In praise of ‘Bones’: TV’s bridge between the ’90s and now

On the surface, 'Bones' is a typical television procedural, but its manipulation of the form has been admirable


To be a television fan in 2015 means many things. During the course of ten years, the format in which we enjoy TV changed drastically as cable galvanized the medium. Music videos now live on YouTube and the old music channels are now devoted to the lives of basketball wives.

As a lifelong devotee of television and the culture surrounding it, I like to think that I’ve put up with a lot this decade. Of course there’s the graveyard of series cancelled too early, but also the shows I’ve had to, sometimes painfully, break up with after stretches, sometimes whole seasons of abuse. Why would Dexter fall in love? Why do I care about Sally Draper’s period and who is this violin prodigy? Isn’t what make America’s Next Top Model great the fact that a man cannot win? Why do we have to hold our applause until the end of the In Memoriam portion of the Oscars? These are the questions I have shouted at my TV set, sent as text messages and posted onto social media.

However, in the last decade, there has been one constant element, one sturdy source of renewable energy occupying the airwaves or HDMI cables or however it is television now works: Bones.

Set inside The Jeffersonian, a fictional mashup of the FBI and the Smithsonian, Hart Hanson’s morsel depicting the professional and interpersonal lives of forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan, FBI Agent Seeley Booth and a solar system of auxiliary characters debuted in 2005. The world wasn’t set a flame, neither did it shake, stop mid-axis or halt to notice Bones’ arrival. The series premiere opened to completely average ratings and received perfectly middling reviews from critics. Despite the mild fanfare, Bones, alongside Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Supernatural, NCIS, and Law & Order Special Victims Unit, is among the echelon of longest running, live-action show on network television.

David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel this season in "Bones"/Courtesy Fox Television

David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel this season in "Bones"/Courtesy Fox Television

Yes, this means David Boreanaz, who is currently enjoying his 20th consecutive year on television, has now portrayed Special Agent Seeley Booth longer than he inhabited the role of Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Boreanaz has gotten ready for work by slipping on a two-piece suit and fake gun longer than he did his signature leather jacket and white, ribbed tank. His hair has remained reasonably crunchy and he’s maybe gained a little weight around the middle, but nothing the observer, not even a vampire, couldn’t explain with age. And while I admittedly began tuning into Bones out of some perverse pursuit of Buffy residue—as if checking up on an ex-lover and his new girlfriend on social media—I quickly fell for its stilted charm and outright adherence to formula.

Now, at season eleven, after a summer of waiting to hear of its renewal or cancellation, this show will likely wrap up an era of murders. While boutique shows like Top of the Lake, Broadchurch and of course, True Detective, enjoy hot moments in the sun, and new network programming like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Quantico circulate under a reforming paradigm of network dramas, Bones remains, as always, warm but not smouldering. It reminds us how consistency is as admirable as flashes of passion are and how originality and ingenuity can only make their meaning against the formula of the familiar.

In television, most routine constructions often hold the most potential to mark a change in the medium. FOX’s Brooklyn Nine Nine surfaces as a shining example of this notion. As the show adheres to many office/comedy sitcom tropes, it also shifts the plates of the format’s earth beneath the surface. For example, the two female leads are both Latinas, the white actress plays their secretary, and a gay, black captain heads the precinct. Bones, nearly a decade before Brooklyn Nine Nine, similarly deploys familiar aspects of television to gently alter the genre’s most reductive elements. A half-Chinese, half-Caucasian actress, Michaela Conlin, plays Angela, Brennan’s best friend and the task force’s forensic artist. A black actress, Tamara Taylor, portrays the Jeffersonian’s lead pathologist, Dr. Camille Saroyan, and the show regularly casts ancillary characters, new cast members and guest stars from various racial backgrounds, creeds and economic statuses. While the topic of race never appears paramount within these character’s portrayals or narrative arches, their ethnicities are always considered, commented upon but never exploited.

Yes, both leads—Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel as “Bones” Brennan—are still straight and white, but living amongst their white straightness are polyps of variables, which differentiate Bones from shows of its ilk. Crime procedurals infamously rest their infastructure on the corpses of dead and oftentimes, sexually assaulted, women. Bones splits its victims evenly by both gender and age group. Maybe more salient: Dr. Brennan’s Asperger’s symptoms. The show routinely references Brennan’s lack of humor, her bluntness or how she cannot perform the social niceties, instinctual for her co-workers. Her diagnosis far from alienating Brennan endears her to her colleagues, and much of the show’s most humorous or promising moments rely on the slight gulf between Brennan and her associates. Moreover, religion and the belief in God surfaces often as a topic of resistance between her and Booth. Booth keeps the faith of Christian doctrine and Brennan, steadfastly, does not. Although well-read on the religions of the globe, Brennan’s unchallenged atheism is uncommon on network television.

Like The X-Files, a show Bones clearly admires, the woman assumes the role of the skeptic and the male retains a hope in the otherworldly. However, unlike The X-Files, and now Castle, Bones is suspended by the real, essentially favoring the woman’s perspective. Where shows like Castle undermine the female logician and other programs like CSI and Criminal Minds showcase the murder and rape of female victims, the result of each silences a female perspective. Brennan’s fastens herself to solid facts and discounts circumstantial evidence, and her expertise often secures her team the confession they need to warrant an arrest.

The ‘90’s network television shows with female leads featured narratives that leaned into the fantastical (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed) or women whose imagination would intercept an otherwise realistic narrative (Ally McBeal, Grey’s Anatomy). The bridge between these programs and current shows (Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Quantico) now showcasing women who operate in an approximation to the real world and are sturdily planted in the real appears to be Bones’ Dr. Brennan. It’s halfway a crime procedural, part workplace comedy and part romance. It’s wonky, its headlight flickers, but it’s always starts.

The little jalopy has limped along long enough for network television to accept a better paradigm of female representation, and what’s left of the show resembles a truce between subscription television’s prestige hits and the network’s routine offerings. So in a landscape shifting beneath the feet of a television fan, in many ways, Bones has been the atmosphere, and before it’s too late, I want to sing its gentle praise now, while it’s still alive and almost kicking.

2 Responses.

  1. Don says:

    The characterization of the Jeffersonian as a mash up between the Smithsonian and the FBI is off. Unless you meant a partnership between a fictionalized Smithsonian and the FBI. The Jeffersonian has a staff that the FBI consulted with on cases. Which apparently has a real world precedent. . The phrasing you used came across more like the Jeffersonian is some kind of amalgam of the Smithsonian and the FBI.

  2. Jessie says:

    I also followed Boreanaz from Buffyverse didn’t think I would like Bones as it’s a procedural they have never really been my thing but I love Bones it has humor, Family and heart/Hart.
    And also I must say “maybe gained a little weight around the middle, ” NO WAY he put a bit on in season 5 Angel when he hurt he’s knee he had surgery that year and that’s why Angel sat around a lot season 5.

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