One of the most quietly political and culturally subversive shows of the new century came to an end this week, and it exited as it entered: with the insistence that science will prevail, even if it has to rise from the ashes to do so.
“Bones,” which finished its 12-season run on Fox on Tuesday night, was never considered a political show. Though set in D.C., its narrative remained virtually untouched by passing administrations, policies or any hot topic conversations — Joe Biden did not make a guest appearance, neither did Bill O’Reilly.
Created by Hart Hanson from the novels of Kathy Reich, the show was, in many ways, an old-fashioned “unlikely detective” procedural, the detective being, in this case, Temperance “Bones” Brennan, a brilliant and socially challenged forensic anthropologist played with serene intensity by Emily Deschanel.
At the mythical Jeffersonian Institute (the exterior of which is actually part of L.A.’s Exposition Park complex), Bones worked with a team of equally skilled scientists and technicians to conjure from corpses the method of murder. A dedicated rationalist, Bones believed that when solving crime, the “how” would expose the “who.” Emotion, in the shape of psychology, was simply not part of the equation.
Acting on behalf of empiricism was David Boreanaz’s FBI agent Seeley Booth, who fought long and hard against the idea that a victim’s bones could bear better witness than a rigorous interview or discovery of motive. Obviously, Bones and Booth would fall in love, which they did, but the tension between hard science and soft continued to drive their relationship and the show.
Which often went unnoticed. When “Bones” premiered in 2005, neither science nor television was under much scrutiny. Boreanaz, having become an object of the newly emerging YA desire in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” was the headliner. Booth was a compelling mix of irritated charm, bravado and regret, street smarts and decency.
Bones, on the other hand, was something else again. Female lead detectives were still very much the exception, and even with Deschanel’s warm, rather than steely, beauty, Bones was not likable, at least not in ways traditionally demanded of female characters.
She could be arrogant, rude and argumentative; she interrupted and contradicted her colleagues, male and female, constantly; though she never insisted she was right if she believed there was a chance she could be wrong, neither did she ever concede she might be wrong if she knew she was right.
Which was much of the time.
Bones was almost always the smartest person in the room, and she had no problem with that. Moreover, she didn’t understand why anyone else would when it was quantifiable fact.
She also refused to reveal any of the personal insecurities — about her appearance, her ability to find a lover, her popularity — that so many screenwriters still appear to be contractually obligated to foist upon strong female leads. Bones was certainly sexual, but even then she was scientifically frank rather than seductive.
She was, in other words, a miracle.
Having created a procedural, rather than a character drama, Hanson and his writers built their leads a sturdy platform (both literal and figurative). The Jeffersonian, which was headed by another strong woman, Camille Saroyan (Tamara Taylor) was staffed by a core group, most notably entomologist Jack Hodgins (T.J. Thyne) and forensic artist/tech whiz Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin), who also fell in love. A series of assistants and interns kept things fresh (and allowed Bones the chance to lecture), and for many seasons, FBI psychologist Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley) bolstered Booth’s case for psychology.
This being a show about forensics, there was also a series of wildly creative and cheekily gruesome corpses — Booth’s inability to cope while Bones calmly plucked eyes from sockets and peeled flesh from cartilage became a running joke.
It was also one of television’s most radical departures — the man a bundle of delicate feelings, the woman not understanding what all the fuss was about.
But in the end, what kept “Bones” going (perhaps, it must be said, a season or two beyond its peak) was the science. Although television has long been besotted by medicine and the eclectic mind-palaces of various Sherlocks, it does not typically have the attention span for the day-to-day work of scientists. Which is not to say that “Bones” documented scientific investigation accurately — it was just as filled with coincidence and technical magic as any TV procedural — but it did clearly believe in and value the process.
Bones was both the title character and the hero, and she was a lab coat-wearing, study-quoting, anecdotal-evidence-dismissing scientist.
Which makes her even more of a radical in these days of “alternative facts” and political opposition to the scientific community.
So when, in the final season’s penultimate episode, current show runner Michael Peterson and his writers chose to blow up the Jeffersonian, it was pretty hard to ignore the metaphorical implications.
Or the message when, in the finale, Bones and Booth and their team not only rose from the rubble but they also eventually outsmarted and tracked down the bomber. And if, for a moment, Bones appeared to have lost her ability to grasp complex ideas, she and the quest were saved by love. That the characters all had for each other, of course, but also, mostly, for the thing that made Bones “Bones” — rigorous scientific method.