overthinking the idiot box

February 1, 2006

History can make for great TV. For if we don't dramatize the past, then we're just...

Doomed to rerun it
Should That Soldier Be Wearing a Rolex?
Inaccuracies in Historical Television
by Jenni Powell

In other words, if your show is set in the 1800s, I don't want to see any airplanes flying in the background.
Creators of television events set in the past have a unique challenge unlike any other: they have to get it right. And I don't mean "right" as in every show set in the past has to be pure genius, I mean that the directors, writers, cast, and crew have certain confines that they have to work within dictated by the past that they are trying to represent.

In other words, if your show is set in the 1800s, I don't want to see any airplanes flying in the background. Unfortunately, this isn't such a simple request. And even after the many eyes that pass over a project between the writing, the shooting, and the final product on my television, it often comes down to this...

Goofs happen.

Where are you hiding Journey's time machine, Topher Grace?
There are two types of errors that most commonly occur in historical television. The first are called Anachronisms, which are defined by dictionary.com as ones that are "out of chronological, proper, or historical order, especially a person or practice that belongs to an earlier time". This basically means that it happened, just not EXACTLY that way. For example, in one episode of That '70s Show, Journey's "Any Way You Want It" is playing, when that song wasn't released until 1980. Of course, there is the other theory that Journey is just so awesome that their music can travel through time, but that's beyond the scope of the current article...

The second type of common historical television errors are Factual Errors. This one is pretty self-explanatory: they done messed up. Here's one that flat out makes me mad: in the series Deadwood, Seth Bullock and Sol Starr witness Wild Bill Hickok's arrival in Deadwood. Well, Seth Bullock and Wild Bill Hickok both really existed and it's common knowledge that Hickok arrived two weeks PRIOR to Bullock. Bullock actually arrived on August 1st, 1876, the day before Hickok was killed by Jack McCall. You call it "artistic license", I call it "big fat LIES". And now, a smattering of my favorite "oopsies":

Band Of Brothers
"Excuse me Mr. Spielberg, I'm not quite dead yet":

At the end of Part Three "Carentan", Pvt. Albert Blithe is shot in the neck by a sniper and the credits information states he dies of his wounds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1948. Fellow Easy Company soldiers, many of which read the scripts before filming, verified that they believed this to be true.

After the mini-series was broadcast, members of Blithe's family came forward and provided information and documentation that Blithe was actually wounded in the right shoulder and fully recovered from his wounds. He went on to have an outstanding Army career, including a MAAG assignment in Taiwan and over 600 parachute jumps. He even attended the 1st Annual Reunion of the 101st Airborne Division Association. He actually passed away in 1967, still on active duty in Germany, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Freaks and Geeks
Three cases of product placement gone horribly awry:

  1. In the episode "Noshing and Moshing", Daniel, Ken, and Nick are in a liquor store and the cooler behind them contains flavors of Gatorade Frost that were not introduced until 1998.

  2. At the beginning of "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers", Bill is shown with a tub of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. This product wasn't sold until 1986.

  3. In the pilot episode, there is a plastic bottle of Heinz ketchup on the dining table at the Weirs. Plastic ketchup bottles were not available until 1990.

For those who don't know, Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980.

It's Caesar, not Columbus:

There were several episodes of this show in which captive birds were shown. Some of these were Macaws and Amazon parrots from America and cockatoos from Australia. These continents were unknown to the Romans, so they shouldn't have owned such birds.

Quantum Leap
More like "Disco Incorrecto":

Episode 2.2 "Disco Inferno" takes place starting on April 1, 1976. This would have fallen on a Thursday, yet an episode of Saturday Night Live is playing on the TV. Also, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray are both shown, even though they never appeared together on SNL. Additionally, the person Sam leaps into is a stuntman on the set of the movie Earthquake, which had actually been released two years earlier in 1974.

No one noticed for an entire season?:

During the first season opening credits, the Cartwrights can be seen galloping on horses on a dirt road that contains an unmistakable set of tire tracks, presumably being left there from the truck carrying the camera in front of them.

Doing the Lord's Work before it was cool:

It's 1934 and United Methodist preacher Brother Justin Crowe is finding himself plagued by cryptic and prophetic dreams. As disturbing as this is, the real problem is that the United Methodist Church did not exist until the 1960s.

Holy transforming aircraft Borgnine!:

Yeah, I'm ending with Airwolf because I'm just that Airwolf. Most of the shots of aircraft in the show, including that of Airwolf itself, are compiled from stock footage. This started becoming a major issue in season 4 of the show when the budget continued shrinking, not to mention that the original aircraft that was the model for Airwolf had been sold to a German helicopter charter company and turned into an air ambulance (it crash landed in 1991, killing its three passengers). Because of this, many of the air battle scenes show aircraft changing models mid-fight, often portraying aircraft that weren't even used in the cold-war era in which Airwolf took place.

If this is a topic that interests you, may I suggest taking a cruise around IMDb, which besides being "Earth's Biggest Movie Database" also contains a "goofs" section on most of the movie and television show pages. You can also visit The Slip-Up Archive, an interactive website where users can input their favorite boo-boos and share them with their little corner of the internet universe.

Or you can come on by the SMRT-TV forums and share your favorite "whoops"es with your fellow readers. Cause there's nothing SMRTer than getting a good laugh at the mistakes of others. Until next time, may all your historical television watching be full of observance and witty criticism!

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Return to Season 2, Episode 9.