Lawyers and doctors have TV shows, so where are the civil engineers?

In this era of peak TV, where are the civil engineers?

Daniel Bressler wants to know.

A junior engineer for York Tower Consulting in Newark, New Jersey, Bressler doesn’t get to contribute to the conversation when his wife starts talking about TV shows.

“She’s a nurse,” Bressler said. “So she’s always talking about, ‘This nursing show has the most realistic dynamic,’ or ‘This one really shows what it’s like to be a nurse.’

“And I thought, ‘You know, you never really see a civil engineer with real-world scenarios on these TV shows.’”

Bressler took this observation to ASCE Collaborate for a discussion about portrayals of civil engineering on television and in film – “Lawyers have Suits,” he wrote. “Medical professionals have Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy.”

So why isn’t civil engineering binge-worthy?

Bressler has a theory.

“Our job as civil engineers is to make sure nothing exciting happens!” Bressler said. “The job is prevention.

“If maybe a TV show could somehow figure out a way to show the stakes of civil engineering. We are saving lives every day by making sure buildings and bridges don’t fall. So if somehow they could bring that to the big screen, that would be great.”

In the meantime, ASCE members did find some good examples of civil engineering portrayed on television and in film to share in ASCE Collaborate. Here are some highlights (and make sure to log in and contribute your own examples to the conversation:

Dustin Leduc, A.M.ASCE

Field engineer, Sambatek, Shakopee, Minnesota

It’s not really an engineering show, but MacGyver was great. Not the new one but the classic one – with Richard Dean Anderson. I’m an engineer and even own a Jeep Wrangler YJ today because I grew up watching MacGyver.

Alice Roache A.M.ASCE

Engineer, OHM Advisors, Hancock, Michigan

John Oliver has given the best civil engineering portrayal that I’ve seen in the media. A bit colorful at times for the innocent, but ASCE gets a shout out, so it’s worth the watch. 

Infrastructure: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

It originally aired in 2015, and unfortunately, most of the points he makes are still relevant. The last four minutes of the episode are priceless.

Hope you enjoy!

Greg Thein, P.E., M.ASCE

Senior associate, structural project engineer, AECOM, Cleveland, Ohio

I seem to recall that Campbell Scott’s character, Steve Dunne, in the 1992 romantic comedy Singles was a civil engineer (I’m pretty sure he actually said that’s what he was, and I just about fell out of my seat at the time). He was working on/proposing a high-speed rail project for the city.

Other than Prison Break, that’s the only civil engineer reference I can think of.  The mayor shoots down his idea and tells him people love their cars too much – so he quits his job and goes into a depression (but all turns out well in the end).  He’s a pretty straightlaced guy with a dry sense of humor, so he sort of fits the stereotype.

If you liked early ’90s grunge and alternative tunes (many with Seattle ties, like the movie setting), the movie’s got a great soundtrack. Also starring Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda, and Matt Dillon.

Christian Alonso EIT, A.M.ASCE

Greenville, South Carolina

Don’t forget Ted from How I Met Your Mother. He was quite the architect.

Carmen Franks, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE

Environmental engineer, Brown & Caldwell, Cleveland, Ohio

Having watched a lot of Peppa Pig with my 3-year-old during the pandemic, Daddy Pig appears to be a structural engineer. He really likes concrete, and about his job, he says: “I take big numbers, transmute them, and calculate their load-bearing tangents.”

Maxx Taga, EIT, A.M.ASCE

Student/intern, Glendale California

Saw: John “The Jigsaw Killer” Kramer was a former civil engineer.

Family Affair: Bill Davis is a civil engineer, I think.

Gotham: Jeremiah Valeska, one of the “proto-Jokers.”

In the comic book Ex Machina, the main character, Mitchell Hundred, before becoming the world’s first superhero and a politician, was a civil engineer who knows a lot about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Join the conversation on ASCE Collaborate.

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  1. When I was an (civil) engineering student in the late 70’s the chemical engineers had signs all over the place that said “let them freeze in the dark” as a protest of the attitude that had developed against the petro- industry over the fuel shortages. I don’t advocate that position today but I’m amazed how many people don’t seem to understand how the US. crumbling infrastructure affects every day life. They also seem to tolerate our politicians use of the subject to score “points” with the public. They dangle it in front of us whenever a distraction is needed. In my 40 years of professional registration I’ve seen too many things (water quality, road and bridges, utility systems) continue to deteriorate and actually become dangerous. It is in the nature of our professional training and practice to be modest about the positive impact what we do brings to society. I see signs of hope in some of the programming on the Science and Discovery channels. However the subjects are often about serious engineering failures. I’m hoping the next generation of engineers put their understanding and use of social media to use in creating positive awareness of what it is we do and how much responsibility we have for life and safety. The greatest hospital in the world can be full of cutting edge health and science technology and first rate providers, but it won’t do anyone any good if the roads and bridges leading there aren’t safe, reliable and passible.

