Does TV Ever Get the Art World Right? Here Are 19 (More) Memorable Episodes That Try, Ranked by Believability

Television is rife with portrayals of the art world. Here are some of our favorites, ranked from the most ridiculous to the totally realistic.

George Michael poses for the Living Masters Pageant in The Creation of Adam, wearing Tobias's Never Nude jean cut offs, in Arrested Development. Courtesy of FOX.
George Michael poses for the Living Masters Pageant in The Creation of Adam, wearing Tobias's Never Nude jean cut offs, in Arrested Development. Courtesy of FOX.

Just in time for the holiday season, the editors at artnet News have harnessed the breadth of our collective streaming services to continue our investigation into TV-art mashups—our follow up to “Does TV Ever Get the Art World Right?

From Netflix’s buzzy new releases to short-lived cult classics, there is always a small-screen appetite for the high-stakes deals and forgery scandals that fuel the art world. Although the reality is often less dramatic, it does sometimes seem that life is imitating art. After all, many shows often feature legitimate artists. And even the most creative writers’ room couldn’t have concocted the fraught history and record-smashing sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s last known work.

In the spirit of giving, we’ve diligently combed the archives to bring you 19 more art-driven television episodes, ranked by believability.

 

1. The 100, “The 48” (2014)

Jasper and Maya sit by Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights while they talk about art. Courtesy of Wikia.

Jasper and Maya sit by Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights while they talk about art. Courtesy of Wikia.

In a post-apocalyptic world, 100 “delinquent” beings are sent down to Earth to see if it is survivable (the mythology of this show goes deep, so bear with us). Atop Mount Weather, a colony of humans has sought refuge from the radioactive world outside. To keep them company, the survivors have a (rather fitting) Hell panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Considering the triptych is currently ensconced in Madrid’s Museo del Prado, it seems unlikely that the painting would find itself in a stateside mountain bunker, although we do appreciate the allegory.

Believability rank: 1/10

 

2. Stranger Things, “Dig Dug” (2017)

Will Byers's drawing of the Shadow Monster on Stranger Things. Screengrab courtesy of Netflix.

Will Byers’s drawing of the Shadow Monster on Stranger Things. Screengrab courtesy of Netflix.

Season one of Netflix’s nostalgia throwback Stranger Things left off with Will Byers having been rescued from a harrowing week trapped in the Upside Down, a mysterious alternate dimension—only to be possessed by the menacing Mind Flayer in the new season. When he realizes he has valuable insights into the monster’s actions, Will uses his artistic abilities to communicate. He makes hundreds of drawings, which, tacked up on the walls of the Byers house, reveal a map of the network of tunnels growing between the two dimensions.

In the sci-fi universe of Stranger Things, we suppose it’s plausible that art could play a role in unraveling the secrets of a malevolent hive mind—but there’s no way that Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) bought him a 120-box set of crayons. We’re calling that an art anachronism, as Crayola didn’t make anything larger than a 64-color set until the 1990s.

Believability rank: 1/10

 

3. Gotham, “A Dark Knight: The Demon’s Head” (2017)

A Gotham Natural History Museum historian examines a mysterious dagger on behalf of Bruce Wayne on <em>Gotham</em>. Courtesy of FOX.

A Gotham Natural History Museum historian examines a mysterious dagger on behalf of Bruce Wayne on Gotham. Courtesy of FOX.

Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) has won a mysterious dagger at auction, hoping to keep it away from the even more mysterious, immortal bad guy Ra’s al Ghul (Alexander Siddig). Determined to find out why the ancient weapon is so important, Bruce takes it to a Gotham Natural History Museum historian, who is promptly killed for his troubles. The historian’s grandson flees with the knife, attempting to hide at the museum from Ra’s al Ghul and his henchmen, who include a feral dog-man called Anubis (Anthony Rodriguez).

Bruce and police officer Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) face off with the villains at the history museum—aka the Brooklyn Museum’s Beaux-Arts Court, decked out with animal skeleton displays. This leads to a most amusing payoff when Jim throws a massive leg bone out the window, and Anubis’s canine instincts kick in, the dog-man leaping after it to his presumed death. Another bone proves a makeshift weapon for dispatching the second henchman, but that doesn’t stop Ra’s al Ghul from killing the historian’s grandson. It’s another tragedy for young Bruce, who holds onto to the dagger but at the cost of a friend’s life. Luckily, the life of a real natural history museum historian is not nearly as dangerous.

Believability rank: 1/10

 

4. White Collar, “The Portrait” (2009)

FBI Special Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and “reformed” art thief Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) investigate a stolen $2 million painting by a fictional artist, the Hungarian post-Impressionist Haustenberg, called Young Girl with Locket.

