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.
And Bones has differentiated itself from standard drama bedroom travails with a rather sweet, old-fashioned emphasis on true love. The main characters do have sex, of course, and the show emphasizes in particular that the two lead women have adventurous, uninhibited sex lives. But without moralizing (for the most part, anyway), the show has insisted that it will not just be special, but better if and when Booth and Brennan, the FBI agent and the forensic anthropologist at the show's core, finally go to bed. "I'd encourage you not to forego Everest," guest star Indira Varma told Brennan in the fourth season's premiere, in a succinct statement of the show's guiding philosophy that love is the greatest mystery.
And it's also possibly the best show ever about the adult lives of nerds. The team of scientists who work with Booth (the token adult popular kid) and Brennan are successful, well-dressed, attractive, and brilliant, even if they still make Star Wars jokes, wear elf ears to holiday parties, and obsess over conspiracy theories. And unlike the leads on shows like The Big Bang Theory, they're also (with one notable exception) resolutely functional—enabled rather than crippled by the collective experience of their past social awkwardness and academic devotion.
Each of the elements that make Bones special is a slight variation on a common network television theme. But collectively, these approaches make Bones a wholly unique, if not always perfect, show. And when it focuses on the slow-building, deeply felt sexual and romantic tension between the leads, the show surpasses its pop procedural origins. As they've navigated the attraction, fear, and friction that lead to their first real kiss, a dénouement that took 100 episodes to reach, David Boreanaz has revealed skills even Joss Whedon couldn't pull out of him over two entire series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). Emily Deschanel has done work that ought to make casting directors reconsider their preference for her hipster sister as a romantic female lead. And after that climactic moment, the show did something brave and unexpected: Brennan rejected Booth, denying herself his love out of terror.
It's an astonishing moment of television, achieved without grotesquerie of any kind. That development, and Bones in general, are a reminder that no matter how fascinating suburban gangsters, family-man meth cookers, and sociopathic advertising executives are as dramatic characters, we don't actually need their intense extremes to illustrate our own natures. It's revealing enough to see murder and to be horrified by it, to have ideas and to argue over them, and to see the possibility of love and be both attracted and afraid.