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Bones: A Long-Overdue Autopsy

I loved Bones for the longest time. For a good portion of its 12-season run, it really had something going there. Sure, I initially followed David Boreanaz from Angel to this shiny-looking procedural drama, but I quickly discovered that there were plenty of reasons to stay. It’s a procedural drama, sure. It’s also character-driven and funny and in many ways a celebration of smart people. And, I hate to say it, but it should have ended long before it did.

Bones follows the adventures of best-selling author and forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel). With her team at the Jeffersonian Institution, she helps the FBI solve murders by using forensics, specifically forensics regarding the human skeletal system. No matter what happened to you, your bones will be able to reveal who you are and how you died, and Brennan and her team are the best in their field. Her partner in crime-solving is FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). He’s a recovering gambling addict, a descendant of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, a former sniper, and a practicing Catholic. Set against Dr. Brennan, who is a hyper-rational, empirical atheist, we get that classic opposites-attract buddy duo, and it works for a long time.

Brennan and Booth, looking quizzical about something

Booth is a great character, and it’s easy to see why David Boreanaz was courted so aggressively for the role. Imagine Angel, only without the brooding and the fangs, and with an actual sense of humour. What Booth has in common with Angel most is that whole sensitive-yet-alpha-male thing, and a past he is trying to atone for. As a sniper in the US Rangers, Booth has almost 50 kills to his credit. He pulled the trigger each time because he believed he was doing right for his country, but it’s hard to live with. He’s also got the gambling addiction, a small son whose mother refused to get married, and more social skills than the entire Jeffersonian team put together. In the interrogation room, he can read a living person just as well as Brennan can read a set of remains on her lab table. I haven’t yet watched his followup series SEAL Team, but I’m guessing it keeps up his whole upstanding paladin/cowboy thing. He’s good at it.

One of my favourite Booth moments is at the end of “The Salt in the Wounds” (S3E17) when Booth goes all man-to-man on this kid who knocked up four girls from his school at their request and thought nothing of it. The kid can’t see past all the responsibility-free sex and thinks he is quite the stud. Booth sits him down, buys him a burger, and drops truth bombs on his head. He tells the kid that even if the girls don’t think so right now, helping to bring a life into the world is a huge responsibility, and how this kid handles that responsibility is going to define what kind of man he is going to become. I think the kid gets it.

Bones is based on a series of books, written by author and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. I haven’t read them, so I don’t know how close the show’s characterisation of the titular character is to the source material. Bones was one of those shows that I watched for the supporting cast as opposed to the named lead (I felt that way about Buffy and Xena too). Not that I disliked Dr. Brennan—far from it. I just related to her partner more, and Dr. Brennan can be difficult.

I often have great sympathy for Angela (Michaela Conlin), her best friend and co-worker. Angela is in many ways the opposite of the super-rational Brennan. She’s an artist who follows her heart and her instincts, and she enjoys a large and romantic view of the world. Because of this, Angela very often has to deal with a best friend who wants to be there for her when needed, but who needs to be told when that is and then doesn’t know how to do it. She always figures it out eventually, but it’s a process through which she often needs to be led. Brennan’s not unkind, but she doesn’t understand social interaction, and she doesn’t really want to. Many times she remarks that she hates psychology and scorns it as not a “real” science.

Hodgins and Brennan, wearing plastic aprons and working in the lab

It’s never been confirmed that Brennan is on the autism spectrum. I wish it had been. Show-creator Hart Hansen has said that he based Brennan’s character on a friend of his with Asperger’s, and Deschanel has said she used that in her portrayal. Going by many of the friends I have who are on the autism spectrum, this rings kind of true. Among other things, I bet it would have been a great gift for fans of the show who are also on the spectrum—getting to see someone with similar issues being beautiful, powerful, and always getting the job done. Representation does matter. It would have been nice if they had come out and given us that rather than have it just be constantly implied. I think it would have also been helpful for Brennan’s character. Her struggle to better relate to others does exist, but she is loath to admit that it is a struggle. She learns and evolves over time, but it takes her and the people around her a lot of time and effort to get past her intellectual superiority complex. With a statement owning ASD, that complex would have read differently, and I think it would have made her a bit more sympathetic.

The dynamic between the two leads works, though. For those of you who remember Moonlighting, it’s one of those David/Maddie couples. It’s a given from the beginning that there’s an attraction between the two of them, so you have that fun will-they-or-won’t-they thing adding spice to their partnership. David and Maddie were great at this. Mulder and Scully managed to be best friends for years before the show caved and crossed that line. I remember reading an interview with Chris Carter in which he stated firmly that Mulder and Scully would never ever ever get together romantically. I remember Gillian Anderson saying something along the lines of, but what would that add to the show? We kiss a little in between chasing down monsters? I agreed with my whole heart, but we all know that didn’t last forever. Look, I wanted David and Maddie to get together as much as everyone else did, and I too shrieked with joy when it finally happened. But then the show had nowhere to go. Certainly there were other reasons Moonlighting died, but that was one of them—and Chris Carter had even cited that as an example of why that wouldn’t happen on The X-Files. Oh well.