The victim of the theft, Julianna, had inherited the painting from her grandmother. But a curator from a European museum throws a wrench in the works when he claims the painting was stolen from its collection in 1967. Neal sleuths out both the painting and its rightful owner thanks to an incriminating inscription on its reverse. It turns out that Julianna’s grandmother was Haustenberg’s illegitimate daughter, and Neal forges a duplicate to return to the Channing Museum.

The episode loses points for Neal’s wasted effort, as he ruins the effect of the forgery with a cocky confessional inscription. The suspension of disbelief is further challenged by the fictitiousness of the painting, artist, and Channing Museum. It only gets worse when they attempt to hawk the painting at a real New York gallery (Lambert Gallery), and we realize this genius is trying to sell a hot painting at a gallery in the very city where it was stolen. Really?

Believability rank: 1/10

 

5. Monk, “Mr. Monk Paints His Masterpiece” (2008)

Monk (Tony Schaloub) takes up painting after his therapist insists he needs a hobby. He soon starts painting a banana, progressing onwards to a landscape painting class. After the class, a Russian art collector sees his landscape and tracks Monk down at his home. On the spot, the collector offers Monk $1,000 cash for two paintings, hailing them “outsider art.”

What is odd, though, is that the collector seems to have little regard for the paintings, stacking them on top of one another with little thought to the damage it could do. Thrilled by his success, Monk throws himself into his newfound role as an artist, donning a beret. Yet, the Russian collector is suspicious and the murder investigation soon turns to him. The show gets one point of believability for the carelessness with which collectors throw around the term “outsider art.” That’s accurate.

Believability rank: 2/10

 

6. Doctor Who, “Vincent and The Doctor” (2010)

The doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) go back in time to meet Vincent van Gogh (Tony Curran) after visiting the Musée d’Orsay and discovering an alien-like figure in the window of the painting The Church at Auvers. When they arrive in Provence, France, they learn the region is being plagued by a monster only Van Gogh can see.

After the three save Provence from the monster, the doctor brings them all back to the present to show Van Gogh an exhibition of his works at the Musée d’Orsay. Van Gogh is overcome with emotion when he hears a curator praise him as “the greatest painter of them all.”

It’s true that Van Gogh spent most of his life working in obscurity. But most of the paintings shown in this scene do not belong to the Musée d’Orsay, nor have they been on view there for an exhibition. The only works that are accurately placed in the museum are Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, The Church in Auvers, Dr. Paul Gachet, and The Siesta (After Millet).

Believability rank: 3/10

 

7. The Blacklist, “Greyson Blaise” (2017)

Billionaire collector Greyson Blaise (Owain Yeoman) becomes the latest target of the FBI when criminal informant Reddington (James Spader) finds himself in need of a new mark. The team attends an auction hosted by “Juric and Bauer” in Zagreb (which, although a very emerging art destination, is hardly a market hub).

After losing out on a $3 million 1943-D bronze penny (actually an incredibly rare coin, last sold at auction for $1.7 million in 2010), Reddington tries to tempt Blaise, the winning bidder, into a meeting to see Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, famously stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

As it turns out, the woman who bought the stolen work from Reddington has since sold it again, so the team has to enlist a master forger to make a passable copy. Red gives Blaise the forgery as a gift to celebrate their new partnership, only to call the “art crime inspector.” With Blaise under arrest, Reddington robs his headquarters, making off with the penny. Checkmate.

Believability rank: 3/10

 

8. Empire, “The Fool” (2017)

Never exactly subtle, Empire has entered into real soap-opera territory with season four, which sees Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) suffering from amnesia after getting his leg blown off in an explosion. He doesn’t remember his family, but his connection with his craft has been strengthened by the onset of synesthesia, as Lucious now sees color in music.

His smitten nurse Claudia (Demi Moore) encourages him to translate these visions into art, leading to a spontaneous finger painting session in the Empire boardroom. “Do you understand what’s happening?” Claudia asks, getting him a much-needed paintbrush. “Your synapses are reawakening because your connection between the music and the color.” Lucious’s “masterpiece” is immediately selected as the cover of the record label’s 20th-anniversary album, because that’s exactly how art departments work.

Believability rank: 4/10

 

9. Modern Family, “Other People’s Children” (2014)

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Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) take Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and Alex (Ariel Winter) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Cam has studied one exhibition in particular—”Expressionism in Germany and France: Van Gogh to Kandinsky”—so he can drop some knowledge on the group. But when they arrive at the museum, the show is already gone.

