In life, Shakespeare insisted that some are born great, others achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. But when it comes to television, shows fall into one of the first two categories. And since the debut of The Sopranos on HBO in 1999, the possibilities of greatness for TV dramas have narrowed even further. There are the ingenious, frequently violent, regularly profane shows that make splashy, acclaimed entrances on premium cable channels. Then, struggling to compete critically, is everything else.
Because of that division, it's been a particular pleasure to watch Bones—for several years an enjoyable but occasionally uneven FOX procedural—strive for greatness and sometimes achieve it. It's a welcome reminder that no channel has a premium on excellence, that great entertainment isn't defined by a level of sex, violence, or moral ambiguity, and that setup is less important than execution when it comes to plumbing the human heart.
When it comes to live-action comedy, network television has had an easier time maintaining its lock on critically acclaimed shows, in part because the premium channels haven't really attempted to compete with them. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX's boundary-pushing, uproarious sitcom about hilariously immoral bar owners has, for five years, been among the best comedies on television. But it keeps company with network shows like NBC's The Office and 30 Rock, and this season's freshman shows, Community and ABC's Modern Family. Sunny is an exception rather than the rule.
But in the realm of hour-long dramas, premium cable sprinted ahead of its network competitors with shows that were more violent, more intensely sexual, and more reliant on antiheroes. An event like the rape of Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos, dialogue like the hilarious and profane conversations on The Wire, a character like the family-man serial killer on Dexter, or a concept like the sad sack cursed with an enormous penis in Hung would never make it on network TV, no matter how late the show aired—particularly in an era of super-charged Federal Communications Commission fines. By venturing out from the shallows and into the Mariana Trenches of emotion, shows like those have conveyed the sense that they are exploring a wider range of the human condition than the networks are capable of.
Network dramas are also at a structural disadvantage. Premium cable shows only need to produce 13 excellent episodes a year to be perfect, while network shows need to stay fantastic for a standard 22-episode order.
Bones gets away with exploring extreme violence because its main characters are investigators of exceptionally grisly homicides rather than their perpetrators, and because the show lingers on the aftermaths of those crimes rather than portraying their commission. Rather than shock us into sympathy tinged by horror and amusement for killers, the show looks into how the main characters struggle with unnatural death. Over five seasons, the characters have floundered as they tried to explain their profound respect for the dead, grappled with their role in the accidental death of a serial killer, and perjured themselves to save a killer to whom one of them is related. Bones, like all crime dramas, relies on multiple murders. But the show is also concerned with multiple ways of looking at murder, giving it greater depth than comparable series that simply cycle through the routines of cops and criminals.