This is from my friends at Criminal Justice Degrees Guide. It points out that we writers get our ideas everywhere, and often from real-life cases. And yes, we do so shamelessly. These are some of the stories used by the folks at Law & Order, one of the best and most successful TV franchises ever.
The take home message for crime writers here is that YES you SHOULD get your ideas from real life. It’s those stories that spark that all-important question: WHAT IF?
It’s hard not to blame the writers and producers of Law & Order for using the news as fuel for their stories. They’ve got a couple dozen episodes to film every season, and multiple franchises to keep up with. The flagship title ran from 1990-2010 and logged a ridiculous 456 episodes; after a while, it’s probably easier to just make up stuff based on the front page of CNN than it is to come up with something wholly original. But it’s not like the show only came to its “ripped from the headlines” format late in the game. Since the franchise’s inception, episodes have borrowed heavily from real life, sometimes to the point where disclaimers had to be made to keep the network out of hot water. Maybe we’re more aware now than before of the way the multiple series lift plots from real life, but the bottom line is that it’s hardly anything new. Here are some of the most shameless instances of “borrowing” in the franchise’s history.
“Haystack,” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Nancy Grace, the unhinged blonde lady from cable, has appeared on L&O several times in various incarnations, including the barely disguised “Faith Yancy” on Criminal Intent. (Presumably “Shmancy Mace” was too on-the-nose.) In the 2007 episode “Haystack” of SVU, a reporter accuses a woman of trying to kidnap and murder her own baby, a charge that leads to the woman committing suicide. This is basically a reworked version of the trouble Grace got into with Melinda Duckett, a 21-year-old mom who killed herself after appearing in an interview with Grace in which Grace badgered Duckett about the specifics of her past and whereabouts during the disappearance. Eventually, Duckett’s estate sued for wrongful death, and the case was settled out of court, with Grace establishing a trust whose funds will be given to Duckett’s son, if he’s found alive, or given to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Subterranean Homeboy Blues,” Law & Order: “Subterranean Homeboy Blues” was the second episode ever aired of the original Law & Order, which means the show’s been borrowing from the news for more than two decades now. To be fair, though, this episode has a bit more originality and spark than some of the others. The installment deals with a woman who shoots and kills two men on the subway, and though the shooting is initially thought to be self-defense, it comes to light that it might be a revenge killing. The story is inspired by the actions of Bernhard Goetz, who killed four men on the New York subway in 1984 after saying they tried to rob him. He was branded the Subway Vigilante and came to represent a city fed up with crime. The fictional version, to its credit, changed the gender and played a bit looser with the story.
“Floater,” Law & Order: Airing in the fall of 2003, “Floater” was inspired by the trial of Gerald Garson, a New York Supreme Court Justice who was convicted of taking bribes to change the verdicts of divorce proceedings and who eventually served time for his crimes from 2007-2009. When the episode aired, Garson’s indictment was still fresh. The L&O version changed the judge to one who messes with murder cases — this is Law & Order, after all, so somebody’s gotta die — but ran with the angle of a crooked judge willing to break the law for the right price.
“Torch,” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: The life and death of Cameron Todd Willingham have become a kind of touchstone for organizations dedicated to pursuing justice for those they believe to be wrongly accused, or by groups who want to abolish the death penalty. A mammoth 2009 story in The New Yorker pushed the case into the popular consciousness, at which point all bets were off for L&O. In April 2010, the episode “Torch” took the basics of the case — young girls die in a fire, their father is suspected of arson — and ran with it. The TV episode was (pardon the pun) a bit overcooked, but it also worked out more happily than the real case. On the show, the father was found innocent thanks to holes in the theories of the fire scientists. Willingham wasn’t so lucky.
“Innocence,” Law & Order: The Innocence Project is one of several advocacy groups devoted to securing new trials for those who might be wrongly imprisoned. In 2010, the episode “Innoncence” revolved around the fictional Innocence Collective and their similar cause. The episode was based in part on allegations of impropriety by students working with the Medill Innocence Project: a pair of witnesses claimed to have been coerced into giving certain testimony in a murder case. The TV version of events turns the group (or at least certain members of it) into committed bad guys, blinded by a cause, which can’t have felt good to the actual Innoncence Project. At least it’s just TV.
