Homer: Hey, when do we get the check for this? Marge: Well, they said they changed it just enough so they don't have to pay us.
—The Simpsons, "Bart The Murderer", watching "Blood On The Blackboard: The Bart Simpson Story" Docu-drama
It's that mostly familiar, spiffed up and neatly tied off version of the sensationally violent yet true story you didn't want to read in the papers anyway. Double points if the real crime sounds like something fictional. Sometimes a murder is added to the real story to make it work as an episode.
Often seen on Law & Order and its various spinoffs (in fact, their commercials provide the Trope Namer), though it is used in many Crime And Punishment shows.
Most often seen in political cartoons, where the entire purpose is to comment on current events.
The Evil Twin of this trope is Could This Happen to You?.
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Mainstream comic books don't do this too often (save for major events like World War II or 9/11) lest they date themselves, but in X-Men, one of the reasons Nightcrawler quit his divinity studies was the rash of child abuse cases surrounding the Catholic Church in the early 2000's. He wondered how God could allow such a thing.
John Byrne inverts this oddly, as he said a few times in interviews that sometimes what he writes about actually happens in real life. A big example is where Wonder Womandied (and was at this time referred to as Princess Diana in universe) in an issue released the same month the actual Princess Diana (of Wales) died.
Superhero comics got a nasty shock when 9/11 happened, as 9/11 actually sounds a lot like a comic book plot. DC and Marvel had a rather hard time figuring out how to address 9/11 properly in universes in which gods, aliens, giant robots, and supervillains with otherworldly powers and weapons of mass destruction terrorize American citizens, especially New Yorkers, with death and mayhem on a rather regular basis.
Marvel put out several specials, the proceeds of which went to 9/11-related charities, and this was lampshaded multiple times, ESPECIALLY with Spider-Man, and handled in a rather realistic (for the setting) fashion. When addressed directly, it was either a case of "so busy with giant gaudy supervillains, 13 separated plain-clothed men slipped by unnoticed", or they basically said "We'll figure out who to blame later and deal with the tragedy now!" or, in at least Spider-Man's case, he spent a long while with no answer to the question, no excuse, no reason at all.
Slightly more cynical readers might point out that the Twin Towers were destroyed multiple times in Marvel Comics, often by the same villains shown crying in the aforementioned Spider-Man issue.
Tintin did this constantly in the first periodic strips published in the 1930s, to the point that modern readers might fail to get what were at the time obvious references to world events. The situation changed after Those Wacky Nazis invaded Belgium and direct commentary on those world events became... unwise. Hergé spent the war writing more light-hearted stories with no political commentary, and after the war many of the 1930s strips were re-released in book form with the more swallow references (like to popular 1930s films and actors) deleted.
The early Tintin in America (1931-1932) has Tintin go to Chicago to bring down Al Capone, the only time he has a real person as an antagonist.
Cigars of the Pharaoh (1932-1934) is inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb and the post-World War One wars in the Middle East that shaped Saudi Arabia's borders as they are today. While adrift at the Red Sea, Tintin is saved by a then famous French mercenary/smuggler that operated in the area.
The Blue Lotus (1934-1935) has Tintin stumble on a Japanese plot to stage a False Flag Operation in Manchuria as a pretext to invade China. This is an obvious jab at the Mukden Incident.
The Broken Ear (1935-1937) is based on the Chaco War, and features an international arms dealer modeled on Basil Zaharoff.
King Ottokar's Sceptre (1938-1939) is inspired both by the German annexation of Austria and the Italian invasion of Albania.
Land of Black Gold (1939-1940) was originally set in the British Mandate of Palestine and dealt with Irgun insurgency. Publication was cancelled before the ending because of World War II and when it was due to be resumed in 1948 it was deemed obsolete. The story was edited heavily and released as set in a fictional Arab country torn by civil war.
Lampshaded in Zodiac (2007) with the obvious Aesop that Real Life crimes aren't always solved by shooting someone.
The Japanese Tear JerkerNobody Knows is about a much-publicized incident in which a single mother abandons her four children, forcing them to fend for themselves, and one of the child is killed by a sibling's friends. The film can be seen as a subversion of this trope, as the real-life incidence is more brutal than what is depicted on film.
The Zodiac Killer, an odd film that is half accurate and half sleazy, exploitative fiction, was released around the height of the real Zodiac's rampage, as was the sexploitation flick The Zodiac Rapist, starring John Holmes.
The Duke brothers' attempt to corner the frozen concentrate orange juice market in Trading Places was inspired by the "Silver Tuesday" crash of March 27, 1980, when the Hunt brothers of Texas attempted to corner the silver market, and ultimately failed to meet a $100 million margin call.
Bloody Wednesday, loosely based on the "McDonald's massacre" perpetrated by James Huberty, was made very shortly after the actual event.
