Imagine that you’re a writer on the Magnum PI television show, the reboot of the 1980s classic about an ex–Navy Seal turned private investigator in Hawaii. Now imagine that you’ve been assigned to write an episode all about a mystery set in a psychiatric hospital, where a misdiagnosed patient turns out to be a victim of a sinister conspiracy. Sounds fun right?
But when you sit down to face the blank page, certain questions start to plague you. What condition would make sense for the victim to appear to have? What drugs could induce the symptoms of that condition? How do you write this story in a way that accurately depicts psychiatric hospitals while also sensitively portraying mental illness? This was the situation that longtime television writer and producer David Slack found himself in.
David got his start in animated television writing for staple shows like Jackie Chan Adventures and Teen Titans before making the jump into live-action, 1-hour drama about a decade ago. The Magnum PI writers’ room was still early in the process of breaking the story of his episode on the white board when David realized he could use a medical professional’s perspective.
So, he reached out to The Science & Entertainment Exchange (The Exchange), a resource he’d been using for years. For David, it was a no brainer: “The enemy is the blank page. It’s always easier to build on something real than it is to start from nothing.” He added, about his conversations with experts over the years, “Some [scientists] are great at imagining the story with you, others stay rooted in concrete reality. It’s always productive either way. Real ideas from people who truly know their stuff.”
The Exchange put him in touch with Dr. Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University. Chris studies the link between media and mental health and, in addition to teaching, is a published fiction author. He loves volunteering with The Exchange to consult for fellow storytellers, because when it comes to television and film, “It’s exciting to be involved with something that millions of people will watch versus an academic article,” which is usually confined to a niche academic audience.
A secured exit to the psychiatric hospital, the primary setting of Magnum PI, S5.E9, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.”
David told Chris that his episode was about someone who didn’t belong in a psychiatric hospital and was being induced to have symptoms. David said, “We needed a plausible diagnosis for that. And the drugs that would be used to keep them there.” Specifically, something that could be given at overly high doses without being deadly. Ideally, a drug that could make the character hallucinate. They discussed medicines, side effects, toxicity, and how symptoms would accurately present. Chris cautioned against falling back on a tired trope, Multiple Personality Disorder. Chris said, “It’s controversial, it’s rare, and it’s usually conveyed falsely.” After several conversations and a fair bit of research, Chris helped crack it and David was able to finish writing the episode.
Thomas Magnum, played by actor Jay Hernandez, tries to unearth the secrets of the psychiatric hospital.
Well, what did they decide on…? We don’t want to give it all away! You can watch the episode, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” available now on Peacock and NBC.
For Chris, not only was the process “a lot of fun,” but he also felt this type of consultation can help move the needle. Chris said, “There’s always an opportunity to nudge things to present mental health in a more realistic and destigmatizing way.” And to his fellow scientists and academics, he encourages getting involved in The Exchange. “It’s an opportunity to debunk myths … to talk to writers, producers, and directors who have a lot of influence over how the public perceives psychology. It is worthwhile, especially if you’re frustrated with common misconceptions.”
For David, when it comes to his research and writing, he says the access to scientists through The Exchange is, “a resource I couldn’t get anywhere else. It’s made my scripts accurate, more interesting, and helped me to enjoy the writing process more.” In talking to consultants like Chris, “I feel like I’m not taking a shot in the dark, I’m talking to an expert.”