Often underrated by critics and academics, the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris completely revolutionized and revitalized the crime fiction genre. Clearly this book is an undisputed classic just by being the genesis of the fearsome and mystifying Doctor Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a quintessential icon of modern horror culture. But even more, over the past 26 years Red Dragon has proved to be influential in regards to the detailed description of forensic procedures. As such, current procedural TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, are indebted to Harris’s work.
In the wake of such a renaissance of the crime fiction genre, real life forensic anthropologist and university professor Kathy Reichs created a series of best selling books detailing the fictional adventures of her alter-ego, Dr. Temperance Brennan. But even though Reichs has truly exceptional scientific credentials, being one of the 50 forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, her novels lack the strength, complexity, and engrossing narrative style of Harris’ work.
Reichs’ first Temperance Brennan novel, Deja Dead, was originally published in 1997 and won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. To date, Reichs has published 10 of these novels, and they have all been received with various degrees of critical acclaim. The secret of her success appears to be the way Reichs has used her extensive knowledge and personal experiences in the field of forensic anthropology to provide her books with intricate murder mysteries and cutting-edge forensic science. Undoubtedly, these series seem to have found a very comfortable niche in popular culture.
With the undeniable success of Reich’s books, it was only a matter of time before a cinematic or TV adaptation of her work was produced. And so, in 2005 Bones premiered on national television with Emily Deschanel playing the principal role of Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan. Recently released on DVD, the first season box set from Fox offers a few superfluous extra features which will be of interest only to the die hard fans of the series. Such bonus content includes a feature on forensic terminology, a short biography of Reichs, and two episodes have audio commentaries provided by the main cast.
The format of the series is very simple and straightforward: as an episode begins a body in an advance state of decomposition is found somewhere, and the FBI recruits Bones to help them identity the remains and to elucidate the cause of death. The individual episodes are mostly self-contained and appear to avoid cross-episode character arches. Also, each episode has a rather descriptive title such as: “The girl in the fridge”, “The soldier in the grave”, “The skull in the desert”, and my personal favorite, “The man in the bear”.
Quite surprisingly, Bones is very loosely based on the original novels, even though Reichs herself is a producer of the TV series. The most prominent changes are to key support characters. For instance, Andrew Ryan is now replaced by Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), while Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) has never appeared in the novels.
Another notable change is the new location. While most of her books take place in either Montreal or North Carolina, the TV show takes place in Washington DC. Or so they say, as the series are clearly shot in Los Angeles. Through the use of stock footage, digital effects, and set decorations, the producers try to make California look like the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, this is poorly done and one can easily see, for instance, that the Washington Dulles airport is actually the LA Convention Center and that all characters drive cars across scenic DC with conveniently tinted windows. And perhaps more bizarre is a scene from the pilot episode that takes place in Arlington National Cemetery. This particular shot leads one to believe that there are graves right besides the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool.
As if these goofs were not damaging enough, the forensic science portrayed in the show is often wrong or completely unbelievable. While it is true that most procedural TV series rely at one time or another on some form of improbable technology to solve a crime, Bones is too far fetched to be taken seriously. In this regard, perhaps the worst offender is a completely unrealistic holographic machine that is used to visualize forensic reconstructions and analyses in a life-like, three-dimensional image. With contraptions such as this, Bones is boldly going where no forensic team has bone before – well into the realm of Star Trek.
Clearly, Bones is completely different in its approach to forensic science than CSI. In a sense, Bones feels like a “lite” version of CSI; while CSI takes a serious approach to its rather macabre subject matter, Bones takes the goofy side. Such an approach is perfectly embodied on Dr Brennan associates, computer genius Angela Montenegro, eccentric Dr Jack Hodgins (TJ Thyne), and the nerdy graduate student Zack Addy (Eric Millegan). While Bones is out in the field trying to find those responsible for some horrible murder, these three guys are running lab tests and arguing about dating, bugs, and conspiracy theories. Perhaps the producers simply intended for Bones to be more amicable to those audiences who find the gruesomeness and bleakness of CSI too hard to follow.
Personally, I have to confess that I find Bones’ production goofs and foolish characters to be a terrible nuisance, which perhaps has prevented me from fully appreciating other aspects of the series. Watching this show, the real mystery for me is why someone of the academic caliber of Reichs, who is also the creator and producer of the series, allows for such evident blunders and inaccuracies. But then again, the appeal of the show appears not to be the procedures and protocols of forensic science, but the natural chemistry (or anti-chemistry) between the two leads.
Probably inspired by The Avengers and The X-Files, Bones pits together a heterosexual couple in a myriad of dangerous situations, and never allows them to relieve the sexual tension that arises between them. Furthermore, it is rather noticeable the way Bones and Booth completely fail to communicate. Indeed, Booth invariable fails to understand the scientific jargon used by Bones to explain the sophisticated forensic techniques at her disposal. And on her side, Bones is constantly unable to grasp the many references to popular culture made by Booth. At the end, quite often they both just give up trying to understand each other. Thus, Bones appears to suggest that science and popular culture are totally disjointed spheres of the human endeavor. This is a rather perplexing situation, considering that Reichs has been quite successful with both of them.