Sunday, January 08, 2006

TV Review: Bones

So initially, the idea was to have something up every day, but my sleep schedule has been veering from bad to worse and I'm having enough trouble just getting the work I get paid to do done.

But things are settling down (says the man posting at 3:46 a.m.). My parents are somewhere in New Mexico. A gay Spaniard is telling me about the documentary he is directing. Truly, just another night in VanDerTown.

But let's get to one of the things I promised I would do here. A little TV criticism.

We're at the midseason point of the new season, and things are being shuffled. Even in a year when networks are being more patient, lots of stuff is getting canceled.

I, however, have been very lucky. The shows I loved at the start of the season (and I had an opportunity to see most of them before they aired over the broadcast wave) have mostly stuck around (a notable exception is Threshold, but that show was turning into CSI: Alien way too quickly for my liking).

One of the programs I enjoyed the most from its pilot was Bones on Fox. It was nothing terribly new or different, and the case work was pretty routine (especially if you've seen every other procedural on the air, which is a given if you ever spend a spring break with my mother), but the show had a nice zest to it, and the idea of adding Buffy-esque banter to the case-solving intrigued.

Bones follows the adventures of Dr. Temprence Brennan (Emily Deschanel), who uses her advanced knowledge of the human skeleton to solve difficult cases on the behalf of her FBI agent pal Booth (David Boreanaz). She works at the Jeffersonian Institution (guess what it's based on -- I'll give you three tries!) with a team of "squints" -- the lab techs so fetishized by all of the CSI shows -- and a cantankerous boss. That's really all you need to know.

Several months since it debuted, these advance assessments still hold true, but the show hasn't grown in any real or exciting ways. If you're creating a TV crime drama where a crime is going to be solved every week, you'd best figure out ways to make that interesting and different (well, if you want to hang on to TV aficionadoes such as myself -- if you want to hang on to the vast majority of the American public, all you have to do is feature crime in some way).

Of the new crime shows this season, Bones had the best strategy, I thought. It looked to distinguish itself with humor, and I thought that would work. In some cases, it does, because the characters are all instantly recognizable stereotypes that play off of each other in goofy and still amusing ways. Indeed, the Christmas episode (originally aired Dec. 13, 2005) where the whole staff was locked down in the lab for Christmas Day was one of the best the series has done so far for that very reason -- all of the characters were forced to interact, and it made for amusing enough television.

But the problems come when the show does an episode like the one where a young boy is found in a bush (it originally aired Nov. 8, 2005). You can't exactly joke about the death of a kidnapped young boy (who appears to have been sexually assaulted), so the show flounders for a while, trying to throw in pop culture references that will mostly distract from the story at hand. It also tries to broaden the characters in various ways (it gives one of its "squints" a rich family that practically owns the institution where everyone works; it gives the hot best friend lab tech doubt about how she's used her training as an artist; it gives us a chance to explore the main character's life as an orphan), but these ideas mostly misfire (the rich lab tech doesn't like being rich, which is an old stereotype that ISN'T interesting; the hot best friend just needs to be validated; we've already surmised much of what the main character tells us).

So the show then piles on the sentimentality, telling us that dead children are bad. Well, of course they are. But dead children are also a dramatic device that is rapidly running out of usefulness. In a film, a dead child can touch off any number of plots. In House, a dying child became a rough way to juxtapose House's devil-may-care attitude the audience finds so roguish with the reality of living as a devil-may-care person. In Deadwood, a dead child became a moving lesson about community and sacrifice.

But in a detective show, a dead child is just grist for the mill, all too often. It's just another case to be solved with hot science and improbable computer programs. A child who has been murdered after being sexually assaulted pushes (or should push at any rate) ALL of our buttons as humans, and the work of art that chooses to use this particular device should make an effort to give us something beyond using that plot device for shock value. Bones failed at this particular task.

And it's not just the dead child episode. Every episode strikes an uneasy balance between the grim plots and goofy humor. Don't get me wrong. The humor is pretty well-done. For the most part, it's rooted deep in its characters. A punchline that comes from Booth (David Boreanaz) would not come from Brennan (Emily Deschanel). This, of course, is the golden rule of comedy writing, though few shows realize it. In addition, the sense of humor here is not like the sly gallows humor of early CSI. It goes to a goofier place, with wisecracks and quips that wouldn't be out of place in a show like Sports Night. But it also makes the dead bodies everyone huddles over occasionally seem superfluous. And in a crime show, the dead bodies are the raison d'etre.

