As veteran Buffies—Buffers? Buffedayeen?—already know, when David Boreanaz thinks, his whole head frowns. This is part of his pickled charm. Back when he was Angel, a vampire with a soul, he managed to be dark, dangerous, sensitive, and sexy, but sentimental, introspective, and self-deprecating too, even occasionally clownish. As Seely Booth, a former Army sniper turned FBI agent on Bones, he’s puffed up a bit, but he still has about him too much low chortle, mean street, and muddled sincerity ever to pass for a Cary Grant or a Pierce Brosnan. He is less nightclub, more laundromat. I didn’t believe him the other Tuesday when he told us at a dirty crime scene that he was wearing a $1,200 suit.
Whereas Emily Deschanel as Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist by day and a mystery novelist by night, seems to step into her lab directly out of the pages of a glossy fashion mag, between scratch-and-sniff ads for bulimia. We know her hardscrabble backstory—parents who disappeared when she was a child, durance vile in foster care—but what we see is so together, it shuts us out. All snap, crackle, and pop, Brennan, whom Booth calls Bones, is one of those women who doesn’t know she’s lovely. Incapable of flirting, she lacks every other social skill as well. (In one episode she fails to notice that every male in a small town is hitting on her, after they have given up on the blonde veterinarian who turns out not to be a cannibal after all. In another, she almost causes a riot at a hip-hop club by talking way too much about a “tribal” beat.) She suggests a zebra on the African veld, ready to bolt at the first whiff of predator, except that Brennan is also a lethal kickboxer, part Lara Croft, part Wesley Snipes, and as casually indifferent to other people’s soft body parts as she is to their feelings and opinions. She is fixed entirely on her own job, a vocation if not a mission, and guided wholly by her own principles, on which she hops up and down as if they were a pogo stick.
Have you noticed that it’s okay these days for women to be nerds, at least on television and sometimes at the movies, like Sarah on CSI or Hermione in Harry Potter? Whether this has anything to do with gender confusion on the Internet, I will leave to the professionals. But Bones, the best drama of the new network season, has established the terms of its screwball romantic comedy inside a procedural cop show: The FBI cares about people, both vic and perp. The forensic-science lab-rat “squints”—holographic artist Angela (Michaela Conlin), child prodigy Zack (Eric Millegan), and trust-fund entomologist and conspiracy theorist Hodgins (T. J. Thyne)—care only about “distal phalanges,” “epiphysis fusions,” “sphenoid fragments,” and “Dermestes maculates.” Nevertheless, even as Booth and Bones team up in our nation’s capital to identify the bodies and track down the killers of congressional interns, Middle Eastern non-terrorists, deaf children at a prep school, 6-year-olds abducted from a mall, D.J.’s mummified in methamphetamine, a girl in an abandoned fridge, and a guy in the stomach of a bear, it is the erotic chemistry that transforms matter into Moonlighting.
That said, there is more to the mix. Bones is a sexed-up variation of all the CSIs. What makes these programs about anal swabs, toenail clippings, and poisoned nipples so popular, in spite of David Caruso’s self-righteousness, portentousness, and semaphoric shades? Acting and writing, yes. But also work. We like to see people do something besides insult their family members. In Las Vegas, Miami, and New York, as at the Jeffersonian research laboratory in Washington, D.C., professionals play well with one another, and their sandbox is a functioning collective. It’s not just expertise that appeals; it’s collegiality, group dynamics, and morale. For the same reason in the earlier days of television we welcomed sitcoms that got out of the house. Mary Tyler Moore’s TV newsroom, like Alan Alda’s M*A*S*H unit, was more interesting and somehow more textured than the den at home where we sat, at once hollow and besieged. Add to this sense of inside info and shared endeavor the Technicolored elegance and obscene magnifications of sneaky medical machines that can see through bones, hear blisters, snapshoot ghosts, and fingerprint regret—the Peeping Tomism of the camera and the lab—and what we get is omniscience, when we aren’t grossed out.