Medical Examiners Make Good TV

Jan 25, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

It started with Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983). The medical examiner (aka forensic pathologist) came out of expository cameos and into a starring role. With Jack Klugman as the lead, Quincy started as part of the classic NBC Sunday Mystery Movie wheel, rotating with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan & Wife. By mid-season it was clear the show was a hit and became a weekly series.

Quincy was cranky, crusty and frequently at odds with his boss. Klugman insisted on plots that had social relevance (see Tom Sawyer’s reminiscence of writing for Quincy) and Quincy’s ME department was an equal opportunity employer. Robert Ito played lab assistant Sam Fujiyama and Anita Gillete was ME Dr. Emily Hanover.

A real life model for the show was Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Thomas Noguchi (aka Coroner to the stars). He was in charge of the autopsies on such celebrities as Janis Joplin, William Holden, John Belushi and Natalie Wood. His controversial autopsy of Robert F. Kennedy called into question whether Sirhan Sirhan could have fired the fatal shot. Often chastised for being too open with the media, he was later charged with mismanagement and demoted.

When Quincy ended, the MEs office was out of the limelight for several years though the MEs themselves were essential to solving crimes. The Law & Order franchise found the right woman for the job in Leslie Hendrix as Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers. She did duty on L&O, SVU and Criminal Intent for a 21-year career in the morgue. Tamara Tunie joined SVU in 2000 as ME Dr. Melinda Warner.

2000 was the breakout year for Medical Examiners with the debut of CSI. Creator Anthony Zuiker introduced the world to Locard’s Exchange Principle: “Every contact leaves a trace.” According to the Forensic Architecture team, “This reversed the classic model of cause and effect in that it is the effect that is subject to observation and the cause that is surmised or concluded.” Thus, CSI came at crime from an entirely new direction and the public was entranced.

In an early episode, Brass refers to Grissom as “Quincy” in saluting the earlier show, but at the CSI crime lab everyone came into the autopsy room and was part of examining the medical and trace evidence. They developed this into high art, drama and ratings success.

This in turn generated “the CSI Effect.” One part of this effect was a wealth of misinformation. It has been estimated that as much as 40 percent of the scientific techniques shown on CSI do not exist or are inaccurate. Clearly the degree of certainty presented in their results is exaggerated, and yet suddenly we were all talking about DNA–we knew that fingerprints could be reproduced from desiccated fingers and that then you could go to CODIS for a match!

CSI created a generation of amateur pathologists and inspired a huge group of people to take up forensics as a profession, many of them women. Another piece of the CSI effect was to inspire more ME shows.

Another fictional influence at work, promoting the idea of women as Medical Examiners, was Patricia Cornwell’s novels. By 2001 she had written 11 (now 21) featuring Kate Scarpetta, who is based on former Virginia Chief Medical Examiner, Marcella Fierro. The use of forensic detail and the strong women characters made these books huge best sellers.

Crossing Jordan (2001-2007) had Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh (Jilly Hennessy) as a smart, quirky, obstinate ME frequently in conflict with her boss. The cast of medical characters was rounded out by Miguel Ferrer as Dr. Garrett Macy-Chief, Ravi Kapoor as Dr. Mahesh Vijay, aka “Bug,” and Steve Valentine as Dr. Nigel Townsend. The latter two made a fine comedic as well as dramatic team. In 2002 CSI: Miami debuted with Khandi Alexander as ME Dr. Alexx Woods.

In 2003–NCIS brought David McCallum (Man from Uncle) back to the television as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard. Producer Bellisario says that for the role McCallum became an expert in forensics, including appearing at Medical Examiner conventions. Ten years later he has signed a contract that will have him playing the role into his eighties. McCallum plays the character with great style whether he is talking about his mother, recalling his military career or talking to the bodies.

Back in the category of high-heeled MEs it’s hard to resist Dr. Maura Isles–smartest girl in the room, highly ethical, artistic, daughter of a mobster, fashionista and best friend of Detective Jane Rizzoli (Rizzoli & Isles). Actress Sasha Alexander pulls off this wonderful mélange of a character, which goes far beyond the one in the books. I’m also fond of Tamala Jones as Lainie Parish on Castle. She mixes knowledge with sass and humor. She can also work a crime scene without looking like she’s afraid to break a nail, though she has been known to show up “dressed to kill.”

Less easy to believe were the women of Body of Proof. Dana Delaney was the snarky, arrogant ex-surgeon at odds with her family and everyone else. She reported to an equally tough, beautiful and well-dressed chief ME, Kate Murphy (Jeri Ryan), which made for an interesting dynamic, but for me, when they weren’t wearing scrubs their clothes distracted from their credibility. They looked like they were getting ready for a photo shoot or a hot date. The show has been cancelled.

Meanwhile, Unforgettable has been un-cancelled and will return in summer of 2014. Jane Curtin brings her famous deadpan expression to the Quincy-esque role of Dr. Joanne Webster. Sent to Queens for crossing her superiors, and too senior to fire, they hope she will resign–unlikely.

Crusty, quirky, challenging and conflicted–playing an ME can add life to your career.

Ode to a Medical Examiner

They figure out the TOD, the COD and drug OD
Run a tox screen, weigh a spleen, collect a hair from off a jean
Examine eyes to find a hemorrhaging petechial
Underneath a fingernail a tell-tale epithelial
Looking for lividity, morbidity and criminal stupidity
They give the cops the clues to put the perp in custody

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.


  1. Very nice piece, Deborah. It triggers another, relevant recollection about that Quincy script. The show had a couple of real M.E.’s on retainer as consultants, whom they’d assign – one for each script. Ours was very helpful, and immediately expressed his delight at our premise wherein the victim is immediately frozen, then thawed seven years later in order to frame someone for his murder. “But…” he quickly cautioned us, “the thawing would require a microwave oven large enough to accommodate his entire body.” Which was okay with my co-writer and me, and of course much-appreciated. Thanks to his advice, in the script, Reyn Parke and I had a cop at the lavish penthouse murder scene come into the room and deliver a throwaway line about the level of luxury, on the order of: “Man, and you should see the kitchen. Huge. They’ve got a microwave big enough for a banquet.”



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