All the school shooting films (like Zero Day) released in the wake of Columbine.
Psycho Cop Returns, released in 1993, ends with Officer Vickers being on the receiving end of a Rodney King-inspired beatdown, complete with videotaping bystander.
Never Say Die has its cult instigating a mass suicide just like People's Temple did in Jonestown, Guyana.
Robert Altman's Hollywood satire The Player has movie executive Larry Levy suggest that studios "eliminate writers from the artistic process" and instead take movie stories from newspaper stories.
"Cyberbully" is ABC Family's attempt to make a "realistic" drama about a real issue teens face. (in this case, cyberbullying).
The plot of The Godfather, Part III was based on the Banco Ambrosiano of the 1980s.
The plot of In And Out, where an award-winning actor thanks his old gay high school teacher, while being unaware he was still in the closet, thereby giving him tons of unwanted attention, was inspired by Tom Hanks' Oscar acceptance speech at the 1994 Academy Awards where he unwittingly did the same thing to his own old high school teacher.
In the 60-s, Yakov Kostyukovsky read in a newspaper that a few Swiss people tried to smuggle jewels in an orthopedic cast. He took that idea, and the result was The Diamond Arm, one of the best known Soviet comedies ever.
The plot of Ace In The Hole was inspired by two real-life events. Cave explorer W. Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave in 1925, and a three-year-old girl, Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned well in 1949. Just like in the film, the victims became media sensations and died before they were rescued.
Christie's The Mirror Crack'd borrows its pivotal backstory from the real life of actress Gene Tierney, to the extent that if you happen to be familiar with it, the crime is not terribly difficult to solve before Miss Marple solves it.
It's worth noting, however, that Christie always denied that she knew anything about the real-life incident when she wrote The Mirror Crack'd and that the similarities were completely coincidental (though if true, it was quite a coincidence).
Walter Gibson noted in an article in The Great Detectives (edited by Otto Penzler) that he based the Shadow's foe Double Z on the then contemporary terrorist Three X.
Joyce Carol Oates is very fond of fictionalizing real cases of murder and violent death, sometimes sticking very close to actual events but going inside the minds of the people involved, sometimes departing much farther. Some examples are My Sister My Love (Jon Benet Ramsey), Zombie (Jeffrey Dahmer), "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (Charles Schmid), "Dear Husband" (Andrea Yates), "Landfill" (John Fiocco), and Black Water (Mary Jo Kopechne).
All We Know of Heaven by Jacquelyn Mitchard is based on a real story about two girls who are in a car accident. One girl dies. Unfortunately, the hospital identified the wrong one as dead. In real life, the families were very nice about it and handled themselves well. The book adds more drama and a love story.
Two of the most memorable Sherlock Holmes villains, Charles Augustus Milverton and Professor James Moriarty, were based on real life criminals Charles Augustus Howell and Adam Worth respectively.
Many of the newspaper clippings mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft's masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu were literally ripped from the headlines of the days in question; for example, the earthquake, the architect's suicide, and the theosophist society's apocalyptic expectations were really reported in the New York Times on the stated dates.
Laura Lippman's What The Dead Know is partially based on the disappearance of the Lyon Sisters in 1975.
The Passage by Justin Cronin has this as the Gulf Oil Spill is mentioned to be still causing problems 100 years later.
Saving Zoe is about a girl named Zoë who was killed by a "photographer" she met on MySpace. Ripped from stories such as the "Facebook killer" or the "Craigslist Killer" and many others.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck exaggerates this trope.
Johnny And The Dead by Terry Pratchett is about Blackbury Council selling the cemetery to United Holdings (Holdings) Ltd. for 2p. This was based on Westminster Council selling three cemeteries to corporate buyers for 5p each.
Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels: The final book Home Free focuses on a character who is explicitly stated to be a clone of Bernie Madoff.
After by Amy Efaw is about a teenage girl named Devon who gets pregnant in high school. She then dumps the baby in a dumpster, but the baby is found and she is charged with attempted murder. The author states on her website that it is inspired by various news stories about babies left in dumpsters or trash cans, such as the story of Melissa Drexler or Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson.
The climax of The Fear Index features an extreme flux in the DOW Jones, which actually happened and is called a Flash Crash. One gets the impression that Harris found this interesting and worked backwards from that.
Season 1, episode 2: "Subterranian Homeboy Blues". Gender flips the Bernhard Goetz case, (the shooter in the show is a female), but makes few other changes to the real life case.
Season 1, episode 9: "Indifference" is so obviously inspired by the Lisa Steinberg case that it concludes with a long disclaimer both displayed and spoken about how the real case differed from the story just shown. It is easily the creepiest moment of the entire series considering they used the same title sequence narrator to tell the audience that the horrific case and the depraved criminals involved have some basis in real life.
