overthinking the idiot box

October 3, 2005

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
Boning Up on Crime Fighting

Did You Think that Skull Counted as Checked Luggage?
by Andreanna Ditton

Subject: Victim has been identified as a television show, classification: hour long drama; subset: police procedural hybrid. It exhibits signs of forced quirkiness, well groomed people undertaking messy jobs and fantastical portrayals of academics allowed to run loose in the wild. The show is primarily Caucasian in nature, but features a possibly Asian supporting player and the occasional appearance of a black superior.

Occasionally, said leads are able to shuck the blanket and exchange some actual heat in the form of conversation. My educated guess is that this needs to happen more frequently and more organically in order for the audience to develop giveadamnitis.
The victim also exhibits signs of unresolved sexual tension placed upon the lead characters like some heavy solar blanket on an already hot day. Occasionally, said leads are able to shuck the blanket and exchange some actual heat in the form of conversation. My educated guess is that this needs to happen more frequently and more organically in order for the audience to develop giveadamnitis.

There is evidence of an attempt to distinguish the victim from the rash of other crime scene based procedurals by imbuing the main characters with actual character. While the attempt is appreciated, this observer would like to note that forcing unappealing behavior, including a weird and inconsistent social ineptness upon a character is not a sure fire way to get an audience to respond to her.

While the male lead is attractive — helmet hair and all — and certainly looks better in a suit than I would have believed, he seems largely to be existing in his own show, which remains separate from the one that Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan exists within. It is difficult for this observer to believe that Dr. Brennan is the only Forensic Anthropologist on the Eastern Seaboard, and even more difficult for me to believe that she would be allowed such easy access to the variety of crime scenes that she's currently tromped through, apparently before a coroner or the local police did their job. While the fine city of Washington DC does have its problems, I do believe that they employ a police force.

That being said, I have also found that the examination and reverence for the actual dead is a compelling aspect of the show, as is the myriad, and sorta kinda accurate methodology used to identify said victims. If the victim is able to dial down the forced quirkiness and show what a Forensic Anthropologist actually does (as opposed to a typical coroner, crime scene investigator, et al), it may survive through the post-baseball fall season.

Initial Findings: After a thorough examination, I have concluded that the victim strains the boundaries of credulity in a could get better, better get better if I'm going to keep watching it kind of way.

Analysis: So, Bones. No, this show is not about Dr. McCoy. Some might say, sadly, this show is not about Dr. McCoy. Instead Bones stars Emily Deschanel as Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan and David Boreanaz as her FBI partner in UST, Special Agent Seely Booth. Purportedly based on the life of Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Kathy Reichs, as well as her novels based on a character of the same name, the show attempts to answer many of the issues I've had with the typical procedural show. Unfortunately, Bones is strong on concept, but so far, weak on follow through. Now, admittedly, I come to this as a biased observer. I've got a degree in Anthropology which basically qualifies me to bitch about details, relay stories of other anthropologists and get huffy at the cleanliness of the labs in the Jeffersonian Institute ( standing in for the Smithsonian) which employs Dr. Brennan and her team.

Dude, no self-respecting anthropologist would take a real skull with them anywhere. Too much of a chance of structural damage. A plastic skull, sure. A femur, maybe a few finger bones, but never a real skull!
If the problem with Bones, was simply the glossed up depiction of a Forensic Anthropologist hard at work, I'd be able to point, snark and move on, forgiving the ridiculousness of Dr. Brennan taking a skull on an international flight in her carry-on (dude, no self-respecting anthropologist would take a real skull with them anywhere. Too much of a chance of structural damage. A plastic skull, sure. A femur, maybe a few finger bones, but never a real skull!). I'd be able to just howl at the holographic program that allows these scientists to show a complete and perfect representation of the dead after a few clever keystrokes. I'd even be able to forgive the snazzy wardrobe, the lack of Birkenstocks, the martial arts training, and the absolute tidiness of these incredibly well-funded labs. Actually, I'd be thrilled at people showing anthropologists, any anthropologist as something other than bearded and squatting by some African tribe eating bugs. And, in defense of the set dressers, this week's ep did show Dr. Brennan's collection of hominid skulls, the first authentic touch I've seen in three episodes.

The problem is not in the odd, farcical and fantastic representation of a Forensic Anthropologist.

Where Bones drops the ball is in the attempt to force too much character onto the characters. Temperance Brennan is an orphan who lost her parents as a teenager, never knowing for certain what happened to them. She has terrible social skills and doesn't appear to have even rubbed elbows with the basics of pop culture in the past 25 years, although someone's clearly slipping copies of Vogue for the Academic Set into her satchel when she's not looking. I can sort of buy this. I know academics who live a TV free existence. And, yes, Forensic Anthropologists are frequently called to help identify victims of homicide, genocide and unidentified death. Their role is to take the basics of human anatomy, and using science, make identifications, read the clues in the barest remnants of the human body. That sort of thing might make a person antisocial.

But "Bones" isn't anti-social so much as socially retarded, and while this could end up being an interesting facet of a character who seems to desperately want to use her skills to help solve contemporary crimes, so far, it comes off as just odd and off putting. Whether through the writing or the portrayal, this social awkwardness doesn't come off as a personality defect, it comes out as an affected characterization, more a concept of someone who does better with bones than with people than someone who is actually struggling with an inability to interact with people who walk and talk and screw up and have expectations of her.

The rest of Dr. Brennan's staff comes of as less caricature than she does, although so far in the three episodes, Zack, her assistant, is all over the character map. He veers from being a younger version of a "Bones in training" and a virginal geek who doesn't understand how to interact with the rest of the world. Angela, computer genius and creator of the hologram program, is the least quirky of the lab staff, the most organic and appealing. She gets sick at the site of a burned corpse, and yet expresses honest regret at her inability to deal with the more disgusting aspects of her job.

However, surprisingly, I find myself most drawn to Booth. Boreanaz has come a long way from those first days on Buffy when he couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. He's got the physical heft and appeal to play a convincing law enforcement agent, and more gravitas and self-deprecation than I would have thought possible. Five years of playing a brooding vampire with a soul was good for his skills and I can only hope that the material here gets better, allowing him to further stretch as an actor.

Conclusion: The characters have the potential to even out, the sexual tension between Booth and Bones could blossom into something genuinely interesting, Anthropologists might regain their Royalty of the Social Scientist Geek court status. However, first the show needs to approach the heart of what a forensic anthropologist does, take the focus off murders, and put it back on identification. The premiere episode actually did a good job of showing how the skills of someone trained to look at bones, tEpisode , and the less pleasant detritus of a human body come together to collect evidence that can be used in a criminal investigation. The team worked carefully and steadily at establishing identity for a girl who had been at the bottom of a river for two years. Regardless, the conclusion of to all the mysteries so far has been weak and anticlimactic — the show has yet to really establish any sort of tension in the investigations that Booth leads, nor has it given us any compelling villains or crime scenes yet. In a way, that could be an advantage, a new tactic, a focus on the victim, the relationship between the victim and the identifier. The unidentified victims carry their own mysteries and that is where this show has the potential to really move beyond the procedural, move beyond formulaic TV. Brennan is more comfortable with these remnants of humanity, displays an actual depth of emotion when dealing with them, and that's what I'd like to see. The slow, plodding work of scientists who are struggling to offer identity to people who have been robbed of even that basic right.

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 2.