too knowing, to with-it to fall for that claptrap. That makes it that much harder to sell the kind of hero I talk about here, the one who seems oblivious to things that would stop mere mortals. And perhaps that does give us a more realistic view of the world, albeit a less interesting one.

I don't really know if I've made a dent in my theory; I feel I've spent all my time setting up arguments that could feel superficial because I haven't built them out far enough, and any one of you might be able to tear it apart with well-founded arguments of your own, ones that might be both realistic and plausible. Maybe it does take a book to do it justice. (Unless Joseph Campbell already covered it in a chapter of one of his.) But when that book does come out, you'll probably be more likely to find it in the sociology area than television, because in the end this discussion isn't really about television at all. And if you have anything to add to it, I promise I'll mention you in the index. TV  


  1. Somebody said once (it may have been Oscar Wilde) 'happy endings are why we call it fiction'. Realism tends to destroy imagination. There is a reason why Depression-era audiences went to the theater to see musicals, comedies, adventure yarns, westerns and serials. Because for few hours they could forget the harsh realities of their lives and get lost in the Dream Factory of Cinema. Pulp fiction magazines of the time served the same purpose. They sparked the imagination.
    That seems to be what we are in short supply of in this new century. Imagination.

    1. Couldn't agree with you more, James. Now, it's true that I can be drawn to moody, downbeat stories that are stark in their realism, but it's because the stories are made compellingly and told compellingly. As far as a television series goes, though, a little of it goes a long way.

      Now that I think about that, one could say the same about imagination: even just a little creativity can go a long, long way.

  2. I think a really good show for the unreality you're talking about as well as archetypes and models of relationships is Archer (2009 - 2023). Of course being a cartoon it gives an extra layer of separation from us, which makes its cutting depiction of human behaviour even more uncomfortable!

    1. I'm going to have to check that out someday. I've heard about it, read about it, might even have seen a few minutes of it. But I take your recommendations seriously, and I'm going to have to pursue it. Thanks!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!