Sci-Tech

Meet the forensics queen debunking 'NCIS,' 'Silent Witness'

Xanthe Mallett, a university professor of forensic anthropology and criminology, unravels what’s real and what’s ridiculous in the land of TV crime shows.

xanthe-mallett

Xanthe Mallett is frustrated by the superhero forensics scientists portrayed on TV.

Xanthe Mallett

A few years ago at the University of Tennessee, Xanthe Mallett stood around a decomposing human cadaver with a group of nine FBI agents.

A pulsating mound of maggots writhed through the body, but that didn't deter her. Mallett knew she could help people by providing the police with forensic information that would assist them in solving crimes.

Getting knee-deep in a pile of maggots may sound unglamorous, but they're "a kind of forensic mascot," said Mallett, who's currently a senior lecturer at Australia's University of Newcastle. Mallett would know. She's worked as a presenter for "History Cold Case," as well as other documentary programs that investigate current and older cases.

Spoiler alert: She doesn't solve those cases in an hour by herself, like the superhero forensic scientists on crime dramas do. 

"Crimes are not all solved conveniently in a TV hour. It also requires a whole team of people working together, bringing different skills and experience to the case," Mallett said in an email response to questions. "That's a TV myth, and doesn't reflect the professionalism or dogged dedication of real forensic investigators."

Part of the reason TV shows portray forensics inaccurately has to do with the nature of the medium, she says.

"At the end of the day, fictional television crime shows are entertainment, so they can't reflect reality too closely, as forensic investigations are just not as fast-paced and adrenaline-packed as most people think," Mallett said.

Not to name names (we totally are), but some shows have really missed the mark.

"More recently, I would say that 'Silent Witness' has strayed a long way from reality," Mallett said, pointing out that the most recent adverts for the program say its forensic pathologists find clues that the police can't.

"One thing I think is great about these fictional crime shows is the portrayal of strong, intelligent women as role models, especially in the sciences," says Xanthe Mallett, a professor of forensic anthropology and criminology. One example is the character of Abby Sciuto on "NCIS" (played by Pauley Perrette).

"One thing I think is great about these fictional crime shows is the portrayal of strong, intelligent women as role models, especially in the sciences," says Xanthe Mallett, a professor of forensic anthropology and criminology. One example is the character of Abby Sciuto  (played by Pauley Perrette) on "NCIS."

CBS

Watching those shows isn't fun for Mallett.

"I find that a little frustrating, personally, as it undermines the professionalism of the police and other experts and their role within a forensic investigation," she said. "Forensic pathologists, whilst playing a crucial role through undertaking postmortem examinations in order to determine cause and manner of death, collecting relevant samples and providing reports, don't do the police's job."

For "NCIS" fans, however, there's some good news. ("NCIS" is distributed by CBS, CNET's parent company.)

"One thing I think is great about these fictional crime shows is the portrayal of strong, intelligent women as role models, especially in the sciences," she said. She singles out Abby Sciuto, a forensic scientist on "NCIS," as a great example.

Mallett has more to say about the show.

"Of all the fictional crime shows, 'NCIS' is actually my favourite," Mallett said. "I do have to suspend reality when it comes to the forensic aspects of the investigation [and] ignore them all wandering around in (what should be) sterile labs and at crime scenes not wearing full personal protective equipment to avoid contamination." 

Of course, it's impossible to look sexy in "bunny suits," the white Tyvec suits that crime-scene techs wear, Mallet says. "I understand why the producers don't make the heroes and heroines of the show wear them."

For budding young forensic scientists, Mallett and Sciuto aren't your only role models. Meet Dame Black, whose name alone makes her perfect for a TV character.

"I was trained as a forensic anthropologist by the world-renowned Prof. Dame Sue Black, from the University of Dundee's Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, Mallett said. "Dame Black is a force of nature. She revolutionised the science of forensic anthropology, really putting it on the map in the UK. I feel so privileged to have been trained by her, and I'm still inspired by her example."

Mallett says a character based on Dame Black in a fictional crime program "would be amazing!"

Despite the shortcomings of TV shows like "Silent Witness" and "NCIS," Mallett says, audiences do sometimes get introduced to new forensic techniques.

"On an episode of 'NCIS' I saw recently, Abby Sciuto analysed a hair sample to determine the isotopic profile of the hair, which can tell an analyst where the sample donor was geographically located (within certain parameters) when that hair was grown, because your tissues take on the isotopic profile of the food you eat and water you drink," she said. "It's a fantastic and not widely applied forensic technique when it comes to human identification," she added, noting that she was impressed to see it on a prime-time crime show.

As for the future of these kinds of TV shows, Mallett has ideas.

"The next big thing in forensic investigation, in my opinion, is DNA phenotyping, the prediction of physical appearance from a sample of DNA based in an understanding of how genetic information translates into physical appearance," she said. "This is an amazing scientific advance, and is going to have serious implications for forensic investigations."

If TV writers can get their heads around that technique ...

"I can't wait to see DNA phenotyping on fictional crime shows, you know then that techniques have got people's attention and are having an impact in the real world!"

Mallett's book "Mothers Who Murder" can be found here, and she's currently working on a new true crime series that's set to air in early 2018.

"NCIS: Los Angeles Season 8" and "NCIS: Season 14" became available on DVD in Australia as of 30 August. UK and US release dates are to come.

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