“Out of the Half-Light,” Law & Order: Airing in December 1990, “Out of the Half-Light” was based mostly on the Tawana Bradley case of 1987. Bradley, a black teenager, accused six white men (including some cops) of raping her in the woods. Public sentiment was with her until a lack of evidence did her in. A grand jury eventually decided that she hadn’t been a victim of such assault. The TV adaptation played to the racial angle that had so galvanized the public in the original case, though obviously, there’s only so much nuance you can achieve in 44 mninutes. The episode helped cement the series’ habit of looking to the headlines for story ideas.
“Bombshell,” Law & Order: Criminal Intent: The Criminal Intent series is all about “major cases,” which is the simplest way to say that these episodes are almost always going to be cobbled together from the front page of The New York Post. The 2007 episode “Bombshell” is no exception. See if this sounds familiar: a former stripper and model marries a famous billionaire, has a son, and sees that son die as an adult of an overdose. If you said “That’s the short version of Anna Nicole Smith’s Wikipedia page,” give yourself a prize. This episode isn’t the only one in the L&O-verse to use Smith’s sad life as fuel for a story, though it is the one that hews closest (for whatever that’s worth) to the basic facts. In the episode, as in real life, the woman soon dies, leaving behind a baby.
“Fed,” Law & Order: Airing in the 20th and final season of the original Law & Order, the 2009 episode “Fed” was built on the death of Bill Sparkman, a Census Bureau representative who was killed in the fall of that year. (The show works fast.) Sparkman’s body was found tied to a tree, with the word “fed” written on his chest. It looked like a homicide, but investigators later determined it was a suicide staged to look like a murder. Now, a twist like that would be easy and fine to use in a TV show, but L&O throws in everything else, too. The TV episode deals with an election campaign volunteer whose body is also found with “fed” written on the chest, which leads to weird cover-ups that rope in the brain-dead hijinks of fake pimp James O’Keefe and the purported ACORN scandal. In other words, way too much for one hour of TV. It’s a prime example of how the series often feels it has to rip from seven headlines at once.
“Weeping Willow,” Law & Order: Criminal Intent: Law & Order often uses adorably awful mirror versions of real-life things in its stories. This episode features the not-at-all-awkwardly-titled YouLenz, which is as close as the producers could get to YouTube without paying for it. The hour revolves around a female video blogger with the handle “WeepingWillow17,” which is just a lazy half-step from “Lonelygirl15.” It’s not that they shouldn’t use the Lonelygirl thing for plot fodder; it’s that they don’t even change the names that much. The Lonelygirl15 affair was a series of viral videos on YouTube meant to drum up support for an eventual feature, but the Law & Order version is much more sordid, involving a staged kidnapping and a heartless girl (Michelle Trachtenberg) looking for fame at any cost. It’s intended to be a commentary on modern celebrity culture, but it’s not much more nuanced than “Computers are bad.”
“Indifference,” Law & Order: Trivia: this is the only episode of Law & Order in which the narrator actually told people that the story resembled a real-life case. It’s not uncommon for the series to have title-card disclaimers (“All similarities are purely coincidental,” etc.), but for the narrator to actually speak the warning aloud is a pretty big deal, and a sign of just how much the episode owed to the real world. The episode was based on the case of Joel Steinberg, a New York attorney who was supposed to find an adoptive family for a young girl but instead took her and raised her as his own with his live-in girlfriend, Hedda Nussbaum. On the show, the detectives discover that a psychiatrist and his wife, both addicted to drugs, are abusing their child, and the various lies they’ve told to keep her come to light after she dies. It’s interesting that 20 years ago, an episode that owed such a debt to real-life crime paid tribute with a vocal disclaimer, while today it’s commonplace for Law & Order to mash up several news stories and not even pretend to care that they’re unoriginal. If only we’d know how good we had it.