Real-Life Trauma Meets TV

By Maxine Shen
February 2009

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BODIES buried in walls, bloody murders in alleyways, human trafficking and botched plastic surgery - yawn. Been there, done that. Repeatedly. With more than a dozen crime or medical-based TV series on the air at any given time, it's no surprise when you turn on the TV and think to yourself: "Boy, didn't I just see this episode last week?" While the "Law & Order" franchise has perfected the "ripped from the headlines" approach to storytelling and other series prefer to dabble in pure fantasy, there are some shows that revel in offering up plots based on obscure reality - the more far-fetched, the better. As mind-boggling as it seems - who can forget the stone baby (a k a lithopedion) or the obese woman whose skin fused with a couch because she never got off it? - almost every single case on FX's "Nip/Tuck" has real-life origins. This includes the Feb. 17 episode titled "Budi Sabri," based on the true case of an Indonesian "Tree Man" whose skin condition produces root-like structures on his hands and feet (branches that grow as much as five centimeters a year). "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy won't discuss the cases before they air, but says that using real situations found on the Internet and in medical journals as a jumping-off point is key because the series actually shows - in great gory detail - the surgeries involved. As a result, everything they feature "is even more shocking because it's all based on the truth," Murphy says. It's a sentiment that's shared by the folks at CBS's creepy "Criminal Minds," which consistently features the twisted minds of serial killers at work. Creator Edward Allen Bernero, a former Chicago cop, draws from cases suggested by consultants, found on the Web or gleaned from the pages of "Sex Related Homicide and Death Investigation" or "Practical Homicide Investigation" so horrific that producer Simon Mirren moves them to his car before going to bed. - (textbooks written by homicide expert Vernon J. Geberth former homicide commander in the NYPD)

However, "they're so different by the time that they make it to the air that I don't think anybody would realize what [the origins] were," Bernero says. "I'm not interested in ripped from the headlines because there are victims to those things, it's not just about the bad guys." Which is why fans who enjoyed Jason Alexander's turn as a narcissistic serial killer whose MO involved videotaping women trapped in an underground bunker before killing them and dumping their bodies probably didn't know that the character was modeled after California duo Charles Ng and Leonard Lake. Or why later this month, when you watch "Criminal Minds" episodes about exorcism fatalities and a killer who starts up again after a lengthy hiatus, you'll only see traces of their original cases: and "Robbie Doe," the Washington, DC, boy on whom "The Exorcist" movie was based and the Zodiac Killer. Since CBS's "CSI: NY" focuses on crime scenes instead of criminals, writers use science - instead of crimes - as a jumping off point.

For the upcoming story about a murderer harvesting junkies' organs to distill drugs from them, forensic scientist-turned-series-writer Bill Haynes used his experience with meth cooks who collected their own urine to extract the drugs that passed through their bodies. While no one's actually tried to get drugs out of a liver, Haynes says that "our show is like hyper-reality - everything is grounded in real science, but we take it to the next level and amp it up. But, at the end of the day, it's possible and therefore it's real." There are times when "CSI: NY" turns to newspapers for inspiration, though just not the stories you'd expect. "Sort of your Page 12 story, that little corner box that says 'this happened in New York,' " says executive producer Pam Veasey. Like, for example, a small story that one of the writers saw about how somewhere in New York there are two people who speak a language, and when they die the language will be extinct. (In the "CSI: NY" world, one of them is murdered.) While anything is fair game, all three show runners say that the only types of cases they shy away from are those that involve the abuse of children. "I don't think you get anything after something like that," Bernero says. "That's what the word 'icky' was invented for."

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