One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to television is when some character who is supposed to be “nerdy” or “techy” says something like, “I’m going to use this algorithm to run this computer,” and then all the other characters go, “Speak English, please” or, “Huh? Can you say that in a language I understand?”
Painting the “geek” as some sort of unrelatable, algorithm-spitting superhuman has gotten old and tired. And not only is it old and tired — it’s incorrect. In their attempts to make these supposed tech geniuses unintelligible, Hollywood writers have failed to do their due diligence.
The most infamous example of television’s deeply misguided idea of what computers or science look like is the double keyboard scene from “NCIS” — when the team finds that someone is trying to hack into its system, two characters jump on the keyboard together. There is absolutely no way four hands can control a keyboard in tandem and still somehow manage to create high-level code.
Another comes from “CSI” — are you starting to see the trend between cop shows and terrible forensics? — when one character says, “I’ll create a GUI Interface using Visual Basic, see if I can track an IP address.” If you don’t know what GUI or Visual Basic are, don’t worry. That’s basically like saying, “I’ll create a fingerprint identification software using iMovie, see if I can find a match.”
When it comes to science, television is usually either lazy about it or egregiously off the mark. I can’t speak so much for medical shows and how much they get biology, anatomy and dire life-or-death situations right or wrong, but while medical dramas are a staple of American television, they tend to devolve into sappy romances centered on the show’s two main protagonists.
So what can producers do to get American audiences interested in science? Sell the one thing they know that sells — sex. “Masters of Sex,” which follows the stories of the two scientists in the 1950s who studied and examined the science of human sexuality, premiered last month and was such a hit that it was just renewed for a second season Tuesday.
In the opening scenes, we see Dr. William Masters, played by a stoic Michael Sheen, deliver a speech in which he says, “I am a man of science,” a statement that is supposed to signal to us why he is so taciturn and blunt. In the interest of science, Masters sets out on a mission to watch people during sex to determine what makes the human body tick during intercourse and orgasm. In the interest of science and many bared breasts, America has tuned in.
I guess it comes as no surprise to any of us that the show about science that everyone loves either centers on sex or has Patrick Dempsey in it. Then again, you could argue that “Grey’s Anatomy” was all about sex as well.
Granted, there are some shows that get science right — apparently, “Bones” was reasonably accurate until the terrible love subplot overtook the series. Ironically, one of the best shows that explains and explores the world of modern tech is “The Good Wife,” a law drama.
But as for the dearth of realistic portrayals of science, can it be chalked up to laziness in writer’s rooms, a lack of interest from the American public or simply the difficulty of making science both realistic and interesting?
I have a hard time believing science is so fundamentally uninteresting that it takes a show like “Masters of Sex” or a pretty face to get people interested in the scientific process. Science isn’t so much uninteresting as it is inaccessible, but if we can make a high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer accessible or a fantasy story of seven kingdoms, dragons and a game of thrones relatable, anything is possible.
After all, it isn’t science that frames the show: It’s the human story, and that’s what’s interesting. Come on, Hollywood, there’s gotta be something better than a show that’s essentially “Mad Men” with even more sex.
Lynn Yu is the arts columnist. Contact her at [email protected].