Finally, the characters display little-to-no growth. The crime shows of the moment may not let their characters grow much from episode to episode, but if you want to be something beyond just something to turn on to let the audience's brain rot to, you've got to have a little something. The relationship between Brennan and Booth is clearly based on the Mulder/Scully dynamic from The X-Files (the pilot even went so far as to reference it), despite the fact that the creator has stated that Brennan and Booth WILL eventually get together (sort of a refreshing admission) instead of Mulder and Scully getting together after too many years on the air and too much fan clamoring because of too much chemistry. But Mulder and Scully GREW a little bit from episode to episode. When Scully became the Mulder in the show's misbegotten final seasons, it sort of made sense. If Brennan is EVER going to become someone who relates to other people (as Booth ALWAYS points out she is bad at doing), the show has some serious legwork to do. Right now, everything just resets after every episode. The show falls into the Law & Order school of thought, where giving someone a kid we didn't know about is seen as character development. No, Bones, that's not character development. That's something for the fanfic crowd to speculate on.

I don't mean to make it sound like I hate the show or anything. It's a pleasant enough way to pass an evening, and I expect it to do pretty well after American Idol on Wednesdays (if the bizarrely popular Criminal Minds hasn't sucked away all of the crime show fanatics in that timeslot). Deschanel and Boreanaz have an easy, unforced chemistry of the sort that is hard to come by nowadays, while the other actors are all giving their characters a nice, loopy vibe. The shows written by series creator Hart Hanson have all been pretty good. And I may have been the only person on the Internets who enjoyed the episode where Brennan had to leave her lab to go out in the field in remote Washington state. In addition, the show does a good job of glossing over my concerns that it's patently unrealistic (lab techs having guns? Please!).

But when I think about the show's future (which seems long, assuming the Idol thing sticks), I just don't see where it can go. Are any of the lab techs going to become interesting enough in a non-stereotypical way to sustain an episode built around them like Marshall on Alias? Is the show going to find a way to break open its storytelling format like the brilliant experiments on House and Without a Trace? Can it navigate the treacherous will-they/won't-they rapids so many shows have sunk in?

The answer, I'm afraid, is that I'm not sure I'm going to be around to watch and find out (well, honestly, the show is being moved to a timeslot opposite the two best shows on network TV -- I mean, REALLY). Libby said to me while watching an episode of House that on that show it's ALWAYS a secret tumor. And, indeed, it is. But what makes that show interesting is the people who have the secret tumors and how they interact with Dr. House (and how he then interacts with his underlings).

But when Dr. Brennan discovers her umpteenth secret stress fracture, whom will she interact with? Another dead skeleton?

Bones isn't a bad show. It's just a show that needs to find a purpose and fast. Its best weapon is its humor, but it has problems deploying it skillfully and tactfully. In the end, maybe the show would be best off finding ways to completely abandon its central premise and skirt off into weird, unexplored territory. Because we'll all stop caring if it doesn't.

That's all for this evening. I've got a number of ideas cooking, so let me know what you're most interested in seeing in the comments section (all four of you).

--An overview of how exactly a newspaper gets to your door every morning.
--Some top ten lists for the year 2005 (TV, movies, etc.).
--Some top ten lists of things I'm excited to see in 2006.
--A long piece on the hidden depths of "Munich."
--The obligatory "Brokeback Mountain" piece.
--Thoughts on "The Simpsons."

You know what to do.


Jared said...

I'd like to learn about the newspaper process.

Andy said...

I remember the episode of Bones (the one with the mummy found in the wall of the club) where they rehydrated the hand of the mummy and peeled off the skin. Bones then wore the hand skin like a glove to take fingerprints. I want to know how she was able to do this--the skin on the hand is about as attached as anything I've ever seen. It's tough enough to skin a fresh hand, let alone one that's been dried out and rehydrated. . .ah well, I guess no show is perfect.