HOMELAND: Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: People skills. "Intelligence-gathering is human beings getting information from other human beings," says J.C. Carleson, a former officer with the CIA's Clandestine Service and author of the recently published Work Like a Spy (Penguin). "It's not about gadgets. It's labor-intensive and psychologically demanding."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: The superhero agent. "Carrie's job is a combination of about four different jobs at the CIA. But Carrie does it all, and that doesn't happen." Another implausibility: the dynamic between Carrie and her supervisor Saul (Mandy Patinkin). "There's no way someone that senior would be as involved in her work."
PARKS AND RECREATION: Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: Public service. "She really cares about green spaces, parks, and making sure kids have playgrounds," says Susan Beaurain, division manager for Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation in Carmel, Indiana. "You couldn't do this job if you didn't."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: Fiscal ignorance. "Leslie's always incredibly naive about who will fund her pet projects. In real life, you need to have an idea of the funding source before you come up with the idea."
THE MINDY PROJECT: Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: The frenetic pace. "Medicine is one of those careers where you blink and five years have passed," says Jhansi Reddy, an OB/GYN at the Downtown Women practice in New York City, who, like her fictional counterpart, is in her early 30s, single, and Indian. "Mindy is constantly comparing herself to her best friend, who is married with kids, and that's also realistic." The show is spot-on with smaller details, too. "One of her partners was on a bad date and made his pager go off to get out of it. I've done that."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: Flex time. "Mindy seems to be able to drop things easily and head to lunch with her girlfriends," says Reddy. "Those things take me weeks to schedule. Also, for an obstetrician, she isn't in the hospital that much."
THE GOOD WIFE: Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: The scut work. When Alicia first starts at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner, "she sat in an office filled with document boxes," notes Jennifer Quinn-Barabanov, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, based in Washington, D.C. "This felt very true to a junior associate."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: Swift justice. "It's a skewed perspective on how long things take to get re-solved," says Quinn-Barabanov, who points out that though the show is heavy on courtroom drama, most real-world cases never actually go to trial.
2 BROKE GIRLS: Max Black (Kat Dennings)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: Startup costs. Each episode ends with a tally of how much Max and her partner have saved toward the $250,000 they need to open their dream bakery. "For a small shop, that's doable," says Ellen Baumwoll, co-owner of Betty Bakery in Brooklyn, New York.
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: Partners as roommates. "When we started out, I was seeing my partner 15 hours a day. There's no way our friendship, much less our business, would have survived us living together," says Baumwoll.
THE NEWSROOM: Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: The setting. "It looks and feels like a newsroom," says Betsy West, executive producer of PBS' Makers and the former EP at ABC News. West also gives Mortimer high marks for portraying the "unrelenting, all-consuming pace of running a newsroom."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: The TMI. "Blabbering on about her personal life in front of her entire staff is something an executive producer would never do," says West.
SCANDAL: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: Strategy. Judy Smith, the real-life political fixer on whom Scandal is based, says the show "captures the art of dealing with crisis." (Smith, who counts Monica Lewinsky and NFL quarterback Michael Vick as former clients, is now an executive producer of the series.) Like Olivia Pope and her team, Smith and her associates "look at each crisis individually, develop a plan that is right for the client, then execute against that strategy."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: The at-all-costs mentality. "The show takes the high-stakes world of crisis communications and dramatizes it," says Smith. For example, she'd never engage in evidence tampering—to say nothing of a presidential love affair. "I would like to keep my law license," she quips.
SMASH: Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: Performance anxiety. "There is a ton of stress on the understudy because you rightly fear that you'll be thrown on at the last moment and be unprepared," says Broadway veteran Sharon Wheatley, who has performed in Avenue Q, Les Misérables, and The Phantom of the Opera. "Karen captures this well, even when she has to cope with the fact that there are no costumes for her when she takes over for the lead. Recently, a Broadway understudy went on in the lead role and had to wear his own tuxedo because they didn't have costumes for him."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: The ingenue routine. "There is a naïveté to Karen that doesn't ring quite right," says Wheatley. "How in the world do you land a gigantic audition in front of every important theater person in New York if you don't even have an agent or any theater savvy? She's just too green."
THE BIG BANG THEORY: Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik)
WHAT THE SHOW NAILS: The character. "Mayim [who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience] was extremely well-cast," says Lisa Randall, physics professor at Harvard University and the author of Knocking on Heaven's Door (Ecco). Randall, who has friends who work on the show, says she long advocated adding a female scientist to the mix who would be "every bit as geeky as the guys."
WHAT'S PURE FICTION: Very little. Nerdy scientists who live and work together? A brainiac who seduces her guy with the Super Mario Bros. theme song in lieu of romantic music? "Sometimes stereotypes have roots in truth," says Randall. And because real physicists consult on the show, even "the physics is reliable."