Saturday, January 16, 2010

Held in contempt

BRISCOE: What's that?
CURTIS: Looks like a printout from an online download.

Yes, I watched "Rebels" again, and yes, it was as hilarious as I remembered. Above, sample dialogue. Some other great details: Lennie, annoyed after Rey finds yet another clue via e-mail (and by "e-mail" I mean "a white screen with text on it that appeared on Rey's display without his having to press a single key, which is just as well since he was evidently connected to the internet via a nonexistent wireless hookup in the police station"), grumbles, "This 'e-mail,' whatever the hell it is, it's gotta have a return address, right?" Which was funny because it actually didn't. The "headers" onscreen included only a "to" line. So Briscoe and Curtis go to some special computer-geek cop who helps them track their online correspondent. "His modem's hooked up to a cellular phone," Rey explains to Lennie. Riiight. So that's how they end up riding around in their car, with Lennie driving and Rey sitting shotgun exchanging "e-mails" via yet another magical internet connection, while the police geek sits in the backseat holding a gigantic antenna that's tracking the signal from the guy's cell-phone modem. Obviously.

Once the detectives bust the guy we move to the courtroom. Amusingly, the case takes up the question of the press shield law and how it applies to online journalism (or what Claire calls "computer bulletin boards"). Funny how that debate, at least, seems sort of current, even though the writers plainly had zero firsthand experience with the Internet at the time they wrote the episode.

But there's another dimension to the FAIL, besides criminally ignorant scriptwriting: this time through I realized the extent to which sloppy prop-prep was to blame for the episode's ridiculous representation of computer-based communication. The husband and I have been working our way through the 1995 season along with TNT, and in an episode we watched earlier this week, a woman with "multiple personalities" kept three separate journals (stored on floppy disks) that became an important part of the investigation. But when Logan (who preceded Curtis as Briscoe's partner) put a disk into the computer to check its contents, things started getting stupid right away. First, the document he wanted opened by itself, without his having to select it or anything. Just popped up on the screen. And then it scrolled to the passage he wanted. And here's where the props department comes in: he was supposed to be looking at a single personality's journal. But the text on the screen was a copy-and-paste job, consisting of a sentence or two from the three different personalities' journals, which went halfway down the screen and then began again (to fill up space). In the next scene the detectives and Van Buren were taking turns reading from the printed-out journals, and we discovered that the text on the screen had just been lifted from the script -- the bits the characters read out loud to each other, plus some other lines like "The day before the murder." (Which would have been a slam dunk for the investigators if it actually were in the journal, no?)

That explains the "e-mail" in "Rebels," with the header that says "e-mail" and then "Yesterday, five p.m." Curtis, discovering it and reading to Lennie from the screen, says, "E-mail. Yesterday, five p.m...." So whoever put together the onscreen version just plugged in Curtis's lines without translating them into e-mail terms. It got worse every time they showed a computer screen -- at one point Curtis was supposed to be reading an account of the murder they were investigating from an online "bulletin board." A long shot over his shoulder gave the viewer ample time to notice that, first, the image on the screen was nothing but all-caps text on a white background, which even by 1995 standards didn't resemble a Web page in the slightest. Second, the text began with the line Curtis was reading aloud -- except that in place of "Stroker's," the name of the bar where the murder occurred, it said "Blotto's," which was apparently the bar name in an earlier draft. (You can actually hear Benjamin Bratt correcting it on the fly; he stumbles when he gets to it.) And third, after that line came this: "Too bad there's no real dialogue that belongs here, or I wouldn't have to write in garbage characters." It went on like that for a while; made-up text that was mostly about the need to fill up the screen.

I know L&O has a tight shooting schedule, which probably explains a lot of this. Maybe the props people just don't have time to do a decent job. But honestly, if the results are going to be that sloppy, don't show the computer screen. How hard would that be?


Patrick said...

I watched Rebels myself today, giggling at all the horrible lines like "printout from an internet download". I have to say, I caught the ridiculous BBS posting by chance, when they quickly switched cameras, I noticed the bar's name was different. A few moments with the DVR and I snapped a photo of the screen:

I wonder how many people have noticed this? I googled a few lines from the posting, and yours was the only blog I found.

Mollie said...

Thanks Patrick! Looking at your photo reminded me of some other questions I had, like: What's an "ROP truck"? And who's Ron?

Sarah D. Bunting said...

Sadly, the cluelessness about the internet persists to this day -- particularly on SVU, on which characters will still refer to "the net" and tsk about "FaceSpace" even though almost half their caseload involves online pervery.

But I enjoy feeling superior, so it doesn't bother me that much.

floretbroccoli said...

I can remember when various cop shows would have someone pull up a "record" and I could recognize a select-file screen from WordPerfect 4.2.