Season 2, episode 1: "Confession" has some similarities to the case of Oreste Fulminante, whose confession to murder was found to be coerced.
Season 2, episode 2: "Wages of Love" shows similarities to the Betty Broderick case.
Season 2, episode 5: "God Bless This Child" may have been based on the Alex Dale Morris faith-healing case.
Season 2, episode 7: "In Memory Of." Based on the case of George Franklin.
Season 2, episode 8: "Out of Control". Based on a rape case at St. John's University.
Season 2, episode 9: "Renunciation" was based on the Pamela Smart case.
Season 2, episode 10: "Heaven" was heavily based on the Happy Land Fire. Both the fictional case and the real one it was based on involved a jealous boyfriend burning his ex-girlfriend's club, and the fictional episode added an organized crime conspiracy element to the story.
Season 2, episode 11: "His Hour on the Stage" was based on the Roy Radin murder.
Season 2, episode 15: "Severance" may have been based in part on the case of Donald Nash.
Season 2, episode 16: "Vengeance" was possibly based on the Boston Strangler.
Season 2, episode 19: "The Fertile Fields", which may have been inspired in part by the Crown Heights riots.
Season 2, episode 20: "Intolerance" was based on Wanda Holloway, who hired a hitman to kill her daughter's rival in a school competition.
Season 3, episode 2: "Conspiracy". Based on the assassinations of several civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X.
Season 3, episode 3: "Forgiveness", which was based on Bonnie Garland's murder.
Season 3, episode 12: "Extended Family", based on what happened to Faye Yager.
Season 3, episode 15: "Night and Fog", about the Nazi John Denjamjuk (called 'Ivan the Terrible').
Season 3, episode 17: "Conduct Unbecoming", which referenced the Tailhook scandal.
Season 4, episode 1: "Sweeps". Based on an episode of Geraldo that erupted into a brawl.
Season 4, episode 5: "Black Tie." Based on the Sunny Von Bulow case.
Season 4, episode 7: "Apocrypha". Based on the Charles Manson cult.
Season 4, episode 8: "American Dream". Based on the Billionaire Boys Club scandal.
Season 4, episode 14: "Censure" was based on the case of Judge Solomon Wachtler.
Season 4, episode 17: "Mayhem" was inspired in part by Lorena Bobbitt's mutilation of her husband.
Season 4, episode 18: "Wager" was based on James Jordan's gambling problems (James Jordan was Michael Jordan's father).
Season 4, episode 19: "Sanctuary" was based on the Crown Heights riots.
Season 4, episode 21: "Doubles". Based on the attacks on sports stars Nancy Kerrigan and Monica Seles.
Season 5, episode 1: "Second Opinion." Opens with an incident based on Gloria Ramirez before diving into the peddling of phony cancer medication such as Laetril.
Season 6, episode 13: "Charm City" (also a Homicide crossover). Based on the Aum Shinrikyo subway attack.
Season 7, episode 13: Matrimony, which featured yet another blond bombshell being investigated for the murder of her octogenarian millionaire husband.
Season 7, episodes 15-17: "D-Girl", "Turnaround", and "Showtime" — based on the infamous OJ Simpson trial, which was such a circus that naturally it needed to be a three-part epic. Notably, the OJ stand-in and his dead wife were white, eliminating the racial angle. Every other beat of the real trial was mirrored... until the jury found the guy guilty, that is.
Season 8, episode 1: "Thrill" — an episode where two teenagers order take out, just so they can get the thrill of killing the delivery guys — was based on a real event, just replace the fried chicken with pizza.
Season 8, Episode 2: "Denial"- about a college age couple that denies killing their newborn baby. Based on the Melissa Drexler and Amy Grossberg cases, in which young parents dump their babies in dumpsters.
Season 8, episode 15: "Faccia a Faccia" - about a murdered former hitman who'd turned states evidence and published a book about his life in the mob. Heavily inspired by Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.
Season 13, episode 3: "True Crime" combined Courtney Love's coked-up exploits, Kurt Cobain's murder suicide, and the Dave Mustaine/Metallica split (With a layer of The Beatles/Yoko Ono thrown in for good measure).
Season 13, episode 24: "Smoke" took the infamous 2002 "Michael Jackson dangles his baby out of a hotel window" incident to its (il)logical extreme; a famous eccentric celebrity dangles his young son out a window... AND DROPS HIM! Cue Sting. From there, the story reaches further back to the 1993 child molestation allegations brought against Jackson by Jordan Chandler and the out-of-court settlement he reached with the boy and his family.
Season 14, episode 21: "Vendetta" was based on Steve Bartman, who caught a ball at a baseball game that an outfielder could have caught and thus supposedly cost the Chicago Cubs their trip to the World Series.
Season 15, episode 11: "Fixed" was based on Joel Steinberg's release from prison and thus serves as a sequel to "Indifference".
