Monday, March 27, 2006

Bones to Pick

Friday, Shouting at the Wind linked an article at the Hollywood Reporter confirming that Bones had been picked up for a second season. In her post, Shawna Benson (the author of Shouting), added the descriptive "against all reasonable thought" to the news of the shows renewal. I was surprised, not disappointed, at the comment because my wife and I are regular Bones watchers.

[BTW, being disappointed because someone disagrees with your taste in film/tv is ridiculous. Entertainment is one of those cases where friendly disagreement easily accomodated.]

For those of you who don't watch a lot of TV or who might not know what I am writing about, Bones is a one-hour semi-procedural on Fox. The show is loosely based on the very procedural Temperance Brennan novels by Kathy Reichs. The novels are often gruesome and let you see more into the mind of Tempe Brennan than any television or film can accomplish (as an aside The Weather Man with Nicholas Cage did a pretty good job of getting into the head of the character, just the right amount of voice over).

I flippantly asked Shawna if she was not a big David Boreanaz fan and she responded in a very friendly fashion that she wanted to like the show, had watched the first three episodes, and had returned for the Adam Baldwin episode. Here answer told me two things. First, yes she is a David Boreanaz fan and second that she is a Joss Whedon fan. (Elementary my dear Watson!) So her disappointment lies elsewhere. In fact, according to her statement "[she] just found the whole thing predictable and though some of the dialogue is better than it used to be, they seriously need to staff some better writers."

This got me thinking. I took her comment about predictability very seriously and I agree the show is very predictable, but I find most shows to be. Take your average 1 hour drama, say last week's Smallville.

First we have the set-up or introduction, setting the stakes if you will.

Clark reveals his secret to Lana and asks her to marry him. Clark's father is finding out the results of his election bid. And the season stake is that we know someone close to Clark must die.

Second at minute 20 (usually spot on, maybe one or two minutes off depending on commercial selection), we have the moment the stakes are raised.

Clark's father wins the election. Lana goes to see Lex, gets upset, leaves and dies in car accident. After a commercial break, Clark decides to "change the result" and is notified that while he can change the past that fate will make up for the difference.

At the 40 minute mark (give or take a few seconds) the hero will suffer a major crisis. In a movie, this will be the point the hero struggles back from to save the day, in a serial TV show it may just be a character developing loss.

Clark has saved Lana, but their relationship is over forever and right at minute 40...Clark's father dies of a heart attack.

From here the story gets resolved.

Clark tells his mother everything (off camera) and his mother doesn't blame him, but it has obviously affected their closeness. Lana "supports" Clark, but abandons him. Chloe loves Clark, but can't be too close because Clark loves Lana. Lex looks on from afar. Clark is more alone than ever and more than ever needs human connection. Sets the stakes for the whole season. BTW, serial TV also has a "season" structure similar to the episode structure, and a series structure, etc. might guess that before the show ends that Chloe is likely not long for the world. Why? Well, she knows Clark's secret, she is Lois' cousin, and she doesn't exist in Superman's "adult" life. Hmm...

This is a long way of saying that all narrative has a certain level of predictability. In fact, I often find myself looking at the clock during episodes of television programs. That said, it doesn't mean that Shawna is wrong. This is because Bones is a semi-procedural and thus doesn't always reveal the killer until the 40 minute mark. In fact, if it is well written it should have one or two very plausible red herrings to throw the audience off course. The question, should be (as I am interpreting Shawna's meaning), "Who did it and how?" If the answer is too obvious in the procedural then why watch the show?

It's a good question and one that I have an answer for, but it may not satisfy Shawna. I think the answer lies in the nature of the show. Bones, as I have written, is a "semi-procedural." By which I meant that it appears to be a procedural, but in reality is a romantic drama like Smallville, but instead of having superpowers Tempe Brennan has near infinite analytical skills, a superartist, super-biology geek, combat guru, and...okay they might as well be superpowers. For me, Bones is more Doc Savage than CSI, thus it is the character interactions that are most important. I like the banter and the little insights I get into the characters.

For example, during the episode where Tempe and crew solve a murder in the tunnel system under D.C., we encounter a mentally shattered veteran who asks Booth (Boreanaz) sarcastically, "Are you trying to tell me you know what I've been through?" Booth's answer immediately lets the character know that he really does have an understanding and had similar experiences. In fact, one thing the audience has learned over the course of the show is that Booth has done some horrible things. We just don't know what they are. In many ways, Booth is similar to Angel (another Boreanaz character). Except, where Angel was forced by a curse to do horrible things, it is the very sense of duty/nobility in Booth, the thing the audience most likes about him, that allowed him to do those things.

I have to admit that the surprise factor is a difficult challange for "mysteries" to maintain or achieve. That is probably why my favorite show in the genre gave up the ghost at the beginning of each story. Columbo always began with the audience watching the murder, we know all the facts. It was in watching Columbo unravel those facts that the audience was entertained. I look at Bones the same way, even though the murder and results are supposed to be "discovered."

Maybe Bones would be better if the format followed the Columbo format, but as for the dialogue I think it is some of the best on television.

Booth:"So it was the Spelunker, in the Steam Tunnel, with a Climbing Pick?"

Brennan:"I don't get it."

Oh, and I like that the show ends with the ultra-traditional (think Wild Wild West and Star Trek etc.) "group laugh" at the end of the show.

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