I’m not a fan of that line being crossed between the two leads of a show. Romance between the supporting characters can work, and the leads can certainly have love interests apart from each other, and it can be lovely. But I have always found that once that line is crossed, the show ceases to be about what it’s about and becomes about the main characters being a couple. It’s terrific when that happens in real life, but unless you are really careful about it, it doesn’t help when you are telling a story. I’m not here for a romantic whatever; I’m here for the forensics and the wit and the friendships. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on this, especially nowadays. Everyone seems to want everyone to hook up with everyone on everything, and that’s great. But what happened to legitimate friendships? Some of my favourite TV relationships are the bro-ships (not gender-specific), where people are besties and share deep and abiding love for each other, but it doesn’t need to be romantic or physical. There are different kinds of love, after all.

In absolute fairness, Bones survived way longer than it should have done after that line was crossed. The budding romance was always lurking, and then around Season 4 it started really getting pushed from subtext into the forefront. Then, at the end of Season 6, grief-stricken over the death of a mutual friend, Brennan gets into bed with Booth. They don’t make a thing of it, but the next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his baby, the two are essentially living together, and everything is domestic as you please.

I tried to get over it. There were certainly things about the show that still worked, and I do know I’m in the minority on this. Unfortunately, this coincided with a dip in the writing quality, and I had to walk away. I don’t expect Milch or Sorkin quality in everything I watch. I’m realistic. But when I am constantly getting distracted from the story because I keep noticing dialogue that feels clumsy or cheesy, I have to break up with the show. At the very least, I have to take a sabbatical from it. I’m pretty sure it was Milch, Sorkin, and writers of that caliber who made me a snob about anything written by mere mortals. I’m not sorry. And Bones really held its own for a while.

I can’t remember what made me decide to come back and give it another chance. I think I saw commercials advertising the final season and realised I missed the Squint Squad. I went back and did a rewatch from the beginning, and I kept going. I’m glad I did.

Brennan and Cam work on a mangled set of remains, while talking to Angela across the table

The writing rallied, though it never quite got back to early-days levels. And they did try to keep things interesting between Brennan and Booth as much as they could, despite the line having been crossed. They also gave me a ship that I could definitely get behind. I don’t know if they had initially planned for the boss and the intern to get together, but I loved Camille Saroyan (Tamara Taylor) and Arastoo Vaziri (Pej Vahdat) as a couple. They had both been around long enough to have characters that were well fleshed-out, and it made for a fun workplace complication. And since the interns rotate a bit, he wasn’t there all the time, so the relationship couldn’t dominate the show. As a bonus for me, Taylor is 12 years older than Vahdat. I love age-gap relationships where the woman is older than the man because you hardly ever see them in media. I especially love it when the age gap isn’t there as a plot device; it’s just there because sometimes that’s how relationships are. I have no idea if any of this was in the mind of the writers when they had the characters get together, but I love it. And at the end of the series, it is revealed that they plan to adopt three foster kids. Talk about an OTP.

Dr. Brennan may spend most of the show discounting psychology, but that turned out to be the jam of some of my favourite recurring characters throughout. FBI psychologists and profilers brought a new facet of smart people to the show. Gordon Wyatt was a glam rocker turned shrink turned chef, and believe me, you love Stephen Fry as all of these things. Lance Sweets was young, brilliant, and just as likely to make a Star Wars metaphor as he was to skewer a lesser mind.

Though only in one episode, special mention goes to Dr. Adam Copeland (Joshua Malina). He runs a psychiatric hospital they go to on a case. Brennan is her usual self where psychology is concerned, and finally, Copeland takes her aside. He says, “I’ve listened to you take shots at my profession, and that’s okay. I’m a big boy. But I want you to think about something. I spend every working hour of every day trying to help people who are living in hell. That’s an honourable way to spend a life. Perhaps more honourable than figuring out what happened to dead people who are already beyond pain and suffering.” Boom—leave it to a West Wing cast member to drop enough of a truth bomb on Brennan that a minute later, she apologises to him for undervaluing his work.

Bones did especially well when there was some sort of through-line story arc for the season. Even though most of the series was episodic as opposed to serialized, the arcs that flowed through the “corpse of the week” episodes were what gave you most of the character development. The first big one was the saga of Brennan’s parents. Abandoned by her parents at the age of 15, Brennan grew up in the foster system and never knew her parents’ fate. She turned out quite well, at least academically.

