TV on DVD: Bones
One of the nice things about having a bunch of your regular TV shows cancelled is having the time to catch up with programs you've missed over the past couple of years (I will, eventually, get to those final Sopranos episodes I've been saving...). Recently, I've been enjoying the first season of Bones on DVD. When it debuted in 2005, it had two strikes against it, in my book: 1) It was a procedural, a form that wore out its welcome with me somewhere around the sixth season of Law and Order (that was the last one with Jill Hennessey, right? Before they brought on what my girlfriend calls "the Rohmbot"?); 2) it was airing on Fox, a network whose programs you never want to make a commitment to, since they'll disappear faster than a Karl Rove subpoena. It did have David Boreanaz, an actor I'd loved on Buffy and Angel, but that just didn't feel like enough of a draw for me, especially given the less-than-estimable post-Whedon track records of actors like Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendan, Alexis Denisof and Charisma Carpenter. Let's see how long it lasts, I thought, and turned back to Battlestar Galactica.
Well, now it's about to enter its third season, and I have to say I'm sorry I waited so long to try it out: Bones is a delight, much less CSI than Moonlighting with grisly corpses. Like its Fox neighbor, House, it uses the procedural form as a kind of popularity cloak, allowing the writers to sneak in their real interests in character development and the themes of intellectual pursuit and emotional isolation. But where House (which I also love) is ultimately a dark, existential show about a tortured genius searching for peace and redemption (the true heir to Boreanaz's Angel, in fact), Bones is a family comedy: the pain and dark secrets are all there, but the coupling of Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel means it feels much more screwball, with the mysteries there as the MacGuffins that set off the banter and byplay. To put it another way, House is a show about the impossibility of connection, and Bones is a show about its absolute necessity.
Like nearly every interesting drama of the last twenty-five years, from Hill Street Blues to the West Wing and beyond, Bones is ultimately a show about families, in a variety of forms, be they biological or workplace (what Joss Whedon once called "the family that you make"). This thematic might have something to do with the form. In his recent review of The Simpsons Movie, film critic David Edelstein suggested the film erred in focusing so much on Homer: "My ideal Simpsons movie," he writes, "would center on the less predictable characters, Bart and Lisa, but for some reason Homer gets the spotlight here. Why build a movie around him?" It's a good question, but one which also tells us something about the difference between TV and movies, because the early Simpsons episodes did focus on Bart; hilarious as they were, this centering might have quickly worn out its welcome-- how many times can one hear "Don't have a cow, dude!" without thinking Bart might quickly be turning into a one-joke machine?--if the show hadn't wisely shifted the focus to Homer and the rest of the family (and soon, the whole town of Springfield). A movie can get away with focusing on a sole character (like James Bond, or Matthew Bourne), even thrive on this approach, but the long-haul, novelistic narrative structures of the best TV shows mean that ensemble is king (just as a recent example, compare the superb ensemble work of Seinfeld, Cheers,
Friends or The Office to all those NBC Must-Not-See 'comedies'-- Suddenly Susan, The Single Guy, etc.-- that often centered on a single star or stand-up comedian, and quickly flamed out). The Bones ensemble is superb-- I especially like Jonathan Adams' mixture of the sly and the stolid as Smithsonian administrator Dr. Goodman, and Michaela Conlin's ditzy empathy as artist Angela-- and everyone gets a moment to shine that never just feels like a Bruckheimer-style wisecrack or boring bit of exposition (as the show goes on, the narratives begin to coil and take on a wonderfully twisty shape: sometimes you don't know which way an episode's story is going to spin).
On the one hand, Bones reaffirms many of contemporary television's tropes (the bantering couple, the stand-alone seasonal structures, the emphasis on ensemble), while also making the debate over form its narrative subtext: the ongoing argument between Bones and Booth about "evidence" (the procedural) vs. "emotion" (the soap opera) is one such manifestation, but my favorite example comes in "The Woman at the Airport," when cynical scientist Hodgins (wonderfully snarky T.J. Thyne) and Dr. Goodman get into a debate about verifying the historical date of a recently acquired set of bones and a suit of armor. Goodman, the archeologist, wants to think through the evidence using history, stories, cultural markers and "character" points he deduces from the objects, a methodology dismissed as "soft" by hard science acolyte Hodgins. This is a debate about Bones's own narrative/generic approach, and that of television itself, whose current economics means that drama is divided between the stand-alone, reairable, plot-driven, character-lite CSI model ("facts, facts, facts!," as Gradgrind might put it), and the denser, tangled arcs of shows like Lost, Grey's Anatomy and Heroes. The former are easier for networks to reair because they can be shown out of order, or picked up midway through the season by curious viewers, without much confusion about what's happening; the latter are a harder sell but, when they work, usually offer a bigger ratings and advertising bonanza, and the possibility of dividends in DVD boxes down the road. Like its two leads, Bones wants to straddle this divide, and in doing so, ultimately suggests what a false binary it is, at least creatively speaking. And cracking that creative riddle is as impressive an act of deduction as anything that comes out of Bones' lab.