The Bones in Every Procedural TV Show, Including 'Bones', Are the Characters Themselves
I hate procedurals, but I love Bones. The compelling characters keep the audience engaged despite the formulaic format, but some episodes fall flat.
BonesCast: David Boreanaz, Eugene Byrd, Michaela Conlin, Emily Deschanel, Joel David Moore, Pej Vahdat, Michael Grant Terry, Luke Kleintank
Episode: The Patriot in Purgatory
Shows with the same formula every week tend to get boring, yet there are a few that somehow manage to keep the audience interested. An excellent example of this is The X-Files, a show that adapted this predictability of the procedural into stories that maintain mystery. However, I must admit that even I, with my deep love for The X-Files and my usual unending loyalty to shows, lost interest part-way into the seventh season and stopped watching entirely during the eighth. The reason? You can't have The X-Files without Mulder and Scully.
This is something that all procedurals should take note of: it isn't the new medical mystery or supernatural event or bizarre murder every week that keeps bringing us back, it's the characters.
This is one area where Bones has been more or less successful. While it may have been my undying love of all things Buffy and a desire to see David Boreanaz post-Angel that initially attracted me to the show, his endearingly goofy portrayal of Booth has never failed to delight. He has grown immensely as an actor, from the broody man-candy vampire awkwardly uttering mushy romanticisms into the convicted and relatable FBI agent with a soft side.
But it is Emily Deschanel's performance as Dr. Temperance Brennan (a.k.a. Bones) that really keeps the audience engaged. Following in the tradition of The X-Files, she is the scientific, hyper-rational counterpart to Booth’s instinct and faith: the Scully to his Mulder. Yet Bones takes things a step further. Her incredible intelligence is balanced with a hilarious social awkwardness that Deschanel plays expertly, preventing some of her admittedly ridiculous utterances and behaviors from becoming farcical.
Despite some awkward and rushed plot developments due to a need to work around Deschanel's real-life pregnancy, Bones has managed to preserve the fun and flirtatious relationship between the two leading characters. Although now officially a couple -- a big no-no for most procedurals, as the sexual tension between the main characters is arguably the most important element of such a formulaic show -- Booth and Bones still maintain a balance between their happy, playful relationship and the problems that could potentially divide them. This is not only relatable for the audience, but it also makes major changes and disagreements plausible. The possibility that at any moment this relationship could fall apart is a key element of the continued interest in the show.
Yet not all of the characters have fared so well during the phase of major changes (i.e., baby making) that occurred during the sixth and seventh seasons. Angela (Michaela Conlin), in particular, has lost almost all of the excitement and wildness that was so essential to the character. After settling down and having a kid, she is one-dimensional, monotonous, and, well, mommish -- no offense to moms intended. I simply mean that she now fulfills those classic mom stereotypes that pervade the media: overemotional, wishing to reclaim the passions of her youth, dissatisfied with where her life has gone. It's almost a given that in every episode Angela will express some sort of disgust with her job or a desire to get back to her roots as a real artist. This has grown tiresome, especially since, seeing as the audience is interested in the truly astonishing and inspiring work the team is doing, why shouldn't Angela be?
Now that the four main characters who have been with the show all along are settling down and having kids, the decision to bring in younger, more dynamic characters was a smart move. The interns provide many more interesting subplots and relationships and each of them brings something different to the show. The best new character, by far, though, is Dr. Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley). He's everything we wanted Sam Weir (Freaks and Geeks) to grow up to be: geeky, intelligent, awkwardly charming, and -- thank goodness -- no longer in a serious relationship. Without the intrigue of will-they-won't-they among the main characters, Sweets offers an excellent opportunity to instill some of that good ol' sexual tension back into the show.
While these compelling characters keep bringing us back for more, some of the episodes of Bones still fall very flat. “The Patriot in Purgatory” (S08E06, 12 November 2012), for example, went out of its way to try to be moving and emotional, but for some reason whenever a show does a 9/11 episode it comes off less as respectful and more as exploitative of the tragedy and emotionally over-ambitious. This past week’s episode, “The Ghost in the Machine” (S08E09, 3 Dec. 2012) was also over-ambitious both artistically and thematically. Filmed entirely from the perspective of the victim's skull, this approach is suspiciously reminiscent of a more successful example found in an episode of House, M.D. in which the patient has locked-in syndrome (“Locked In”, S05E19, 30 March 2009).
The issue with Bones' attempt at this artistic approach is that the insistence on using this framing for every single shot becomes tiresome and extremely awkward, forcing the characters to come up with flimsy reasons to literally carry the skull with them everywhere, even into their homes. In addition, using foggy, ghostly transition sequences between scenes to reflect the very uncharacteristic thematic statement about the existence of ghosts just comes off as cheesy and forced. This brings me to the issues with the story: although always presenting science and faith in coexistence and conflict with one another, Bones overwhelmingly emphasizes the ability to explain everything scientifically. The fact that a psychic convinces the entire team (apparently Bones included) that the victim's ghost is still present is patently out of character for the show.
Also out of character is Dr. Brennan's increasing emotionality. Originally never one to cry or become emotionally attached to the victims, we are now privy to emotional outbursts nearly every week or two. While one could argue that this is a natural development for a new mother, it is awkward for the audience and breaks down the compelling contrast between Booth and Bones that we have grown to love. There is, of course, something to be said for character development, and it is certainly valuable to explore Bones' softer side, but the frequency and intensity with which it has started to come out is simply not fitting for the character or for the show.
And finally, while this may be largely the case for most episodes of a procedural, this week's plot was incredibly predictable. When the victim is a 14-year-old boy with many broken bones and then his friends bring in his skateboard, it is pretty safe to say that the cause of death was probably some sort of a stunt gone wrong. In addition, the need to resolve his “unfinished business” and put the ghost “at peace” is a tired plot device, and the moment you see the boy's female friend and learn that he made a mixtape for her, his reason for “sticking around” is quite obvious.
Bones is a great show and a generally successful procedural, due mostly to the compelling characters and the audience's continuing desire to see what happens to them. However, some of its episodes are too predictable in terms of plot, artistically or emotionally over-ambitious, or thematically uncharacteristic for the show. But Bones definitely has a lot going for it, and maybe we just have to take the usually good with the sometimes bad.