Checking out some of your fave TV shows, you may have seen diabetes weaved into the story lines a little more often lately.
During the past several months, there’s been a bevvy of news nuggets about diabetes — type 1 specifically — being portrayed in a bunch of fan fave TV shows, including Law & Order SVU, The BlackList, and Undercover Boss. And word is, there may be a new character with diabetes in the works for the hit historical drama Downton Abbey.
Before you start shaking your head in anticipation of a new wave of media misinformation, let me say this: The shows aren’t doing a bad job and have actually been more accurate than what I remember seeing in the past, IMHO. Not everything’s 100% on base, but when it comes to showing disease on TV, you have to expect some level of “dramatic license” to be employed, right?
Here’s what I’ve noticed recently re: diabetes in TV shows (… and I’ll try not to give any spoilers!):
- Law & Order SVU episode on Feb. 5, “Wednesday’s Child”: A young boy named Nicky goes missing from his bed at home, and as the police try to figure out whether he wandered off alone or was kidnapped, the search becomes more urgent because Nicky’s a type 1 diabetic and he only has enough insulin in his pump to last three days.
I’m a big fan of SVU and watch this show religiously each week (and yes, it does conflict with DSMA Twitter chats that happen simultaneously at 9pm EST Wednesdays). Without giving away too many details, I thought the show’s writers did a pretty good job in not creating too much melodrama around the diabetes. They didn’t confuse the hypo and hyper details as other shows have done, and I actually found the storyline very believable.
In one scene showing little insulin-deprived Nicky, they got the hyperglycemia-related details right — even weaving in a note about how he’d been fed some sugar-laced treats while having no Insulin On Board. OK, there was a part where the parents received a text message on their smartphones that Nicky’s insulin pump had apparently sent, showing he was experiencing higher blood sugars from the lack of insulin. Err, what? Supposedly he had an integrated CGM (continuous glucose monitor) with that awesome feature — which is of course not available yet in existing D-Devices, but that’s in the works and Dexcom Share is coming soon (!) so it’s not that unrealistic. Also at one point in the show, a police detective specifically points out that they can’t use the insulin pump to track Nicky’s location. So overall, I’d say: Nicely done, SVU writers! Some other DOC’ers have been sharing thoughts on TuDiabetes about this episode, too.
- The Blacklist on NBC, episode “The Alchemist” on Jan. 20: A little girl is abducted and the federal agents were able to track her through her Medtronic insulin pump because of Bluetooth tech signals. So unlike SVU, this show ventured into the world of super-high-tech insulin pumps, which isn’t reality…
In this episode, there was some serious eye-rolling when the characters talked about a little kidnapped girl having an insulin pump and being able to track her location using the pump’s radio signals, like a GPS. NOT. But then again, in online discussions some PWDs were questioning whether this is actually possible. (Word from insulin pump and CGM makers: it is not.)
The other part of the episode that brought a slight head-shake was when one of the parents tells the other that the little girl cannot eat anything with sugar. We know that drives some folks crazy, but on the other hand there are PWDs who choose to avoid sugar at all costs… So maybe you can’t fault the show too much there. It’s not like anyone in this Blacklist episode said “sugar causes diabetes,” but the implication was that sugar is totally taboo.
- Undercover Boss episode on Jan. 31: If you haven’t tuned in before, each episode of this CBS show features someone with a high management position at a major business going “undercover,” posing as an entry-level employee to discover the faults in the company. In this fifth season episode, Hudson Group President & CEO Joe DiDomizio visited various airports and worked undercover as a newsstand sales associate, a barista and specialty store replenishment buyer. Joe happens to be a fellow PWD who was diagnosed in college, and in one of the scenes he worked with and bonded with a fellow PWD named Elizabeth who’s a barista at one of his stores at a Seattle airport.
Now, I don’t generally watch Reality TV and had never seen an episode of this show before hearing about Joe’s involvement. But watching this episode, with an incredibly heart-warming surprise at the ending, was amazing. Of course, it’s different from the other shows in that it’s real-life and not fiction. It was pretty powerful seeing Joe not only talk about his own college diagnosis, but how it influenced him going into the business world in the way he did and then later his interactions with PWD Elizabeth. The whole thing was pretty powerful to me — and hopefully, it offered some viewers a little insight into what this condition and our D-Lives are really like. (Click here for a recap of the episode)
- Downton Abbey on PBS: Various reports have been posted recently stating that a D-character may be coming soon to Downton Abbey, which would be very interesting since the show’s based in the early 20th Century and the current 4th season is playing out in the mid-1920s, just about the time that insulin was discovered and became available.