When a Jane Doe turns up in the section of the lab known as Limbo (an area for cold cases, with skeletons not as yet identified) and a facial reconstruction is done on her, the resulting face turns out to be that of Christine Brennan. That’s her mother, and Brennan is thrown for a loop. Over the next couple of seasons, we meet her brother Russ, and later, her father Max. It turns out that Max and Christine had been low-key criminals who, after getting involved with a gang of bank robbers who were way more hardcore, abandoned their kids as a way to protect them. Afraid the rest of the gang would take revenge on the kids after Max and Christine decided they wanted out, the pair took off, so as to lead the gang away from the children. Brennan had to grow up never knowing why her parents left her.

My favourite story arc was Season 3. There’s this creepy, cannibalistic serial killer they begin to refer to as Gormogon, after the anti-Freemason cult of that name. Gormogon’s life work (his, and his apprentice) was to kill people he perceived to be sinners according to Gormogon rules. He would then use their bones, one from each victim, to replace the bones in an anatomically accurate silver skeleton. When the bone skeleton was complete, usually taking years, the apprentice would begin his own project, get an apprentice of his own, and the cycle would continue. As it happens, I’m a Freemason, and so all their talk of Masonic influence in the construction of Washington D.C. was fun for me. And a quick Google taught me that the Gormogon cult was a real thing. The tragedy of this season was that, right at the end, Gormogon’s apprentice turned out to be beloved Jeffersonian former intern Zack Addy (Eric Millegan). It was a blow to Brennan and the rest of the team, all of whom loved Zack, and to the audience as well. He never killed or ate anyone as the apprentice, but he wound up shipped off to a mental hospital, and we didn’t get to see him regularly again until the final season.

Promo shot of Booth and Brennan, heads together, looking through a magnifying glass. The parts of their faces seen through the glass are skulls.

Oh, that final season. By this time, the show was so scattered all over the place that it didn’t feel like the same show half the time. I don’t know if there were concerns that, now in his mid-forties, David Boreanaz’s eye-candy appeal was waning (it wasn’t). Maybe they just wanted some fresh blood. For whatever reason, Booth has a new partner. James Aubrey (John Boyd) is young, scrappy, and hungry (literally, he eats junk food all the time). He’s cute, and the dynamic certainly works. Brennan stays in the lab more, and the fieldwork now has this big-and-little-brother vibe to it. There’s new blood on the Squint side, too, plus now there are kids. Booth and Brennan have two, and Hodgins and Angela have one. Hodgins got character development that was both a blessing and a curse. An explosion midway through Season 11 damaged his legs, and he spends the rest of the series in a wheelchair. Honestly, the character needed something new, but it was hard to watch him take out his anger on his wife. He knocked it off after a while, but it was rough.

I don’t know why it became more of an ensemble show as opposed to being the buddy show it started out as. Maybe it’s because since crossing that line, that main couple became less interesting. I know I found them less so. I love a good ensemble show, but this one felt unfocused. That last season tossed out some set-ups that could have had great payoffs. The Season 11 finale brought back Zack, as what looked like the potential big bad. That would have been great, to have him be the overarching villain. Not only is he just as smart as Brennan and company, he knows them well. To have the villain be one of their own, someone that both they and the audience still loved, would have not only been strong storytelling, it would also have tugged on the heartstrings of all concerned. But no, the Zack thing was wrapped up tidily in an episode or two, and the pseudo-happy ending they gave him felt more like fan service than anything else. And I’m sorry, maybe it makes me a bad fan, but I would rather suffer well-written heartbreak in my television than happy endings that feel contrived.

 

An even bigger letdown for me there at the very end had to do with Brennan herself. An explosion at the Jeffersonian (one of the rules of a finale, destroy the main set if you can) damages Brennan’s brain a little bit—the end result being that she loses just enough brain function to make her only as smart as everybody else. Gasp! The horror! To be only as smart as a very smart regular human being, as opposed to the superpower she’s always made it out to be. It’s a blow to her ego as well as to her brain. I’ll be honest with you, her having to accept that and learn to live with it—that would have been interesting to watch. She and Booth had spent the past couple of seasons talking on and off about retiring anyway, or at least changing fields into one that involved fewer instances of them getting shot at (which, if you ask me, is a decent life choice, especially if you have two small children). But no, Brennan’s un-smartening turns out to be a temporary thing. Hodgins has to adapt to life in his wheelchair, but Brennan’s superpowers and ego get to remain unscathed. Again I say it—fan service happy ending. Not my thing.

I loved Bones. I did. That first half of the series was as good as any TV show I’ve ever watched and better than many. And the latter half definitely had its high points. But like a lot of long-running shows, it eventually proved the adage about having too much of a good thing, and that giving the fans what they want can sometimes do more harm than good. A series as good as Bones should have gone out with the proverbial shout, instead of the whimper that it got.


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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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