Season 15, episode 16: "The Sixth Man" was based on the infamous Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl that started when Ron Artest entered the stands. In this ep, the Artest stand-in is accused of the murder of the guy he went into the stands to fight, after said fan sued him.
Season 15, episode 24: "Locomotion" was based on the Glendale train crash caused by a man attempting suicide by parking his car on the tracks
Season 16, episode 4: "Age of Innocence" was clearly based on the Terry Schiavo case. Guess which side got to be the murderers? If you guessed those wacky, fanatical Christians - you're right.
Season 16, episode 20: "Kingmaker" involved a variation of the Valerie Plame outing, although with the politics reversed: the target of the outing of his daughter as a covert undercover agent was a Republican politician, and the political operative responsible for the outing was a ruthless, vicious, scary Democrat.
Season 17, episode 7: "In Vino Veritas," which, like the Michael Jackson example above, was about taking a celebrity scandal and cranking it up to 11, with Mel Gibson's DUI arrest and following anti-Semitic rant (reenacted by Chevy Chase, of all people) giving way to a murder confession.
Season 17, episode 11: "Remains of the Day", about the death of Anna Nicole Smith's son.
Season 17, episode 22: "The Family Hour", about Judge Larry Seldin's antics at Anna Nicole Smith's custody trial. It also became meta and referenced the Andrea Yates trial. A forensic psychology testified that Yates' testimony was cribbed from a Law and Order episode; there was no such episode. In "The Family Hour," Rodgers makes a similar mistake on the stand.
Season 18, episode 4: "Bottomless" used this trope three times (Wal-Mart ethics enforcement, Chinese quality control scandals, and Roy Pearson's multi-million dollar lawsuit over being given the wrong pair of pants by his dry cleaners) into one vaguely-coherent 44-minute episode.
Season 18, episode 15: "Bogeyman" referenced the Scientology paranoia fueledsuicides of a prominent New York artist couple (you've seen the husband's artwork if you saw the trailer for Adam Sandler's Punch Drunk Love or Beck's Sea Change album). Notable in the fact that it vaguely alluded that Assist. DA Cutter might be an expy-Scientologist too; sadly, the expy-Scilons have yet to return. note The Scientologists' harassment tactic isn't meant to drive their victim(s) to suicide, just away from investigating Scientology. Going crazy and being committed (the ultimate hell for the psychiatry-loathing Scientologists) or broke from filing libel suits is just a bonus.
Season 20, episode 4: "Reality Bites" combines conspicuous references to the Octomom, Kate and Jon Gosselin, and the Dugger family in a mess of reality-TV motivated familial drama.
Season 20, episode 5: "Dignity" was based an episode on the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller.
Season 20, episode 6: "Human Flesh Search Engine" managed the bizarre feat of being based both on the death of David Carradine and 4Chan.
Season 20, episode 11: "FED". A somewhat bizarre application of this trope; this episode combined the murder of a census worker who had the word 'FED' scrawled on his body with the ACORN videos showing ACORN members advising people how to commit voter fraud. The census worker death turned out to be a suicide in real life.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit pulled a trifecta when they combined Rhianna's physical abuse, "sexting" (teens sending nude pics over their cellphones), and a scandal about two judges who'd send kids with very minor offenses to private juvenile facilities for cash (basically Holes if Stanley's judge was getting paid for each kid he sent to Camp Green Lake) Sunlight Home from Stephen King's The Talisman.
Another trifecta: "Babes", an episode in the 10th season of SVU, had a group of high school students making a pregnancy pact in order to emulate a movie they had seen, a mother apparently bullying her daughter's classmate into committing suicide via an online networking site AND a group of kids filming homeless people being beaten and then uploading the footage onto the internet, all of which closely resemble real-life news stories.
ANOTHER trifecta: "Blood Brothers", from season 13 of SVU, managed to combine the Arnold Schwarzenegger love child scandal (though in the episode, it was just a politician, not an actor as well, but it kept most of the details, including his wife and his housekeeper both giving birth to his sons in the same month), unfair placement on the sex offender registry (in this case, two teenagers having sex and the slightly older boy is put on the registry), and the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton, of all things. If you include teen pregnancy, given the popularity of shows like 16 & Pregnant, this episode might count as a quadruple use of this trope.
Similarly, another episode of L&O: SVU dealt with a famous person advocating against psychiatric drugs, and the disastrous effects when someone with a mental disorder listens to him (this character wasn't a Happyologist, it was just his personal opinion).
SVU episode "Torch" covers the case of Texas man Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed early in the century, though evidence supports his potential innocence, for burning his house down with his daughters in it. Both cases featured issues raised with investigating arson, a smug, WRONG arson investigator, a former nuclear weapons expert turned arson investigator, the concept of flashover, and an unlikeable prosecutor. The SVU version notably features the innocent man being acquitted before he died, the prosecutor correctly pursuing justice, no interference from Texas governor Rick Perry, and no New Yorker coverage. This case is currently major in the debate about the death penalty, as it was the first known incident of an innocent Texan being executed.