Instead, Mitch, Manny, and Alex show off their knowledge, discussing Matisse’s large ceramic La Gerbe (The Sheaf). Cam feels like he is the dumbest in the group, but he gets a small measure of redemption later when Alex spills mustard on her shirt and Cam points out that it looks like a Kandinsky.

To the show’s credit, the Matisse is indeed in LACMA’s collection, and, in 2014, the museum did have a show called “Expressionism in Germany and France: Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” But the episode gets docked points for the mustard stain; it far too minimal to be a Kandinsky.

Believability rank: 5/10

 

10. Riviera, “Elena” (2017)

Georgina (Julia Stiles) is a curator-turned-art-advisor for her client-turned-husband (Anthony LaPaglia). She finds herself caught up in the mystery of her husband’s past after he dies in a yacht explosion. In this episode, Georgina is at a benefit with the art-world elite, including her late husband’s ex-wife and their three children, when Interpol agents burst into the party, taking paintings straight off the wall. In real life, authorities would probably never do this at a party—though ancient sculptures at TEFAF and paintings at Art Basel Miami Beach are apparently fair game, so it’s not too far off.

Believability rank: 6/10

 

11. Arrested Development, “In God We Trust” (2003)

A still from the “Arrested Development” episode “In God We Trust.” Courtesy of FOX.

George Michael (Michael Cera) takes up his part in annual Bluth family tradition, taking over for Buster (Tony Hale) opposite his pop-pop George (Jeffrey Tambor) as God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the finale of the Orange County Living Classics pageant—a real event that recreates masterpieces from art history with actors.

Maeby (Alia Shawkat) spots George Michael trying on his muscle suit for the role and is impressed. To keep up the illusion of fitness, George Michael takes to wearing the costume under his clothes, leading his uncle Tobias (David Cross) to think they share the rare Never Nude disability.

The event is ruined when George Michael, embarrassed by the faux-nakedness, dons Tobias’s jean cutoffs over the costume. Though we appreciate the reference to a real-life art event, we’re dubious of Tobias’s claims that there are dozens of “never nudes.”

Believability rank: 6/10

 

12. 30 Rock, “Corporate Crush” (2007)

Liz and Jack at Christie's on <em>30 Rock</em>. Courtesy of NBC.

Liz and Jack at Christie’s on 30 Rock. Courtesy of NBC.

Feeling depressed because he has been stripped of his title as head of the Microwave Oven Division, Jack (Alec Baldwin) goes to Christie’s to cheer himself up. He runs into Phoebe (Emily Mortimer), an auction house specialist, who tells Jack that she previously “handled the sale of your ex-wife’s jewelry to an anonymous Arab.” (Phoebe, who claims to have Avian Bone Syndrome, is later revealed to be a gold-digging American posing as a Brit.) Jack is intrigued, and starts dating Phoebe. Eventually, he proposes to her with his ex’s diamond and ruby engagement ring (which he surreptitiously bought back from the “anonymous Arab”).

There are certainly art-world professionals with affected European accents, so the episode has that going for it. But a true Christie’s specialist would never reveal a buyer’s identity—or even nationality.

Believability rank: 6/10

 

13. House of Cards, “Chapter 32” (2015)

Tibetan monks take over a space in the White House to create an intricate mandala made out of the sand. Every time Frank (Kevin Spacey) or Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood pass by, they can’t help but watch the peaceful work in progress. These mandalas primarily represent healing and purification, which the Underwood White House desperately needs. As per tradition, once the mandala is finished and blessed, it is swept away and disposed of in water.

While there have been no instances of sand mandalas in the White House, the Dalai Lama visited the US in 2011, and he and his monks created a sand mandala at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. By House of Cards standards, that makes this plot line positively authentic.

Believability rank: 7/10

 

14. Family Guy, “The Tan Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2007)

After staying in a tanning bed too long, Stewie has a cancer scare, so he creates a bucket list of things he wants to do before he dies. First up is a visit to the “Chicago Museum of Art” (in reality, the Art Institute of Chicago)—and a parody of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Stewie is standing in front of Georges Seurat‘s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Each frame shows Stewie looking closer and closer at the painting, taking in the fine detail. The show could have gone with a caricature of the painting like they do to the others in the background, but instead, they highlight the pointillist technique on the weaved canvas. Impressive.

Believability rank: 8/10

 

15. Brooklyn 99, “Boyle’s Hunch” (2015)

Boyle and Jake go undercover at an art gallery on <em>Brooklyn 99</em>. Courtesy of FOX.

Boyle and Jake go undercover at an art gallery on Brooklyn 99. Photo courtesy of FOX.

