TV musings: Bones
This show is a good example of the Netflix Effect: there are other things I’m more interested in watching, but they’re not available as streaming video, and Bones is. Laziness being a mighty thing, I end up watching the one that is more easily available. (This has its limits; I’ve streamed things where I’ve watched an episode or two — or in one case, five minutes — and promptly given up. But if a show is decent, and also immediately available, it wins.)
Anyway, I wanted to talk a bit about the show, because it’s a story and I can’t not think about stories when they’re in front of me. So far, I’ve watched two seasons, and the first few eps of S3.
As with most ensemble shows, the big appeal is the supporting cast: I am totally there for Hodgins and Zack and Angela, and Goodman (in S1) and Camille (in S2). I am absurdly fond of characters who combine geekiness + gruesomeness, so all the banter about dead bodies and such? I’m there. Given the kerfuffle I saw a little while ago over the plans to axe 2/3 of the female cast from Criminal Minds, I should also give props to the people behind Bones for bringing Camille in at the start of S2, making for a 50/50 balance in the core cast — only it’s more than that, really, because the lab scenes are often dominated by Brennan, Camille, and Angela, with Zack and Hodgins more playing support, and man, it’s nice after all these shows with their one token female character.
Of the two protagonists, Brennan* may be the more important one, but Booth is the one I enjoy. David Boreanaz is capable of less wooden performances than his stint as Angel led me to believe, and I like the way they handle his backstory angst: the scripts rarely wallow in it (at least in the two seasons I’ve seen), but it’s there, and gets brought up when it should be. (My favorite instance probably being an ep where Brennan said of a character, “I wish I had killed him.” Booth’s response: a very curt, “no, you don’t,” and then he got up from the table and left.) Their interactions are reasonably entertaining, and if I have one macro complaint on that front, it’s that I’d like a little more drama to leaven the comedy. But halfway through S2 they had a nice little run of eps that gave me exactly that, so maybe I’ll get more in the future.
My real macro complaint, though — and my real problem with Brennan — has to do with the way the show handles anthropology.
Forensic stuff first, because my comments here are fairly brief. I don’t know much about this field beyond some very basic elements of osteology, but it looks reasonably solid to my eye. The only thing that makes me roll my eyes is when they glance at a skeleton and instantly rattle off its sex, age, and race; that requires measurements, and even then the answer is often a matter of statistical probability, not certainty. But it would get old really fast if every episode showed the characters checking for fusion of the epiphyses and measuring the angle of the greater sciatic notch, and besides, the basic demographic facts of a the corpse du jour are usually not the interesting part of the story. So I’m fine with the scripts eliding that part and getting on to the more complicated questions.
What does bug me is the cultural anthropology. Oh, good lord, the cultural anthropology.
Quick primer for those with different majors: traditionally the discipline of anthropology is divided into four fields, those being biological (aka physical), cultural (aka social), linguistic, and archaeology. Of the four, the only one less likely to produce a forensic specialist than cultural is linguistic anthropology. Most forensic anthropologists, so far as I’m aware, come out of bio anth, which covers things like human evolution, primatology, and the physical aspects of modern human populations — nutrition, genetics, osteology, etc. Some probably come out of archaeology, which again might mean a background in osteology, and definitely some experience with excavating human remains and other kinds of evidence. The remainder of the field’s practitioners probably come from a medical background instead.
Your average anthro department will require its undergrads to have basic familiarity with all four fields, but most students end up focusing on one or another. Sometimes two, but that usually happens because the student has something particular they’re interested in, that sits squarely on the intersection of two fields. (E.g., archaeology and cultural anth, because the student in question is interested in the way the past gets mobilized for current purposes, like tourism or national identity.) The writers, however, insist that Brennan is a forensic anthropologist with enough of a background in cultural anth that she’s done actual fieldwork for it, and they insist this while a) giving no sensible reason why she did both and b) making her an atrocious cultural anthropologist.
How is she atrocious? Let me count the ways, starting with her lack of people skills. Fieldwork is a fundamental part of cultural anthropology, and the primary component of fieldwork is talking to people. Building a rapport with them. Being a student of what they have to say (rather than lecturing them on what you think), and trying to learn to see things as they do (rather than explaining how their ways of seeing don’t make sense). You have to have patience, and respect for alternate points of view, and a knack for making friends.
None of which sounds like Temperance Brennan. When they show her “understanding” cultural practices, it’s always in an incredibly didactic, hard-science way that comes across as patronizing at best, contemptuous at worst. And that understanding comes and goes based on the writers’ desire for conflict, so that she condescendingly “understands” say, the behavior of pony-play fetishists, while insulting Booth’s religion to his face. Which is compounded by the recurrent insistence that she doesn’t like psychology — a non-trivial component of cultural anthropology. How can you understand the behavior of people in groups if you have no idea what makes them tick as individuals? Not that the writers are any more consistent on that point; she can and does bad-mouth psychology as waffly pseudo-science, then turn around and (in the same episode) tell FBI investigators to photograph a killer’s apartment before they move anything, because there might be significance to how he’s arranged the objects on his shelves. Hello? Is that not psychological analysis?
I have no problem with Brennan when she’s being an uber-rational woman of science, concerned solely with bones and chemicals and other things that lend themselves to statistical measurement. I have no problem with her lack of people skills and her contempt for the social sciences. What I do have a problem with is the show’s writers then trying to claim she’s also very good at the things they just told me she was bad at.
Fortunately, I’ve found a workaround, a way for me to justify her behavior so I don’t beat myself to death with the remote every time she starts spouting off on cultural matters: I pretend her only background is in biological anthropology. Forget what the scripts have said about her doing cultural fieldwork; I tell myself she’s only ever worked with dead bodies and non-human primates. Then I have a simple explanation for why she boils every. freaking. thing. down to issues of dominance and aggression. (Which is probably bad primatology, too — but at least then it’s outside my own area of expertise, so it doesn’t make my brain hurt.)
moonandserpent has referred to Bones as “the show about Angel and the woman with no personality,” To me, it’s not so much that she has no personality, more that the writers don’t have a good grip on her, so her personality comes across as inconsistent. She’s bad at relating to people, but Sully (who was not a fellow uber-geek) wanted to run away with her forever after like four episodes. (Yes, I know he was set up as impulsive. Still.) She has a hard time communicating forensics to the layperson without drowning them in technical detail, but she writes novels about a forensic anthropologist that sell so insanely well her publisher does things like buying her a car. (Pardon me while I laugh hysterically over that one.) Some of it feels like the writers flinching back from making their female protagonist break certain bits of the mold; okay, we can say she’s socially awkward and all, but we have to tone back on that when it comes to her dating people, because we have to show that she’s desirable. Some of it just feels sloppy.
Not so sloppy that I give up on watching the show entirely. They have too much fun dialogue, especially among the secondary characters, for me to walk away. (Hodgins meets a hot woman from another lab. Angela walks up to introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Angela. I do facial reconstructions. Also Hodgins.”) But I do wish they would they would lay off things they don’t understand.
*It’s a bit odd, writing about Brennan doing this, Brennan doing that. For the first time, I have a sense of what it’s like to be someone with a moderately common name.