The episode 'As Nature Made Him' in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit used the story of the twin boy forced to live as a girl after a botched circumcision. In the episode the non-altered twin was charged with a crime based on the evidence that indicated there had been a young boy at the scene. Altered-twin eventually fessed up after being hit with the news that 'she' used to be male.
The episode title is also the title of the book written about the real-life case
The season 14 episode, "25 Acts", is inspired by the Fifty Shades Of Grey media craze. In it, the author gets brutally raped by a TV host who interviewed her.
The Season 5 episode "Lowdown" discusses the phenomenon of "being on the down low" in the African-American community, in which supposedly masculine black men secretly have sex with other men but claim that they're still straight. In the episode, a Bronx D.A. (who is Benson's ex-boyfriend) is found dead in his car, and clues lead to his male coworker, who he was in a secret sexual relationship with. Fin actually details what the term "down-low" means to the rest of the squad. It also addresses the theory that black men on the down low is the reason for the high rate of HIV in black women, by having said coworker also give his wife HIV.
The season 14 episode "Vanity's Bonfire" is based on the John Edwards sex scandal, in which 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards cheated on his cancer-stricken wife and got his mistress pregnant, then convinced one of his aides to claim the baby as his.
The season 14 episode "Lessons Learned" is based on the Penn State University sex scandal, in which former coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molesting several boys and the school was criticized for covering it up.
The season 14 episode "Funny Valentine" is based on the Chris Brown and Rihanna domestic violence incident,and even had lookalike actors playing the singers.
In late 2006, Law & Order: Criminal Intent fictionalized the already-fictional character of the YouTube "celebrity" lonelygirl15 as "WeepingWillow17" and made her the victim of a kidnapping, and by the end it's as hard for the detectives to tell what's real and what isn't as it is for the viewers.
Yet another Criminal Intent episode dramatized the John Mark Karr confession to the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, for the first half hour at least. And come on, you knew the creepy neighbor had to have something to do with it. Bonus: The character of Faith Yancy makes another appearance.
"Bombshell" was about Anna Nicole Smith's death. Her character was named Lorelei, after Marilyn Monroe's famous part.
An episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent had a very Affably Evil Madoff expy, who confessed to his incredible scheme to get protection from the Colombian(?) gangsters he swindled.
The original did this too ("Anchors Away", season 19)
The first episode of the final season featured Jay Mohr as a Charlie Sheen stand-in (who was a fashion mogul instead of an actor because they knew they had to change something to avoid getting sued). He turned out to be only tangentially related to the murder plot even though the advertisements focused entirely on his character.
The Season 3 episode "The Saint" (yes, the one withStephen Colbert) was based on the Mark Hofmann case, centering on a forger who targets a religion institution and uses a bomb to get rid of the person that could help to unravel his scheme.
Basically Law & Order: Criminal Intent does a lot of these. The show is about high-profile crimes, after all.
Law & Order: UK's third season opened with an episode with a plot reminiscent of the murder of James Bulger, which had been rendered topical again by one of the murderers being arrested for child pornography offenses in early 2010, when the episode would've been written and filmed.
Law & Order: LA, in its 8-episode trial run, managed to rip from the headlines in at least 6 of them, including the Manson family, Tiger Woods' marital issues, John Edwards' out-of-wedlock baby, etc.
"Silver Lake" was basically a straight dramatization about the detainment and prosecution of an extremely disturbed Air Force officer.
One Criminal Intent episode had an upcoming Broadway musical based on the legend of Icarus plagued by injuries on the set, culminating in the death of its lead actor when his rigging snapped and he fell during a stunt. This was based on the many problems surrounding the infamous Spider-Man musical. Goren even compares the two shows at one point.
Abed on Community also points out Law & Order has an ongoing arc about a lawyer with a fake degree—total ripoff of Jeff.
GEM's advertisements for Law & Order reruns mention this trope almost by name, billing it as having "cases torn straight from the headlines" as a selling point.
All of this makes watching True Crime shows like American Justice or Cold Case Files an interesting experience, especially when you recognize a case you didn't know had been Ripped from the Headlines.
"The Boy In The Box" is based on the actual Philadelphia unsolved case.
"Thrill Kill" is based on the case of the Memphis Three.
Other episodes based on real crimes are "Blackout", "Jurisprudence", based on a scandal about two judges who'd send kids with very minor offenses to private juvenile facilities for cash and "Strange Fruit".
The Boston Reaper seems to be based on The Zodiac Killer.
"Demonology" is about a priest performing lethal exorcisms; in 2005, a nun in Portugal died in the same situation.
