Note: Once I started writing this, I quickly realized that it was going to be quite long, and that I needed more time than I have today. So this post will continue tomorrow, which will have the added benefit of being able to actually use the 100th episode of Bones rather than just try to talk about in a stupid spoiler-free way.
The 100th episode of Bones is airing tonight, and as often happens on the momentous milestones of long-running shows, there will be some extra-special events that I’m sure will get fans all riled up about Booth and Brennan.
I don’t usually write about shows like Bones, partly because they’re not the types of shows that are considered great fiction worthy of extensive critical attention. Bones’ creator Hart Hanson has described the process of writing Bones as being more like craftsmanship than artistry, and it’s easy to see where that argument comes from. Unlike art, which we usually associate with words like “new,” “innovative,” “unique,” “unusual,” “genius,” – words defined by singularity and novelty – procedural dramas like Bones are carefully built around constant, predictable repetition. That certainly doesn’t mean they’re easy to make. There are good procedurals and bad procedurals, and I promise, if you think about it, you’ll be able to tell the difference. But the process of creating them is about thoughtful re-combinations of familiar elements; it’s a craft of arranging things you already recognize into slightly altered, unexpected patterns, so that even if you’ve never seen an episode before, you already sort of know what’s going on. They’re partners with opposite personalities. They solve murders. They have a team of wacky sidekicks who help them. They are perfect for each other, but they will never get together. This happens over, and over again – in fact, on Bones, it’s happened 100 times already.
In this sense, it’s pretty obvious why I don’t devote a weekly blog post to the new episode of Bones, or any procedural. Every post would be essentially the same, and once every few months, there’d be an “oooh, Booth said something sexy to Brennan. I wonder if this is finally going to make something happen between them!” paragraph. Nevertheless, these shows are worth talking about, because it’s clear they’re doing some kind of important cultural work. Procedurals have an audience, often much bigger than the number of people who watch Mad Men or even Lost. It’s not unusual for the ratings on a repeat of CSI to beat up anything else airing in that timeslot. One way of attacking the problem is thinking about the standard content of a procedural, which is certainly compelling. They’re almost always about crimes, so you can look at Law and Order and talk about how comforting it must be to watch a show cram the senselessness of violence into a pat, conclusive, hour-long drama and force it to fit inside some kind of logic once a week. Procedurals usually take place from the perspective of a cop or lawyer, so there’s probably something pleasurable about seeing things from the side of People Who Can Do Things About It rather than the typical, mundane Other People Are Supposed To Do Things About It viewpoint.
When thinking about procedurals, though, I’m much less interested in the content than in the perpetual, unvarying repetition. Maybe it’s fun to watch a fiction that draws black and white lines around tricky, subtle, frustratingly ambiguous problems, but how can it be fun to watch a television show that does that in the same way, in the same timeframe, with the same main characters, every single week? One of the oft-repeated criticisms about crime procedurals is their total lack of realism. Detective work or forensic science requires massive amounts of tedious, unexciting work that never gets depicted on television – it’s squashed into a montage of banging on doors and peering fixedly at test tubes. And yet oddly, the form of a procedural makes it so that even though these shows may not be depicting tedious repetition, they are actually reenacting it, carefully and without variance, every single episode.
What to make of this weird contradiction? Why do we find it pleasurable to watch something that, in its repetition and predictability, seems more like work than entertainment?
Tonight’s 100th episode of Bones is part of the solution. As I said when I described what my weekly blog post would look like, every few months there’d be an added line about how Booth said something suggestive to Bones, or about how they held hands. The show is entertaining because in the midst of the work (in the case of Bones, the murder investigation), occasionally there are glimpses of other, bigger, personal things. At the end of last season, Booth had brain surgery, and it has forced him to deal with his feelings for his partner and re-think his own character. These life-changing moments don’t happen in every episode, so most of the time, you’re just going to get the same old murder investigations, with some co-worker jokes thrown in. But every once in a while, gestures toward change and development pop up. They are suspenseful, or scary, or exciting, or hopeful – they are pleasurable. And they’re as pleasurable as they are because they take place against a largely unchanging backdrop.
Procedurals have a hard time balancing this stuff; if you introduce too many new elements, the formula changes. Either you figure out a way to start repeating the new formula, or you refuse to let any of your changes have long-term implications for the show. Bones does the former – when Bones’ favorite intern was found to be guilty of a particularly gruesome (and cannibalistic!) crime, the show introduced several new quirky interns, and built a repeating cycle of reappearing interns into the show’s everyday routine. House uses the later system, which I find to be far more frustrating. At the end of last season, House undergoes a significant character shift, has a mental break, and spends a long time in a mental institution, where he figures out how to cope with his Vicodin addiction. While he vows to become a better person, this season has allowed him to slip back into all the old obnoxious foibles, and rebuild the show’s initial formula.
This, by itself, cannot be sufficient explanation for the strength of the procedural form. For one thing, while the Very Special Episode where they kiss is always everyone’s favorite part, it happens so rarely that you have to wonder how a show could hold an audience’s attention while they wait for those events. More importantly, claiming that the special 100th episode comprises the dominant appeal of the show is to ignore the thing that actually takes up 98% (okay, maybe 95%) of the show’s running time – the repetitive, formulaic aspects. Any argument about why these shows are so appealing has to include the impact of the shows’ most distinctive element: the procedural.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion of On Procedurals!