Research fail – Pure Genius

This blog is about writing, so here’s a lesson for you would-be writers out there. As I do every TV season, I record almost all the new network comedy and drama series and check them out. Tonight I watched the premier episode of a new series called Pure Genius.  It was a failure for several reasons, but there was one particular flaw that applies to writers of novels as well as TV shows: bad research. It is set in Palo Alto, California, which for those of you who have been living in a cave for the last thirty years, is in the heart of Silicon Valley. Geographically speaking, it is on the San Francisco Peninsula. At one point the main billionaire entrepreneur/philanthropist (think Elon Musk clone) introduces a black character as a total gang banger who grew up “dirt poor in the East Bay Area.”

This is wrong on at least three levels. To locals, the nine counties that border San Francisco Bay are as a whole called “the Bay Area.” This term may be extended to include some other neighboring areas at times. Three counties east of the bay are called “the East Bay.” No one who lives here refers to that region as “the East Bay Area.” Hollywood writers have conflated the two terms. It would be like a New Yorker telling a fellow New Yorker that he grew up in “the Bronx Borough.” It’s just “the Bronx.” This kind of laziness destroys the believability of the entire show.

The second fail is the idea that you might identify this fellow’s humble origins by specifying such a large area. The Hollywood writers must think the entire East Bay is a poor area, probably because of the news coverage of riots, murders and other nasty events in Oakland, Richmond, and maybe Vallejo if those make it to the outside world. Those cities all harbor some very poor areas with black or Hispanic gangs, to be sure, as well as some nice areas. But the East Bay as a whole is mostly a wealthy area. It includes generally wealthy, lily white and low crime cities like Orinda, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and even the hill area of Oakland among others. This is like saying a character from Bedford-Stuyvesant  grew up dirt poor on Long Island. Hello… have you never heard of the Hamptons? Bedford-Stuyvesant  is in Brooklyn and technically is on Long Island, but people usually don’t think of it or talk about it that way. A real New Yorker would describe the character as coming from Bed-Stuy, and a real Silicon Valley resident would also refer to the gang-infested area in this case as East Oakland (which, ironically, is actually in the western half of the city), or some other particular neighborhood of a particular city. The writers didn’t bother to do even minimal research on how people in the area actually talk or on the demographics of the area.

Third, this is just clunky dialogue. It’s pure exposition crammed into the first ten minutes to let us viewers know that this clean-cut male model of an African-American is living proof that poor disadvantaged minority youth in Silicon Valley can grow up to be well-paid scientists and tech workers and apparently lose any hint of black speech patterns prevalent in the area from which they supposedly came. Our token mascot! Can you imagine actually introducing someone that way? It’s sort of like introducing a gorgeous young woman as “meet my friend Linda who used to be the fattest girl in her class when she was a kid.” I could level plenty of other criticisms about the series just from the twenty or so minutes I watched it, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Needless to say, I canceled the series.

By the way, if you want to know a good series to watch, try Life in Pieces. It’s in its second year and is absolutely hilarious, clearly the best comedy on the air today. Last night’s episode had me laughing out loud, something I can’t remember doing at any time in the last two or three years.

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