The first episode of the final season of Strong Medicine had a storyline that referenced the 2005 Glendale train derailment (where a guy left a truck on the track). They made the suspect in the episode female...and bipolar.
Just about every Police Procedural show (Bones, NUMB3RS and Without A Trace ... remarkably I can't recall any of the Law & Orders participating) got to show off their China Towns for an episode based on the ancient Chinese custom of "ghost brides": the family of a young man who died before getting married arranges for a deceased girl to marry him in the afterlife; the episode typically dealt with someone who forgot the "deceased" part when selecting a bride.
JAG: Female combat pilots in the Navy? The War On Terror? Issues with various aircraft? Homeless veterans? Racial bigotry? Gays in the service? You pick 'em, this show has 'em in spades.
L.A. Law once had an episode based on the case of Angela Carder, a pregnant woman terminally ill with cancer forced to undergo premature cesarean section by court order. In Real Life, both died. On TV, the baby survived.
This was common for whatever the 'light' sub-plot was for L.A. Law. Lawsuits and criminal charges based around toad-lickers and bull semen were often fictionalized news bites.
The first three seasons of the Canadian crime series DaVinci's Inquest dealt with the main characters attempting to find out who was behind the disappearances of prostitutes in and around the Vancouver area. The show was inspired by the real-life kidnappings of prostitutes by B.C. pig farmer Robert Pickton (he hadn't been caught at the time the show began), and numerous episodes contained characters speaking at length on the failure of the Vancouver police department to find the killer. When Pickton was caught, the creators dropped the plot line altogether.
One episode of Grounded for Life was promo-ed as "ripped from the headlines", when a character's interference causes the Yankees to lose a game. Except that the real game was between the Marlins and Cubs, and the episode was a rerun.
One episode of Bones takes the pregnancy pact reportedly taken by a group of Mass. girls and incorporates it into the storyline.
Bones herself thought it was a good idea for the girls to band together; meanwhile in Real Life the "pact" turned out to be a huge coincidence fanned by rumors and probably more then a little snarking.
One episode of Lie to Me was based on the Bernie Madoff blowup and the pilot had a similar plot line to the Elliot Spitzer scandal.
Secret Santa lampshades this by referring to the even that inspired the episode.
The Leverage team also took down a Madoff expy and Hank-Med was hired to treat another one.
NUMB3RS does this - many episodes (including the pilot) are based on real-life cases, but not recent ones. For instance, the Season Five finale had a cult figure based off of Charles Manson, played byGaius Baltar.
House did an episode based upon the case of Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn. Two young women similar in appearance and build were misidentified after sustaining horrific injuries in an accident. In the House episode, as in real life, one of the women did not survive and the other woman's care was supervised by the deceased woman's family.
So did CSI:NY, with the twist (of course) being the "dead" girl's mother accidentally killed her own daughter, who she (and everyone else) thought was the party-girl "survivor".
Ghost Whisperer and Law & Order: Criminal Intent did episodes based on the Tri-State Crematory scandal, where corpses were never cremated and "piled like cord wood" in the undergrowth. Ghost Whisperers caretaker was just old and senile while CIs caretaker was both bad at business and using the undergrowth to hide bodies for his assassin brother. Said brother was also trying to give him business advice, to no avail.
Both CSI: Miami and Law & Order have plots based on a census taker who found in the woods, strung up with the word "FED" pinned to his shirt. While both stories will undoubtedly be murders, Real Life revealed it was actually a staged suicide — he was attempting to pin his death on local rednecks so his family would get the insurance money.
CSI: Miami went for quadruple plot points by adding slave labor, a repossessed house, and a meth lab.
And now there's a TV movie called Pregnancy Pact, "based on a true story" according to the ads. Just like with the example mentioned for Bones above, the true story is that there was no pact and the story was nothing but rumor and bad journalism. It could still be called "true" if it was a movie all about half-assed sensationalist reporting, but so far that's not how the ads are making it look.
Happened accidentally on The Unit, in an episode where the members of the unit infiltrate Syria to rescue Jonas' daughter, despite being strictly told not to do so because it constitutes as an act of war against a sovereign nation. Just two weeks before the episode was aired, there were actual news reports of an American attack in Syria, involving an infiltration team and helicopters. While the episode itself was (probably) written and filmed long before these events, the fact that it aired two weeks after it actually happened make this a curious case of accidental Ripped from the Headlines. (In point of fact, such a coincidence would usually lead to such an episode being pulled by the network and rescheduled for later, on account of it being Too Soon.)
The Castle episode "The Late Shaft" pretty much based its entire story around the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien debacle over at NBC, with a dash of David Letterman's affair/blackmail story thrown in for good measure. Nathan Fillion was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live that night...
The episode "47 Seconds" also dealed with bombings at an expy of the Occupy movement.