The chemistry is instant when Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), a police officer, meets gallery owner Genevieve (Mary-Lynn Rajskub) at the courthouse. Unfortunately, she is there facing charges of insurance fraud, and she gets convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Totally convinced of her innocence, Boyle sets out to clear her name, diving head first into the art world. Undercover at a gallery opening, his partnet, Jake (Andy Samberg), poses as “Sherwin Lemonde—sculptor, painter, full-time barista. But once I sell my first piece, part-time barista.”

They suspect Genevieve was framed by her debt-ridden artist ex, Nick (James Urbaniak), who suspiciously has the funds to open his own gallery—in DUMBO, unrealistically. His art, featuring women in latex bodysuits, is about “the human chrysalis in society’s pupation.” The work, in fact, gives Nick an alibi—a month-long, thoroughly documented caged performance art piece, obviously—and the real culprit turns out to be his jealous assistant.

Believability rank: 8/10

 

16. Parks and Recreation, “The Camel”

In light of the ongoing debates over confederate memorials and murals with racist imagery across the country, this episode is markedly ahead of its time. The “Spirit of Pawnee,” one of the 1930s-era murals in Pioneer Hall, is the source of controversy here, thanks to its racist caricatures of Irish, Chinese, and Native American people. After the painting gets vandalized yet again, Leslie (Amy Poehler) encourages her parks employees to win the departmental competition to replace it.

Jerry (Jim O’Heir) comes up with a beautiful Pointillistic-looking image of a cathedral, made from tiny photos of citizens. No one can take it seriously, however, when he describes it as a “murinal.” Tom (Aziz Ansari) hires a Pawnee School of the Arts University student to make a piece, an abstract painting that he unexpectedly loves. “A piece of art caused me to have an emotional reaction! Is that normal?” he asks.

When the team can’t decide on a design, they create a terrible mashup of all of their ideas. Leslie hopes to win with a bland design of an old man feeding pigeons, but ultimately opts to present the group’s wacky idea. In the end, the original mural stays, renamed The Diversity Express.

Believability rank: 9/10

 

17. Sex and the City, “The Power of Female Sex” (1998)

Charlotte (Kristin Davis), a respected art dealer, is invited to the Connecticut home of famous painter “Neville Morgan.” She wants to secure Morgan’s new series for an exhibition at her gallery, but is stunned to find that he has invited her there to propose that she model for his new series, which features what the artist describes as the “closest [he’s] ever come to pure universal god-force”: the vagina. In a polite effort to say no, prim and proper Charlotte admits she’s “flattered,” but Morgan doesn’t take the hint.

By the end of the episode, the gang of four women has gathered at the opening reception for Morgan’s show, looking for Charlotte’s portrait. Although it’s hard to believe that such a blatant Georgia O’Keeffe rip-off would ever fly in a respected New York gallery, creepy powerful artists behaving badly are distinctly easier to imagine.

Believability rank: 9/10

 

18. The Crown, “Assassins” (2016)

On the left, Winston Churchill () paints the pond in his backyard, center, Graham Sutherland () sketches Churchill, right, the portrait of Churchill burns. Photos: Screenshot from "Assassins" courtesy of Netflix.

On the left, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) paints the pond in his backyard, center, Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane) sketches Churchill, right, the portrait of Churchill burns. Photos: Screenshot from “Assassins” courtesy of Netflix.

For the occasion of his 80th birthday, members of the House of Commons and House of Lords commission a portrait of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow). The artist chosen for the task is Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane). Throughout the episode, the two men discuss art; Churchill, having been a painter himself, has strong opinions.

Eventually, the painting is revealed, and Churchill remarks that it is “a remarkable example of modern art”—not intended as a compliment. Later, the painting is burned by Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife.

All of this is true, including Lady Churchill taking matters into her own hands and burning the painting. She and her husband both hated the unflattering likeness that Sutherland had created, so she enlisted her secretary and a landscape gardener to get rid of it.

Believability rank: 10/10

 

19. American Horror Story, “Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins: Scumbag” (2017)

In this episode of American Horror Story: Cult, viewers get a look inside Andy Warhol’s Factory. The artist (Evan Peters) is hard at work on one of his films before Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham) enters, demanding her script—titled “Up Your Ass”—back. Warhol admits that he lost it. Infuriated, Solanas leaves and hatches a plan to shoot Warhol because he “had too much control in [her] life.”

You have to give up to the set designers and writers of AHS—they certainly did their homework. The set looks like an exact replica of The Factory, right down to the aluminum-covered wooden posts in the original studio. And the dialogue is also true to the history books: On the day of the shooting, Valerie uncharacteristically wears makeup and Warhol compliments her appearance. Sometimes, reality really is more dramatic than fiction.

Believability rank: 10/10


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