  2. I do recall a movie from the era before television with a civil engineer as the protagonist. It is No Time for Love (1943), a romantic comedy with Fred MacMurray in the lead role. The plot has Fred MacMurray trying to solve a real civil engineering problem. Claudette Colbert plays the photographer who winds up helping him.

  3. In the 3rd Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, uses his cover as a traffic engineer for the Department of Transportation (Virginia, likely) to keep his wife and friends from knowing his true identity as a spy and mastermind of intrigue. Notably, despite his traffic engineering skills, Hunt is unable to prevent the destruction of major segments of a bridge during the rescue of bad-guy Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

  4. There is a 2018 K-Drama (16 episodes, Korean series) called “My Mister” which is the story of a structural engineer in charge of safety inspection. Using drones, climbing tall chimneys, talking about eating sandwiches on top of a nuclear containment structure, etc. First real TV piece I have seen portraying civil engineering!

  5. Over 15 years ago I wrote an article: “HOLLYWOOD WE HAVE A PROBLEM” where a compiled a list of movies featuring engineers as supporting characters. At one time it was posted on the INTERNET. Since then I have been remiss in updating it as some of the newer movies have featured engineers but not too many Civil/Structural Engineers. One obscure movie was ARLINGTON ROAD (1999) who’s lead character (TIM ROBBINS) was identified as a structural engineer ( we never really found out) but was in fact a terrorist blowing up buildings! Note Pre 9-11 but after the Oklahoma City Bombing. More recently there has been the documentary movie “LEANING OUT” featuring the work of the famed structural engineer: LESLIE ROBERTSON. It aired on PBS stations. By the way over the years there have been several TV programs (movies too) featuring architects as lead/supporting characters. Bob Johnson “EngineerGuySE”

  6. Practical Engineering is a site on YouTube which iss run by Grady Hillhose from El Paso. (I hope he’s ok, 2020). He has lots of short pieces on all linds on civil engineering topics. A sampling of titles; Blackouts, Pumped Storage, Asphalt, Deep Excavations….etc. The pieces are setup ffor civilians but I like to watch them as they come out as a kind of refresher. I’m retired. Grady is a smart guy. The little shows are pretty good. Someone should do something like that for kids shows on Saturday mornings. I’m easy to entertain. The might be good for kids. Hey, it could be a start.

  7. Every single space opera that has ever been made is a tribute the Civil Engineers of the future and the fundamentals laid down by us today. From the space stations and terraformed planets of Star Trek in the 60s, to the ring gates of the Expanse today, these shows create wondrous worlds which would only be possible through engineering innovations and grit. Civil Engineers may not have their own TV show, but they are the very jaw-droppingly gorgeous visible backbones of many shows and big budget Hollywood forays into the future.

  8. ‘Top Engineer’ was a planned reality TV series featuring ‘a cast of actual engineers using their creativity to solve problems’. Pilgrim Studios began casting for the show in 2012, but its fate was something most engineers would understand, ‘failure to launch.’

  9. If you chose to make a career in the profession of Civil Engineering for the purpose of notoriety rather than personal satisfaction and public service, please change your profession NOW. Really, do you envy lawyers? That is least respected profession in every poll I’ve ever seen on the subject of public respect, and for good reason.

    Richard J. DiBuono
    Life Member

  10. Why not a show with Civil Engineers practicing in the field of Engineering Forensics evaluating failed engineering projects including serving as expert witnesses interacting with the legal profession.Potential interest involving ethics and moral judgement.

  11. There are some kids shows that are trying. Blaze and the Monster Machines is STEM based show for the 3 to 8 year crowd. There is a show devoted to Structural Engineering that is quite good – and it has a catchy song.

  12. When this email came across my desk I went to the Internet and searched for answers and found many that I agree with. However, much to my dismay the list was the lacking sites like Myth Busters, Colombo, NCIS, Alfred Hitchcock, and other air disaster and forensic investigation programs. Much of the investigations and conclusions have connotations to general engineering however it does not dismiss civil engineering.

