Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Pickin' Up Bones

Most of the other people blogging about television on Tuesday have been devoting their time to the new WB series Supernatural (which is waiting on my VCR for me to watch tomorrow - I may or may not write about it until I see a second episode though) - so I feel myself drawn to write about the new Fox series Bones. I'm not ashamed to say that I liked it, perhaps because it wasn't what I - or a lot of people sort of expected.

Emily Deschanel stars as Dr. Temperance Brennan, a Forensic Anthropologist working for the Jeffersonian institution in Washington. We first see her when she gets arrives from Guatemala and is accosted by a heavy set man who she puts flat on his back in a whimpering heap with about three moves, Immediately she's surrounded by guys with guns pointed at her not him. It turns out that the guy is from the Department of Homeland Security and she is carrying a "suspicious" package. It's a skull with lots of bits still attached. She picked it up in Guatemala during an excavation of graves from a mass execution site and is bringing it back for more analysis. Actually the bust by Homeland Security is a set up by FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) to get her attention and make her grateful to him. The two have had a prior working relationship and even though he hates "squints" (this series' FBI word for scientific types) he needs her to help investigate a decomposing corpse found in Arlington National Cemetery, and not in a grave. She refuses until told by her boss at the Institution that she will work with the FBI. He feels that having someone working with the FBI on cases as needed - or as Temperance puts it (to her African-American boss) being loaned out like property - helps the institution in terms of federal funding and is just playing the game. Temperance isn't happy with this but makes the best of a bad situation by demanding to be taken out in the field by Booth. All of this, I'm sure, will be an ongoing theme in the series, as will the reaction of Booth's boss (played by John M. Jackson, late of J.A.G, not, as the IMDB claims John Sterling Carter) who has the same institutional dislike of "squints" as Booth does.

It doesn't take them all that long to identify the remains despite the fact that what they recover is mostly bones and a few elements of trace material. They belong to a young congressional aide who has been missing for almost a year and a half. It's a case that Booth has been obsessed with since he was assigned it. There are three suspects - the Senator she worked for, his chief aide, and a stalker (Booth's favourite) - and the forensic evidence that comes in gradually doesn't real implicate anyone. In fact unlike a show like CSI it isn't "just" about the evidence. The forensics team discovers that the victim had been pregnant when she was murdered - what they initially thought were frog bones were in fact from a fetus - but there isn't enough DNA to compare to a sample Temperance collected (on a discarded piece of gum) from the Senator. It doesn't matter, his reaction told her and Booth that he was the father. The discover that the victim was actually stabbed with a military knife before her head was caved in with a sledge hammer actually added the victim's Army officer father to the list of suspects, even though no one actually believes it could be him. In the end, the forensic evidence leads them to the killer but it doesn't tell them why, but for the forensic team motive doesn't matter. That's left to the FBI agent to explain which he does as easily as Temperance is able to identify the victim as a woman of mixed race who played tennis.

That's the aspect of Bones that really works for me. For all of Temperance's abilities and the technical expertise of her team, she is - and they are - incomplete. Temperance and Booth compliment each other when working together, and not always in ways that you might expect. Temperance's isn't that great with human interaction. Her relationships outside of work have all tended to be brief and end badly. Her ex-boyfriend says its because she was orphaned young. In a scene with the victim's parents, she wants to tell them the truth about how their daughter died, but Booth cuts her off and tells them what they need to hear even though it isn't the truth. For his part, Booth doesn't have the scientific background but not only understands people but cares about them. This includes who he humanizes with the nickname "Bones" (which she hates of course).I enjoyed the acting fo the two principal characters. David Boreanaz puts aside the "tall dark and brooding" persona that he used for Angel, while Emily Deschanel is quite good as the butt kicking scientist. Revelations about the characters sometimes seems a bit abrupt. First we learn that Booth was in the Army and then that he was a military sniper and eventually that his goal is to solve as many cases as he took lives as a sniper, which was a lot. As for Temperance we go from learning that she was orphaned young to learning that her parents simply disappeared when she was 15. Still the writers have worked quite hard to develop a good relationship between the characters, one which may or may not have the potential to develop into the dreaded UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension). They've made a good start by allowing the character to indulge in the sort of banter which, although it never rises to the sort of witty repartee that we remember - wistfully - from the halcyon days of The West Wing is still a step above a lot of what passes for writing on TV these days.

The supporting cast on the other hand - at least at the lab - tends to be mostly made up of cliches. Temperance's best friend is lab tech Angela Montenegro (played by the vaguely exotic looking Michaela Conlin). She seems to be played at least partially as comic relief. In the first scene at the airport she is stymied in an attempt to get some help from an airport worker who is on the phone (and behaving her with the arrogance of someone with a little bit of authority) by flashing her boobs at him. The rest of the lab crew is standard, but with even less personality, at least at the moment. There's the brilliant student assistant who is halfway through two doctorates, which still doesn't allow him to talk to the boss (he only speaks to people with doctorates) and another forensic expert who is a massive conspiracy theorist. That may make it seem as though the cast is somehow bloated with unnecessary characters but it also helps to push to focus onto the two main characters. John M. Jackson is good, as always, as Booth's boss at the FBI and I only hope that he's a regular rather than just making a guest appearance.

If the only way to describe a series is with comparisons with other shows that viewers might know, then Bones would probably be described as being like Crossing Jordan with a bit of NCIS and perhaps, in the relationship between Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth, the slightest hint of Mulder and Scully from The X-Files (although it wouldn't be advisable to press that analogy too far). Certainly the show isn't as heavy and serious about itself as the CSI franchise or any of the other Jerry Bruckheimer produced procedural series, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The bottom line is that Bones is a far better lead in House than last year's Rebel Billionaire, and if enough people are mad about the coming changes in NCIS and the way last season ended, it might be able to build an audience. I'll probably work my schedule to see it, at least for a while longer to see if they can keep it up.

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