(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray checks out the season finale of Bones. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff drops in on Dancing With The Stars again.)
After we watched the excellent season two finale of The Good Wife on Tuesday night, my wife and I were talking about the myriad qualities that set that show apart from the typical legal drama or procedural. Donna narrowed it down to one scene in particular, where the heroine suddenly discovers that she’s been handed a key piece of evidence in the case she’s working on, and she freezes, not wanting to accidentally contaminate it. The moment is comic, and dramatic, and even significant to the larger narrative of the show, because while she’s standing still, Alicia has to ask for help from her former best friend, whom she’d rather not talk to at all after finding out that said friend once slept with her husband. It’s a character moment, in other words. And in a post Law & Order/CSI procedural world, character moments that rich are increasingly rare.
I don’t generally watch Bones, unless I’m stuck in a hotel room looking for something to watch to pass the time, and then I find that I’d rather watch Bones than any of the other high-tech mystery shows that repeat 24 hours a day on basic cable. In part that’s because I’ve become a fan of David Boreanaz during my time reviewing Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But it’s also because Bones does have definite characters who are more than just plot-delivery devices, even if the show’s preference for maintaining the status quo—a common trait of the case-of-the-week procedural—means that Bones will likely never change enough to maintain my interest over the long haul.
Or will it? To prepare for this drop-in, I watched last week’s Bones episode, in which Boreanaz’s FBI Agent Seeley Booth and Emily Deschanel’s forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan have sex, in an offscreen scene that’s referred to only obliquely. This week, the episode ends with Bones telling Booth that she’s pregnant with his child. Bombshell!
And this comes on the heels of another baby in the family: married team-members Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) and Jack Hodgins (T.J. Thyne) go into labor in this episode, and spend the second half trying to help solve the case-of-the-week by video-chat, while Angela endures painful contractions. The video-chat was a nice touch; otherwise though, these were standard woman-in-labor comedy beats… the kind that make me wonder if anyone writing for TV has ever actually been in a room where a baby was being born, or if they’ve all just watched the same TV episodes over and over. Still, the subplot ends sweetly, with Angela and Jack learning that their baby boy is not blind, which is something that was a genetic possibility.
It’s those kinds of ongoing relationship/life storylines that make Bones so easy to watch, coupled with the often dark sense of humor in the cases. This week’s case was particularly gruesome, involving a dismembered corpse stuck in a bowling alley pin-setter. (It was like something out of an old EC Comic.) The team determines that the dead man’s name is Jeff Fowler, and that he bowled with “The Thunderballs,” a team that also includes Bones’ dad Max (Ryan O’Neal). So Bones and Booth go undercover as dirtball bowler couple Buck and Wanda—complete with mullet for Buck and ‘80s curls for Wanda—and work their way through the possible suspects. Is the murder the mean-spirited alley enforcer known as “The Raven?” Is it the over-achieving pre-teen Amber Tremblay, who’d like to be known as the World Champion Of The World? Is it God-fearing teammate Hercules? Or alley hot-shot Blake, who calls himself the “hair apparent” to Jeff’s reign as king of the bowlers?
I found a lot of the alley business funny, including watching “Buck” knock down pins while pumping himself up by chanting, “Buck’s on the truck, driving the truck. Buck-truck.” (I also appreciated what looked to be nods to The Big Lebowski, including naming the victim Jeff, just like Jeff Dowd, the real-life inspiration for The Dude.) And I found some of the alley business decidedly unfunny, such as the way nearly all the bowlers are presented as comically ignorant and trashy. (One responds to Bones’ elevated vocabulary by saying, “Sometimes when you speak it’s like you watch PBS on purpose.”)
I also can’t say that I was all that engaged with the investigative efforts back at HQ, but then I rarely am, since it all falls into the “Magic Computer” category of storytelling that so many of these procedurals rely on. I did like the application that showed the different ways a skull gets crushed, depending on the blunt object smashed against it, but otherwise the HQ action was just time-killing while waiting for the team to enter the right pieces of data to come up with the right answer. And the killer is… the guy who works at the shoe counter, who bashed Jeff with his motorcycle helmet because Fowler never washed his feet.
So long as Bones makes the Magic Computer the linchpin of so much of its storytelling, it’s not going to matter that much whether the heroine and the hero have kids, get married, get divorced, or anything else. I suspect that next season will proceed as the previous seasons have, with a new crime to solve each week, tempered only by how Bones’ usual alien approach to the world is affected by the baby growing inside of her. That should be fun to see. And next time I’m traveling, I’ll be sure to check it out.
- I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Deschanel sisters’ acting chops, but Emily Deschanel is perfect for this role, since her somewhat stilted line-deliveries suit the character. And of course David Boreanaz is David Boreanaz. So much to like about Bones. Just not enough to get me to set a season pass on my TiVo.