How will the writers portray diabetes at that time? And how might insulin be weaved into the storyline? Of course, that’s assuming type 1 is even the focus. There aren’t any details and it’s still speculation whether this will actually happen.
Other fictional characters with diabetes that have been peppered throughout shows in the past years include: the short-lived show Do No Harm from early 2013 that had a PWD surgeon who used a humorous “futuristic” glucose monitor in the hospital, and last summer’s show Under The Dome that had some appearances of a PWD before her lack-of-insulin-induced death. And who can forget how several years ago we saw the controversial episode featuring a D-character on Hanna Montana?
And to be honest, I get excited just seeing TV appearances of real-life celebrities and athletes who are living with diabetes:
- Like the recent NBC Olympics coverage featuring pro cross-country skier and PWD Kris Freeman talking about diabetes and showing off OmniPod and Dexcom G4 sensor.
- Or back when Crystal Bowersox was on American Idol and had to deal with her beeping insulin pump while rehearsing with Harry Connick Jr.? (Loved that!)
- And rock star Bret Michaels being featured on a Jan. 29 episode of NBC’s Revolution, which is all about the power going down across the country, apocalypse-style. Bret’s guest spot was only a few seconds and didn’t touch on diabetes at all, but it was cool just seeing a fellow type 1 (especially someone I’ve had the joy of meeting in person!)
So what’s the big deal? Why get all excited about a character with diabetes, or seeing a fellow PWD in a TV appearance?
Maybe it’s the part of us that doesn’t want to “feel alone.” See, there’s someone famous on TV, yet they are “just like me”!
I wonder if people with asthma have the same kind of reaction when a character whips out an inhaler, or if someone going through chemo sees that same kind of connection when it’s portrayed on TV. I would bet yes.
Sadly however, through the years, most of the TV and movie references to diabetes have been pretty off-base. This has been a common gripe in the D-Community.
If the writers just gloss over inaccurate details of a disease, do they still get to say, “See, we talked about a serious health condition on our show”?
We have good reason to worry that people outside of the D-Community might take as gospel what they see on TV — like if someone’s having a low blood sugar, and the TV characters decide that person needs insulin (yikes!). There’s enough misconception about this already in real life — we’ve heard horror stories about well-intentioned but misinformed teachers and helpful strangers — and false TV portrayals can fuel that misinformation even more. Seriously, how difficult is it to Google “type 1 diabetes” and get something right?
Then again, it’s only TV. And you can’t believe what you see on a scripted, make-believe show, right?
We were interested to hear from Medtronic about how they sometimes communicate about these issues, when insulin pumps or diabetes is shown on TV.
“If a TV show or movie uses one of our products, sometimes we do know about it ahead of time, but often we don’t,” said Medtronic spokeswoman Karrie Hawbaker. “We didn’t know about the two examples (on SVU and the Blacklist) until after they aired. And I’m not aware of any customer calls about the situations depicted in the shows.”
She added that in the past, the writesr for the show “Body of Proof” asked to borrow a Medtronic pump because they were creating a plot where one of the teen girl characters was type 1 and starting on an inuslin pump.
“After speaking with someone from the show and hearing a little bit about what the storyline they were planning, we were happy to provide them with one to use,” Hawbaker said. “We thought they did a nice job of capturing on screen some of the emotions that many families with diabetes experience. And they allowed us to send a member of our clinical team over to the studio so that she could help them ensure that the pump was depicted realistically.”
We were also happy to hear last year that JDRF has made itself available to TV producers and movie-makers to consult on any diabetes aspects, for fact-checking. Of course they have to wait to be asked by the producers, so not such a proactive approach, but it’s something.
And we hear that fellow advocate and D-Dad Tom Karlya is continuing his plan for a media campaign called “Get Diabetes Right” to help spread awareness on this issue. It’s being organized with an ad agency in Texas, and the hope is to create marketing materials that anyone in the D-Community can print out and share locally or send to TV and movie producers who might be featuring diabetes in some way.
Awareness and accuracy don’t always mix well with entertainment… but in this age of “info-tainment,” in which so many people get their “facts” from the Entertainment Industry, it’s really vital that we keep our eyes peeled and keep ‘em honest on the realities of this disease!