Fox's new forensics drama is CSI with older corpses.

TV and popular culture.
Sept. 13 2005 10:52 AM

Them Dry Bones

 Fox's new forensics drama is CSI with older corpses.

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Like most promotional material from Fox, the preview screener for the new forensics drama Bones (premiering tonight at 8 p.m. ET) arrived wrapped in gimmicky packaging: in this case, a sealed plastic envelope stamped with fake warnings: "Evidence. Keep Sealed. Do Not Tamper." If only I had listened.

Bones is Fox's version of CSI, but with more thoroughly dead people; unlike the gooey corpses on the CBS franchise, this show's skeletal remains are dry as dust. Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel, older sister of the saucer-eyed actress Zooey) is a brilliant yet gorgeous yet perennially cranky forensic anthropologist who's the author of several bestselling novels about her trade. (The character is based on real-life novelist and anthropologist Kathy Reichs.) Temperance works for the Medico-Legal Anthropology Unit at D.C.'s "Jeffersonian Institution"—a shady-sounding name if I ever heard one.

As the pilot opens, Temperance is just flying in from investigating a mass murder in Guatemala. The chain of custody at the Jeffersonian Institution is apparently somewhat less strict than that of the Fox publicity department, since Temperance totes around a decomposing skull, unwrapped, in her carry-on duffel bag.

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Bones dry as dust

Temperance is aided by a gang of techie nerds who enjoy slinging forensics jargon (drowned people are "soakers"; those burned to death are "crispy critters") and bonding over their substandard social skills. This kind of geeked-out backup team has become a staple in TV crime shows: 24 boasts one, as does Numb3rs. Bones' version consists of Temperance's brainy grad-student assistant Zack (Eric Millegan); a bug expert and conspiracy theorist named Jack (T.J. Thyne); and Angela (Michaela Conlin), a lusty computer whiz who's also Temperance's best friend. Angela is responsible for designing the single goofiest piece of faux-scientific technology I've seen on TV: a 3D hologram program that projects not only the revolving image of a reconstructed victim, but the likely scenarios of the killing, onto an ultra-groovy light table in the soaringly modern digs of the Jeffersonian Institution. Why these renderings can't be done on a regular computer screen, or sketched on a cocktail napkin, is never clear, but they look cool as hell.

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The driven, brittle Temperance hates to be psychologized, as we're reminded four different times during the pilot. She feels more at home with the dead than the living, as we hear at least twice. "You're a heart person; I'm a brain person," she reminds FBI special agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz, from Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). When a young woman's body shows up in Arlington National Cemetery—not buried, but dumped in a pond—only Temperance is able to identify the skeleton as that of a senatorial intern who disappeared two summers ago, Chandra Levy-style. She plunges clumsily into the case by hurling accusations pell-mell, bursting onto premises without search warrants, and generally offending everyone in sight.

The cerebral "squints," as Seeley calls Temperance and her team, may be knee-deep in advanced degrees and bafflingly pointless gizmos, but they lack the street smarts and people skills to solve a crime the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors, asking tough questions, and figuring out who's lying and why. Temperance and Seeley have a lot of heated exchanges about this while violating each other's personal space in a way that reminds us that they're also the single heterosexual leads in a crime-solving drama and thus must be struggling with Unresolved Sexual Tension. But whatever Temperance's Ph.D. is in, it isn't chemistry—Deschanel and Boreanaz seem about as keen on mating as imported pandas.

Memo to network execs planning an all-forensics programming slate for fall: Watching attractive people poke at skull fragments is not inherently interesting. The peculiar casting magic and grisly sensibility that made the original CSI such a success (one that has never quite been repeated even in the other two versions of that show) can't be invoked just by gathering a bunch of actors around an autopsy table—even one equipped with a neato revolving hologram.