We all know that plausibility is not one of television's greatest strengths. For decades, some of the world's top minds have wondered how the professor on "Gilligan's Island" could rig a lie-detector machine out of bamboo and other crude materials, but couldn't manage to build a decent raft.
It certainly would be awesome if our TV sets came with built-in lie detectors -- the better to determine when fact stops and fiction takes over.
With such technology beyond our grasp, we instead decided to recruit several reliable sources and subject a few current shows to a thorough reality check. Here's what we found:
The situation: This musical comedy would have us believe that McKinley High School's misfit crooners can produce song-and-dance routines at the drop of a hat. Each episode is stuffed with up to seven numbers, some quite spectacular. What's the real story?
Reality check: That's an "over-the-top fantasy," insists Ken Rawdon, choral director at Mount Eden High School in Hayward, Calif. In preparing for competition, it takes his acclaimed show choir an entire semester to master a polished, 22-minute routine consisting of all -- or parts of -- seven to eight songs, along with a couple of costume changes. As for those elaborate production numbers, Rawdon says the show's "glitz factor" is pretty hard to touch. "We really have no budget," he says. "My credit card is our budget."
Oh, and FYI: Rawdon insists he gets along just fine with the school's cheerleading coach.
"The Big Bang Theory"
The situation: Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and their pals are brilliant but socially inept physicists. Is the science they spout accurate?
Reality check: UCLA physics professor David Saltzberg, who serves as the science consultant for the show, says he does his best to make sure it is. Saltzberg sprinkles the scripts with actual jargon and theories, and is even responsible for producing those complex equations that appear on the white boards in the show.
"I write them so they don't appear to be nonsense, but I also try to have fun with them," says Saltzberg, who once invited some of his grad students to a taping after they had taken an exam and delighted in their stunned reactions when they realized the exam's solutions were right there on the board.
As for the personalities of the nerdy characters, Saltzberg says that they're "not that much of a stretch."
"Mike & Molly"
The situation: On this freshman sitcom, Mike (Billy Gardell) is a Chicago cop dealing with some weighty issues. Don't police officers have to be in crime-fighting shape?
Reality check: Police recruits entering the academy are required to pass a physical and several fitness tests, confirms Sgt. Alex Stinites, a 20-year veteran of the Chicago P.D. "As long as you pass, you're golden," he says. "You can't be fired later because of your weight."
Still, Stinites claims most officers maintain a certain fitness level to do their jobs effectively, and the department has implemented contractual incentives for officers to stay in shape. "You used to see some pretty large guys," he says. "But that's old-school. Now, that's extremely rare."
The situation: Pre-law student Marti Perkins (Aly Michalka) loses her academic scholarship, so she scrambles to land a cheerleading scholarship on her college squad. Is there really such a thing as a cheerleading scholarship?
Reality check: UC Berkeley spirit coordinator Diane Milano says you won't find any at Cal, where the athletic department is slashing costs. Stanford doesn't offer any, either. But an increasing number of schools do indeed award various forms of scholarships to the rah-rah set.
"Some places actually recruit cheerleaders and dancers, and they compete on a national level just like the athletes," she says. In the Pac-10 Conference, USC, Oregon and Arizona State offer scholarships.
The situation: Like its predecessor, this remake posits that the major criminal cases in Hawaii are handled by an elite federalized task force that answers to the governor. But does such a unit exist?
Reality check: No way, says Gordon Pang, cops reporter for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Most police functions are handled by the four county governments," he tells us. "There are state law enforcement officers -- conservation officers, harbors and airport security, and sheriffs that deal with courts, etc. But none have quite the authority as the fictional 'Five-0.'aaaa"
Incidentally, the facade for the show's Five-0 headquarters is a historic downtown building that actually houses the state's Supreme Court. (Headquarters for the original "Five-0" unit was the Iolani Palace.)
The situation: Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a suspended lawyer forced to return to school after his college degree is deemed invalid. But can he really procure a four-year degree from a community college?
Reality check: That might seem crazy to citizens of California, where community colleges only offer associate degrees, which can be earned in two years. But Peter Garcia, acting president of Diablo Valley College, tells us that community colleges in other states -- 17, to be exact -- do indeed offer bachelor's degrees. (Jeff attends fictional Greendale CC in Colorado.) Garcia laughs off some of the "slapstick and extremes" in "Community," but says the show's premise that community colleges are places for a fresh start is accurate.
"We attract folks looking for occupational re-training, people who have hit a glass ceiling in their jobs, plenty of reentry parents and military veterans returning from the war," he says.