Rather than dig my fingernails into another review this week, I have decided to devote this Woo in Review to addressing some concerns voiced in the comments of previous editions. If you're coming here in search of a television show slam, however, not to worry - we'll be covering several shows throughout the course of this article.
I have seen many comments wherein readers have expressed their concern that I may, in fact, be a terrible writer. Now, I can't really confront this worry. It's quite possible that my sentence structure, grammar, and style are positively terrible. In fact, there might be a sentence with a preposition I ended on. As some form of reassurance, I'll now give my writing credentials, though I daresay that if I stink I'll continue right on stinking whether I've got a Pulitzer Prize in my back pocket or not.
I am an English major, minoring in creative writing with a focus on critical theory. I have taken courses in short fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, media writing, and philosophy in literature. I have an award-winning creative non-fiction piece. I was invited to present my fiction work at an academic symposium this year. I have been published in eSkeptic, Skeptic Report, the newsletter of the Secular Student Alliance, the JREF quarterly newsletter. I write the articles for my own organization, Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society. These are the credentials that spring immediately to mind, and though I feel they give me some experience, you may think not (which is your right). I'll keep the Pulitzer out of this.
To the issue of the "It's fiction - get over it," refrain. The fact that a show, book, or movie is fiction doesn't halt conversation. Never, in any review, have I said that a show shouldn't be on television because of its subject matter (though I am convinced that eventually I'll insist, perhaps even within this article, that some shows deserve it simply for being terrible).
Some shows that I will be reviewing claim to be based in reality, like Medium, which I actually enjoy, and Ghost Whisperer, which I hope will be taken out and shot Old Yeller style. There are obvious reasons, from a skeptical perspective, for being aware of, reviewing, and debunking these. And, as a skeptic, how can I like Medium? If you happen to have seen the latest incarnation of the movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you may be able to understand why.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre says, at the very beginning of the movie, that the film is based on true events. Certainly, the serial killer who inspired the creator was Ed Gein who, in addition to many other revolting things, owned a belt made from human nipples. But Ed Gein never killed a car full of teenagers on a spring break. To my knowledge, he never even killed anyone with a chainsaw. The movie is based on true events only insofar as it is about a killer, and at one time on this planet, there was a killer. The recent Liv Tyler movie The Strangers is the same way. Based on true events - the Manson murders. And yet in a setting, time, plot, and with victims that had no part in the reality.
The fact that Medium claims to be based on true events bothers me no more and no less than Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Strangers, or Ghost Whisperer being based on true events.
So, as a skeptic, what difference does any of it make? If it's fiction, we should all just let it go, right? Well, to a degree, sure. I can enjoy watching whatever I feel like, and so can you. These reviews aren't to tell you what to think or how to feel about any show. They are reviews from a skeptical perspective (which, incidentally, is why they have a place on a site that is skeptical and educational).
To illustrate this, I'll take a closer look at two shows with similar plot elements. Both are shows about large groups of people from very different backgrounds who are caught in a world where things have gone a little crazy and use the opportunity to remove their shirts as often as humanly possible. I am referring, of course, to Heroes and Lost.
Heroes is similar to a comic book. Certain people amongst the population have evolved 'abilities' like mind-reading, telekinesis, prognostication, etcetera. Some of the abilities seem to have the potential to work in the real world with only a few changes, like mind-reading, whereas others seem to break apart every single attribute of reality as we know it, like turning objects into gold with a touch. It is an entertaining show. I've seen every episode, and Sylar is my favorite character (though, as the series continues, he is turning more and more into marshmallow fluff than the box of knives and thorny things I had originally envisioned him to be).
A review of Heroes would say just that. There is no more to mention beyond how fun it is, how strange it is, how interesting it is. The deepest I could go in such a review would be to discuss how certain tropes make their way into basically every piece of fiction on the planet - like how Evil Claire has decided to wear leather and a lot of eye make-up, I suppose because all evil people admire black eyeliner. Let's call Heroes a 4 out of 5 for the sake of this tiny review.
Then we come to Lost, which is the story of a plane full of people who crash land on an island where strange things are always happening - like polar bears stalking through the jungle intent on munching a main character, or a hatch buried deep beneath the sand where a man named Desmond must type numbers into a computer to keep the world from ending, or a cryptic message from a French woman played over and over again across the radio waves.
It sounds just as crazy and unbelievable as Heroes, and it is. However, Lost uses its popularity to educate as well as entertain viewers.
In every episode of Lost thus far, a piece of literature is either mentioned or shown - and they all have relevance to what is happening in the story at the time, or give a hint to the future. So far, these have included: The Brothers Karamazov, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (full text available at the link), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (full text available at the link), A Moveable Feast, Lancelot, The Third Policeman, The Turn of the Screw (download full text at link), A Brief History of Time, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Additionally, Lost has included elements of history, theology, science, and even has a character named for a noted skeptic: Desmond David Hume, named for the Scottish philosopher David Hume.
If one were to create a reading list based solely upon books shown in Lost, they would be reading somewhere around twenty-four great pieces of literature per year, learning about the philosophies of the world, and getting a very decent dose of science.
And in addition to those things, there is also an interesting plot, great acting, fascinating characters, and enough mystery to capture the imaginations of millions of people even during the season's downtime; with the summer Lost games.
Lost, therefore, would receive 5 out of 5 stars.
The review of Criminal Minds is similar to that. In the very first episode, we already have information about Joseph Conrad, and then the plot of the episode revolves around an individual who sent a message to police identical to one received from a real life serial killer named William Heirens, dubbed "The Lipstick Killer." In further episodes, there is information on psychology, sociology, statistics, and, of course, real serial killers, kidnappers, murderers, and bombers. Perhaps not as academically valid as the information from Lost, but still a large dose of reality mixed with the fiction.
Of course, doses of reality are not a requirement for fictional television shows, but there are reasons to review those hinging on pure fiction as well.
In 1973, William Peter Blatty's movie The Exorcist hit theaters and sparked a nationwide panic that led to an increase in requests for exorcisms so large that even individuals not associated with the Church were brought in to perform them. According to the book American Exorcism, two of these individuals were Ed and Lorraine Warren - paranormal researchers who started their careers in 1952 and went on to investigate the Amityville horror in 1976. Did The Exorcist help the Warrens' rise to fame?
Another example can be found in the 1984 film Ghostbusters, before which ghost hunting was an eccentric past-time, not the booming industry it is today, with expensive tech toys and cable television shows.
I suppose what I mean is - today we shrug our shoulders and say "Get off it, it's just fiction," when tomorrow we will be dealing, in the skeptical community, with the fallout of these fictional works.
Again, enjoy whatever you like. These reviews are strictly about bad science and the paranormal as presented in certain television shows, not about what you are permitted to enjoy. As I said, I would love to Old Yeller the heck out of Ghost Whisperer, and yet somehow I've seen two and a half seasons of the show.
Take what you can from this, and if not, well, it's only once a week anyway. You can always turn the channel.