Why Bones Was One of the Most Interesting Love Stories on TV

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Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz on Bones. Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FOX

After 12 years and 245 episodes, Bones is coming to an end. I know that will come as news to some of you. I mean, that’s the show with Zooey Deschanel’s older sister and the guy who played the brooding vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? It’s really still on?

Ever since it debuted on 2005 as yet another CSI lite, the series has flown under the radar of TV critics and the cultural conversation alike. It’s a breezy procedural most likely to be stumbled across while channel surfing daytime cable TV (where it seems to be in endless rotation on TNT), which means it gets no respect. And that’s a shame. Behind the technology geek-out, the horror effects played for gross-out humor, and investigations through quirky social subcultures, Bones quietly and slyly spun one of the most interesting love stories on TV.

It’s an easy show to dismiss in the age of dark dramas and long-form storytelling. World-class anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a genius with an over-healthy ego, no sensitivity filter, and severely limited social skills. She and her team at the prestigious Jeffersonian research authority — a fictional riff on the Smithsonian Institution — are on what seems to be permanent loan to the FBI and Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), former Army Ranger sniper and all-around Boy Scout with a badge and a gun. She’s an atheist who believes only in measurable evidence and logic and is suspicious of emotional responses to material situations. He’s a devoted Catholic boy who trusts his instincts, calls her science team “squints,” and masks his respect for science under flippant quips. Halfway through the first episode, they can barely stand one another, but soon evolve to grudging respect. Booth calls Brennan “Bones” first as a cheeky slight, then as an affectionate nickname, and finally a term of endearment.

Developed by creator-showrunner Hart Hanson from the books by Kathy Reichs, Bones quickly became a popular and amiable workhorse series for Fox. The practical detective with a savvy understanding of people and the scientific genius devoted to empirical evidence collaborated through each investigation and settled into an easy rhythm on an old-school episodic crime show. It’s as much workplace dramedy as detective show, playful and affectionate, and built on the chemistry of a core ensemble that has been remarkably stable over the course of 12 seasons. Meanwhile, the case-of-the-week format (with periodic story arcs sketched in the margins), remains the core of the show. It’s justice in 42 minutes.

At its heart, though, Bones is the story of two orphans, both in their own way abandoned by their parents, and in some ways by their siblings, who create a family with one another. Brennan’s parents, activists framed for a crime and hunted by a crooked FBI agent, left her behind in their flight to protect her and her older brother, Russ. When the pressure on the teenage Russ became too much, Brennan entered the foster system. Booth’s father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother fled his beatings, and Booth took the brunt of his father’s rage to protect his younger brother, Jared, until their grandfather (Ralph Waite) took them in. None of this is apparent in the first episodes. It takes seasons for their full stories to come out.

Brennan’s response is to wall off her emotions and resist intimacy. She retreats into the objective certainty of logic and facts, struggling with her instincts when her father (Ryan O’Neal), a wanted man who will do anything to protect his children from his past, reenters her life. Booth couldn’t be more different. He hides his brilliance as an investigator behind a veneer of easygoing banter and gut instinct, ready to open his heart wide in hopes of finding love and starting a family. Booth becomes protective of this tough, brilliant woman, and Brennan finds herself trusting this man who constantly confounds and amazes her.

I didn’t really notice the series until sometime during the third season. I was taken with the characters and the concept (I’ve always liked shows where intelligence and ability is celebrated) and within a couple of months it became my comfort-food show. When feeling low or anxious, I revisited an old episode. It’s not the mysteries, the tech, or the format that I love, it’s the characters and relationships, a fizzy yet hearty combination of eccentric, optimistic personalities and easy cast chemistry. I wanted to spend time in their company — especially Brennan and Booth, the opposites who connect on a profound level.

This is not your usual romance. There is no traditional wooing, no coy flirtations or hidden glances of longing, no tormented confessions to intimate friends over conflicted feelings. This isn’t opposites fighting a sexual attraction, but a bone-deep affection and connection that builds with every season. Hanson showed admirable confidence in the series’ longevity to play this out at a pace so measured you’d barely see the evolution on a season-to-season basis, let alone episode-to-episode. It paid off. Though Bones was never a top-ten show, it topped 10 million viewers in season four and kept those viewers during the defining seasons of its love story.

Dr. Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley), who arrives in the third season as an FBI psychiatrist assigned to monitor Brennan and Booth’s partnership, nods at the sublimated attraction before they will even admit it to themselves, let alone one another. Though he pushes them to open up about their feelings, they talk about everything but. That is, until the show’s 100th episode, “The Parts in the Sum of the Whole,” a fifth-season flashback revealing that Brennan and Booth worked together once before the pilot episode in a brief partnership roiling with sexual sparks and character conflict. The memory stirs Booth to finally confront what they’ve avoided for five seasons. The response is unexpected, heartbreaking, and achingly honest. Brennan’s rejection of Booth, due to her fear of intimacy and emotional vulnerability, hangs over the show for the next season (most profoundly in “The Doctor in the Photo”) and echoes back when Booth, moving on to a new relationship, has his heart is broken by yet another rejection in season six’s “The Daredevil in the Mold.”

And then, while caught up in the heat of a case, Booth and Brennan get a second chance at love. Where so many shows lose their mojo by puncturing the will-they, won’t-they tension without charting a story beyond the sparks of anticipation, Bones skips the celebration and consummation of the couple entirely and jumps into season seven with Brennan and Booth already navigating the negotiations and compromises of cohabitation. They’re not the type to follow custom — they marry two years after having a child together — and for all the conventions of the crime procedural, the show isn’t conventional in its love story. Over the course of their six-season-long relationship, between solving crimes and battling a serial killer with a disturbing obsession with Brennan, Booth gives Brennan the encouragement to bring her compassion and generosity to the surface, and Brennan inspires Booth to be more open and honest about the anxiety he keeps locked under his old-school ideas of masculinity.

The series ends as it should — not with the obsessive killer going after Booth and/or Brennan, but with the team coming together to meet a challenge. It’s everything that makes Bones great: the collaboration between professions, the support of friends, the loyalty of a family forged in common cause. Brennan, who evolves the most throughout the series, faces the finale with a concussion that threatens everything she believes defines her: her intellect, her accomplishments, her ability to see what others miss. But watch the way Deschanel plays Brennan confronting the crisis — with anxiety and fear, sure, but also with calm and composure. She talks through her nervousness with her friends and co-workers, sharing anxieties she would have hidden a few seasons ago. This openness is a measure of how far Brennan has come in dealing with the tricky, unquantifiable realm of emotional distress, but perhaps more tellingly, it suggests that she has embraced the idea that she is more than simply her intellect and reason and professional ability. She has a full life. She cares about so much more now, and so many people care deeply about her. The final episode, titled “The End in the End,” provides a satisfying farewell to Bones, but it could just as easily be simply another milestone in a never-ending love story.

Bones Was One of the Most Interesting Love Stories on TV