Every season of Damages features this: Seasons 1 and 2 were based on Enron's shenanigans (with Frobisher representing Enron's accounting irregularities and UNR's scheme representing Enron's manipulation of the energy market), Season 4 deals with an Expy of Blackwater and Season 5 is based on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Dragnet was based on actual events and was made with as much realism as possible.
A variation occurred on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the middle of a space battle between the Defiant and some Klingon warships, a civilian transport decloaked and was promptly blown away by Worf, thinking it was an attacker. The episode, "Rules of Engagement", focused on Worf being on trial over the incident. A similar incident, involving a US AEGIS cruiser and an Iranian civilian airliner flying through the middle of a battle and getting shot down took place, and the captain ended up on trial for it... back in 1988, almost a decade before this episode aired.
The Lifetime Movie of the Week has this more and more frequently, with movies about whatever missing or dead white woman is in the news this week (the movie about Natalee Holloway, the movie about Amanda Knox, the movie about the Craigslist killer, etc.) Also often adapts true stories about mothers trying to get justice for their sick/mentally ill/LGBT child.
One of the criticisms of Boston Public was how every school-related controversy during the late 90's/early 2000's seemed to happen at that one high school.
Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital not only incorporated King's own roadside near-demise, but also did an episode based on the series-losing error by, and subsequent pariah status of, Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
The CBS show Unforgettable, about a detective that can remember everything that ever happened to her, has this in the episode "Check Out Time". The episode was about a Dominican hotel maid who was accused of murdering someone, but claimed he was attempting to rape her. The plot revolves around the detectives solving the questionable story. The story was pretty obviously based on the recent case involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged rape of an African hotel maid with a questionable story.
Crownies has a few examples, with one case being based quite clearly on the murder of Carl Williams.
The Secret Life of the American Teenager was made when the "teen pregnancy epidemic" scare was at its height. Pretty much the whole series was/is marketed on how it "realistically" portrays the lives of teen mothers.
The West Wing did this at least once, with the Lowell Lydell arc in the first based on the death of Matthew Shepard.
The Beatles had two in the same album: Paul wrote "She's Leaving Home" after reading about a girl who hit the road, and John wrote "A Day in the Life" based on two news (the car accident and the holes found in a road; The Film of the Book in another stanza is probably How I Won The War, in which he worked).
This was common during the Protest Song movement of the early 1960's. Singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs would write songs, often using old folk melodies, about current events. Three of the best examples of this are Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll," about the real life killing of a poor black maid by a bored aristocrat. "Hurricane", about Hurricane Carter a black boxer jailed instead of the two whites who started a shooting at a bar. And "Who Killed Davy Moore" about the boxer who died in the ring. Ochs (who studied journalism) called himself a "singing journalist" and titled his first album "All the News That's Fit to Sing".
Dylan and Ochs both followed the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, who wrote songs like this; "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" are probably the most famous.
His son Arlo Guthrie belongs here as well, the littering incident from "Alice's Restaurant" made the local newspaper before he wrote the song.
The idea for Stone Temple Pilots' song "Plush" is, according to singer Scott Weiland, partially taken from an article he read in the paper one day about a woman's murder.
Similarly, Nirvana's "Polly" was based on the kidnapping of a girl who eventually escaped from her abductor.
"18 and life" by Skid Row was written when guitarist Dave Sabo read a newspaper article about the event.
Superchick's "Hero" seems in response to claims of bullying in schools and/or teen suicides.
The album "The Crusade" by heavy metal band Trivium had four examples of this; "Entrance of the Conflagration" (about the murder of four children by their mother Andrea Yates), "Unrepentant" (about Nazir Ahmad's murder of his four daughters), "Contempt Breeds Contamination" (about the racially-influenced killing of a Guinean immigrant by four cops in New York), and "And Sadness Will Sear" (about the hate-driven torture and murder of Matthew Shepard).
The murder of Matthew Shepard also inspired Melissa Etheridge's song "Scarecrow."
Depeche Mode did a song in 1986 called "New Dress", where nearly every line was taken from an actual headline.
Blasphemous Rumours is a song that's actually about the lead singer's sister.
The song Maria Navarro by Was/Not Was. Maria Navarro called 911 because her estranged husband had threatened to kill her. Dispatchers ignored the call and Maria died.
The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Headline News", a parody of Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm mmm mmm mmm", contained verses relating to an American being caned in Singapore, the Nancy Kerrigan incident, and John Wayne Bobbitt.
The 1993 Duran Duran album track "Sin of the City" (from The Wedding Album) was basically a recount of the 1990 fire at the Happy Land, a nightclub in The Bronx, that killed 87 people (though the lyrics state, "89 dead").
Another song inspired by the Happy Land fire was "Happy Land" by seminal New Wave/punk rock musician Joe Jackson.
