Seven or eight years ago, just as Patricia Cornwell was losing her plot, along came Kathy Reichs with a series of books about her alter-ego, Temperance Brennan. One of only 50 certified forensic anthropologists in the U.S. and a director of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Reichs served as the forensic anthropologist for the Offices of the Chief Medical Examiner in the State of North Carolina, and for the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale for the province of Quebec. So did Temperance Brennan.
For the new Fox series Bones — very loosely based on Reichs’ books — Tempe has been relocated to Washington D.C.’s fictional (as in, please don’t confuse it with the Texas-based charity of the same name) Jeffersonian Institute, and stripped of most of her social skills. Not only that, she has also been turned into a part-time author who writes books about a forensic anthropologist called… wait for it… Kathy Reichs. Smarter people than I might be able to tell you exactly what that says about the minds behind Bones, but I suspect it means they thought it was funny (it is) and a good way of distancing the TV show from the books (not really). In particular, it might save Reichs blushes should Bones go the way of Tru Calling or The Opposite Sex.
No doubt terrified by the prospect of an early bath, the opening episode of Bones tries far too hard. The opening shot of a plane landing at Dulles Airport (Ronald Reagan Aiport actually but no one told the caption writer) tells us that this is a show about important people — people who fly. The second shot, an airport interior, establishes that both wacky humor and breasts will be in ample supply. And the third shows us that our heroine may be a nerd supreme, but she knows how to kick ass and take names later. Unfortunately, the fourth shot shows us David Boreanaz, who is to acting what wardrobes are to acting.
Emily Deschanel is personable as Brennan, but struggles in a role that is all clichés, shorthand signals, and unfathomable leaps of faith masquerading as logic and deduction. After the opening barrage of signifiers, it takes less than 11 minutes to establish that Brennan has more cleavage than her computer ace sidekick (Michaela Conlin), but is too principled to flash her guns at airport staff to get their attention. I lost track of the time it took to reveal the mystery in Brennan’s past that will no doubt come to define her psychology and underpin the series (her parents vanished when she was 15). But I certainly didn’t miss the repeated reminders that she doesn’t trust “psychology,” or her catchphrase (“I don’t know what that means”), rolled out whenever someone makes a reference to modern popular culture. So, when FBI Special Agent Angel makes a quip about Mulder and Scully, Brennan deadpans: “I don’t know what that means.”
Actually, the X-Files reference was quite clever. I think it’s called self-deprecation. Bones is such a messy hybrid of other shows that the easiest comparison would be that it’s a very poor cross between the X-Files and CSI. More accurately, however, Bones is a very poor cross between the X-Files and CSI with characters stolen from NCIS, plot devices from Veronica Mars, and topicality from Law & Order.
The procedurally far-fetched and utterly formulaic series opener focuses on a girl’s body found in the lake at Arlington National Cemetery. Nobody reveals quite how this body, still on site, still underwater in the middle of the lake, was found, or indeed how it got there in the first place, because that’s not important. What is important is that after Brennan has put together the horrendous jigsaw of the girl’s smashed skull, under a suitably dramatic modern pop soundtrack, her sidekick is able to generate an instantly recognizable 3D hologram that allows Special Agent Angel to identify her as “that girl who had the affair with the Senator and disappeared”. All that remains is for the FBI to line up three suspects, the supporting cast to weave their comic relief conspiracy theories, Brennan to beard the Senator in the Senate Building, and the Special Agent in Charge to give our detecting duo the obligatory 12 hours to solve the case.
Bones will upset most of Reichs’ readership. It’s a weak TV-by-numbers show that makes no attempt to live up to the Brennan books, and it has a single scant hope of surviving the scheduler’s cull. While the premiere’s plot gives new meaning to the word “simplistic”, and Deschanel and Boreanaz have less chemistry than a Fine Arts degree, the Brennan’s relationships with other characters are entertaining and rich with promise. Someone fetch Temperance Brennan some garlic and a stake.