  13. This is one of my favorite topics! There have been others, and some I just don’t want to focus on because we get badly misrepresented. However, the Ghost and the Darkness, made way back, was a good movie that gave us some credit. Anyway, we have ASCE Lehigh Valley Section President Stephen Ressler appearing in TV shows, we don’t need anything more!

  14. For many years (say from the early 1970’s through the early 1990’s) in the New York Area we had the extremely popular talk radio call in show “Ask Dr. Melzer;” it was hosted by Dr. Bernard Melzer (possible alternate spelling: Meltzer?), a distinguished Civil Engineer. It was quite a hit and a staple of radio, on WOR, and possibly broadcast elsewhere as well. For a number of years, it was supplemented by a newspaper write in column.

  15. In 2013, Stefan Jaeger wrote “The Jackhammer Elegies”, a great story of a structural engineer stuck in an elevator near the top of a high rise building he designed when a bomb went off in the basement. The book revolves around how he and a Special FBI agent team up to stop a terrorist who is trying to destroy the city’s infrastructure. I have read it twice, and both times it was hard to put down!

  16. In It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) seems to have wanted to be a civil engineer. When he gets his suitcase from Old Man Gower, he tells him: “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”

  17. For water resources engineers, the 1974 film Chinatown put our area of civil engineering in the spotlight. This widely acclaimed film focuses on the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the dispute over water rights in the Owens valley.

  18. All should watch the 1954 movie “The Long, Long Trailer.” This was filmed as the pilot for a possible new series: “I Love Lucy”. In the show, Desi Arnez is a civil engineer. The recently married couple decide to buy a trailer that would allow them to move around as Nicholas moves from civil engineering project to civil engineering project. Evidently the concept did not garner enough support. As we all know, Nicholas changed his name to Ricky and became a lounge performer.
    This movie is a feel-good, absolute must for all civil engineers.

  19. My personal favorite is the 1964 English war epic “Zulu”, which features the great Michael Caine in his first major role and stars Stanley Baker as Lt. John Chard of the Royal Engineers. The plot is based on an actual battle during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 where 150 British soldiers held off an attack by 4000 Zulu warriors. Notable is fact that the hero of the battle is the engineer Chard, and not the aristocrat Bromhead who is played by Caine. The film ends with the Zulus singing a song of bravery in honor of the British before retreating, an historical inaccuracy but powerful filmamking.

  20. Freddie Prinze, Jr. is clearly a Berkeley civil engineering student in the 2000 comedy “Boys and Girls”. His dorm room is filled with model bridges and includes an ASCE membership certificate and coffee mug. Too often “engineer” is a good enough description for television and movies or they jump right to specialties like “traffic engineer” or “bridge engineer”. ASCE has to make sure that “Civil Engineer” is recognized as the umbrella of all these specialties and becomes the best descriptor for the public to associate with all the work that civil engineers perform.

  21. Brian Keith played “Uncle Bill” in the TV show Family Affair in the late 1960’s. He was a Civil Engineer with projects all over the world. He was successful enough to have a butler, Mr. French, played by Sebastian Cabot

  22. The lighthearted comments are interesting reading, and in some cases, telling of what producers think about engineers, but to be very truthful – WHY would any self respecting engineer want to risk portrayal by global media by today’s entertainment industry? Look at the Harris poll conducted in 2007. Engineers had slipped a little since years earlier, but they were still in good company. I, for one, am very happy they scored higher than members of Congress.

  23. This is not a movie but is a documentary series with the title “Impossible Engineering” The series has been running for over a year on the TVO channel (TV Ontario) in Ontario. In Niagara Falls it airs at 7pm on Wednesday evenings. On 6 January 2021 the program highlights the construction of a new Antarctic base. Many previous shows have highlighted the skill and ingenuity of railway builders, including the new Cross rail in London, England and the Channel tunnel. Engineers are named and praised.

  24. We just don’t fit the studio drama formula. Tired of those ‘greatest engineering failures’ programs. Need more series illustrating in every episode how and where engineers are overcoming challenges everyone else believe unsolvable; i.e. the Space Program, modern computing, renewable energy, high speed rail, environmental cleanup, worldwide communication infrastructure…
    And how about a new film to inspire engineers. Storyline: recently elected to Congress, engineer Jones has real legislative solutions to the country’s infrastructure challenges… but can Jones get them passed?

  25. In the 1999 movie Arlington Road, Tim Robbins is a Structural Engineer that is a terrorist using his expertise to try and blow up a federal building.


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