Savatage based a Rock Opera, The Wake Of Magellan, on such events. One being the murder of reporter Veronica Guerin by drug lords. The second being the Maersk Dubai incident, were the captain of a freighter ordered discovered stowaways to be thrown overboard.
Brenda Ann Spencer's 1979 shooting rampage that killed two people and injured nine others was the inspiration for The Boomtown Rats' song ''I Don't Like Mondays." The title of the song was what she stated was her reason for doing it.
Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots)", from the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers.
Springsteen's "Nebraska" is about the Charlie Starkweather murder spree.
The verse in Rush's song "Nobody's Hero" from their "Counterparts" album starts "I didn't know the girl, but I knew her family, all their lives were shattered in a nightmare of brutality" refers to the family of one of the girls murdered by Karla Hmolka and Paul Bernardo. The line "Hero - Lands a crippled airplane..." refers to the pilot who landed the United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa using only the engines to control it after the flight controls failed, saving 185 of the 296 people on board.
Also, the song "Heresy" from the album "Roll the Bones" was written about Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The song "The Way" by Fastball is based on a news story about an elderly couple who disappeared on their way to a local event and were later found dead, hundreds of miles from their destination. The lyrics take some liberties with their stories, speculating upon how and why they left their path.
Mary Worth of all things had a story arc where Wilbur and Dawn go on a cruise in Italy that ends up mimicking the Costa Concordia disaster, six months after the events in question.
Peanuts had a few story arcs inspired by real-world events, like the passing of Comet Kohoutek (where Snoopy expresses worry about it harboring The End of the World as We Know It), or Hank Aaron's attempts to beat Babe Ruth's record for career home runs (with Snoopy in the running as well).
The radio show "Dragnet" claimed: "All you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent" at the start of every show.
Also Jack Webb took great pains to be realistic, down to counting the number of footsteps to go from one place to another in the LAPD police station. The shows WERE based on actual events.
John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer — which, with his Nixon In China, are nicknamed "CNN Operas".
The opera Der Lindberghflug (The Lindbergh Flight) by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith.
Before Maurine Watkins wrote a little play called Chicago, she worked for a while reporting for the Chicago Tribune, which assigned her to cover a few murder trials. Roxie Hart was an only barely fictionalized version of Beulah Annan, described in Watkins' reporting as "the prettiest murderess in Cook County." Velma Kelly had a real-life counterpart as well. So, for that matter, did the Hungarian immigrant who speaks little English; her counterpart was an Italian immigrant named Sabella Nitti, who spoke no English, worked for Velma's counterpart, Belva Gaertner, was convicted of beating her farmer husband to death with a hammer and chopping him into pieces, and was hanged.
From MacBeth: The Tiger, wracked at sea "Sennights nine times nine", was based off the then-recent story of a ship called the Tiger's Whelp. This ship had disappeared at sea and been presumed lost in 1604, but returned to port five hundred sixty-seven days later.
Civilization V: Gods and Kings, released in 2012, added the Maya civilisation into the game, and included several references to the various "2012 Mayan apocalypse" conspiracies.
The Emergency series has a few of these. In the first game, the aerobatic plane crashing into a diner was allegedly based on the Ramstein Air Show disaster. Emergency 2 includes a collision involving a nuclear submarine.
One write-up in AH World Cup is about the controversy of the tournament ball and how some players have difficulty playing with it. A similar controversy to the Jabulani ball controversy in the 2010 World Cup.
In TGWTG'sTo Boldly Flee takes a lot of jabs at SOPA and other anti-web freedom acts that have been circulating as of recent. One of the minor villains wrote the fake act and the head of the MPAA is one of the major villains of the story.
Word of God says that they had planned to have Obama win anyways. They thought it would have been funny if McCain had won. They referred to it as a potential "Dewey Defeats Truman" situation.
And they did the same thing with the aptly named title "Obama Wins" which had the episode title announced the day before the election and aired the day after. Thankfully they managed to evade the Dewey/Truman situation twice now.
Homer Simpson's mother in The Simpsons was based on a member of the far left group The Weather Underground.
The first round of Eight Out Of Ten Cats is a poll of the news stories that the public have been talking about over the last week- as this tends to be more populist than the more politics-orientated Have I Got News for You, if the week sees something that might be in bad taste to joke about (such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010), then the episode is replaced with a themed special (in that particular case, movies).
An odd, real-life subversion / inversion of the trope: While it is believed by some that the 1970 film Joe was based on the Honor Related Abuse killing by Arville Garland of his 17-year-old daughter Sandy, her boyfriend and two of their friends, it was actually an instance of a horrible real-life Coincidence Magnet. The Garland murders occurred while the film was in post-production. The film, which was the film debut of both Susan Sarandon and Peter Boyle, became a low-budget box office smash because of the Garland murders.