The Dead That Keep on Giving: On the 10th Year of TV's 'Bones'

Haaretz's TV critic charts our fascination with fictional dead bodies.

In 1944 Agatha Christie published a novel, “Death Comes as the End,” the only one of her crime stories not set in the 20th century. Any viewer who tunes in and watches one of the many TV crime procedurals on offer is bound to come to the conclusion that while death may come as an end to some, it is just a beginning for others.

While it is a widely accepted truth that the dead can’t talk anymore (apart from the many zombies and Knights of the Living Dead), it turns out that their earthly remains can, and do, speak volumes. They only need someone to draw the information out of them, i.e. a forensic medical examiner who will stand over their bodies and make them divulge the secrets about their death.

For the last 10 years we – that is me, and the likes of me, the undiscerning TV viewer – have been following the screen exploits of forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan, in a series called “Bones.” This is her nickname, as she can glean a lot of information by contemplating the bones of contention in the police morgue.

“Bones” is currently in its 10th season in the U.S., having just passed the 200th episode mark and on hiatus until the end of March. In Israel we can watch the ninth season on HOT Zone on Saturdays. The last episode I saw was entitled “The Sense in the Sacrifice”; most of the episodes have alliterative titles, related to the state of the cadaver and the location in which it was found.

One of the series’ producers is Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist herself. She has so far produced 17 novels and four novellas in which a female forensic anthropologist, one Dr. Brennan of the fictional Jeffersonian Institute in Washington D.C., helps the FBI solve baffling crimes. In the TV series, Dr. Brennan, (the very blue-eyed Emily Deschanel) who is socially awkward (which means below any scale of emotional intelligence) is also an author of crime novels about a forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs. Her partner in solving crimes is Seeley Booth (played by David Boreanaz), a tough sleuth and a firm believer in instincts, hunches and God, while she is a militant atheist and devoted rationalist. She can speak rationally about her own sexual urges while in bed with Booth, forecasting the foreplay, so to speak. Yes, opposites attract, and Bones and Booth, between eliciting information from a series of corpses in various stages of decomposition, managed to produce a daughter (in season 6) and get married (in season 9). They quarrel, bicker, argue and agree, adding the spices of sex, romance, dark humor and life to the overall stew of death.

A fascination with dead bodies is not new to crime fiction, either on the page or on screen. One of the first things we learn about Sherlock Holmes, the father, so to speak, of detective fiction based on and actually foreshadowing forensic science, is that he spends a lot of time in a hospital “beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick ... to verify how far bruises may be produced after death.”

Then we had, in the 1970s, the TV series “Quincy, M.E.,” with Jack Klugman as a medical examiner who bases a lot of his conclusions on what the remains on the dissecting table tell him, to complement the clues deduced from ballistics and fingerprinting. And shortly after that there was – and still is – Patricia Cornwell, a journalist turned forensic technician turned novelist, with her 22 crime novels about the exploits of a forensic examiner, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

And after that, a deluge: in every episode of CSI (in its Miami, LA or New York edition) and NCIS (Washington, D.C., LA or New Orleans) we get to spend many minutes watching the pathologist (they come in both genders and many hues of skin) hunched over something that was once a human body, touching, handling, dissecting and examining much too close for the viewers’ comfort bits and pieces of brains, livers, kidneys and bones, or of what once were someone’s bones. It is all decidedly not for the squeamish.

Our natural distaste or disgust with too much carnal knowledge of the deadly kind makes the producers and writers of all these series overload the writing with humor, lots of it macabre, as if being witty and jovial shields one from the direction in which the way of all flesh points us. One trick of diverting attention from this is to make the pathologist a beautiful and charming female. Even part of the female sleuthing duo of “Rizzoli and Isles” is a forensic medical examiner, Dr. Maura Isles.

Anyway, returning to “Bones,” it is not only about the dead, but also about those who make their living by trying to deduce a lot based on a bit of vertebrae. And so we have Angela, who can reconstruct a face based on a cheekbone, and her husband, Dr. Hodgins, who can analyze a bit of a bug found in some human remains, and tell us where the body was before it got to where it was found. There is the psychologist nicknamed Sweets, who is very good at questioning suspects and providing counseling to his colleagues. All have families and troubled relationships, and there are many story lines to follow, apart from that of a particular episode having to do with a particular body, or parts thereof, found in a state you don’t really want to know about, to say nothing of seeing it.

And yet we watch. At least enough of the living do, to make it go on for 10 seasons so far. Apparently, death becomes not only her, but all of us.