March 17, 2014 6:00pm PT by Michael O'Connell
'Bones' Showrunners Talk Endgames, Fatigue, Spinoffs and a Potential 'Reinvention'
Bones hits episode No. 183 this Monday. And the veteran procedural, already renewed for a tenth season, approaches the end of this run in a similar scenario as last year: looking at what might be the series' final season.
Fox's oldest drama, and one of its steadiest ratings performers despite frequent time slot moves, Bones won't be something the network lets go of easily. Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly has called a 2014 conclusion "likely," but executive producers and showrunners Hart Hanson and Stephen Nathan say that conversation is still a ways off. What they do seem sure of is that their intended ending for the series will likely come at the end of year 10 -- be it a season or series finale.
PHOTOS: At Work With Bones' Hanson and Nathan and Other Power Showrunners
The duo recently chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about their evolving relationship with broadcast television, Hanson's work on new series Backstrom, what sort of circumstances they'd need to attempt to launch another spinoff and their constant internal struggles over when they should call it a day.
Hart, you have two shows again. How are you dividing your time?
Hanson: I'm going to be much more focused on Backstrom, and poor Stephen has to shoulder the massive bulk of Bones. This could be the year that kills Stephen Nathan.
Nathan: That's going to be the tension for season 10...whether or not I survive.
Hanson: It's been really hard. I don't go to the set as much. Luckily, Stephen is well-loved.
Backstrom got a straight-to-series order. What do you both think of all these changes to broadcast TV?
Hanson: Networks want fewer and fewer reruns, and it's a tough go. Bones is wrestling with that now. And Backstrom, which only has 13 set for air; we don't know how we're going to be able to do a back nine without a few more preemptions and reruns.
Nathan: They want to do continuous episodes, but the time-space continuum works against them -- or works against us. We would have to be off the air for some months to be able to make 22 episodes -- or even 13 or 15 -- all in one go. Shows like the Following or Sleepy Hollow, they can do that, but a 22-episode order...your hands are tied. We're trying to do as many as we can in a row, but there will always be these weeks where the network preempts us for something wonderful and special.
Hanson: Which we pray for.
Nathan: It's a whole new world, and everybody is trying to feel their way through it and figure out how it can be done.
Time slot moves are usually a bad sign, but, for Bones, doesn't it feel like a vote of confidence?
Nathan: It's miraculous. We didn't expect the whole audience to make the move to Friday.
Hanson: Our gang of 10-12 million people, they just find us and stick with us. We're good corporate citizens. [Fox] uses Bones, understandably, to launch other shows. That means moving around the schedule, but every once in a while we look at each other, put our hands on our hips, cock our heads and say, "Gee, I wish they'd try to make us a hit." [Laughs]
Nathan: We're going into our second decade, so I guess we're OK. But it's always a hard thing to do. The first few weeks of a time slot change...the audience has to find you again.
Hanson: We don't take it for granted. We know that one of these days, they might not show up. What if this is the move that the audience doesn't come along?
It's going to be very awkward.
Hanson: It's going to be awkward, and it's going to happen one day. It's always a bit nerve-wracking.
This many years in, knowing well in advance that you'll be back, do you approach finales differently?
Nathan: Halfway through season nine, we were approaching the end in two ways: how we'd end it if we went into a season 10 and how we'd end if the series was canceled. That was a possibility for a time. That's always a possibility. And that's how we're approaching next season. We now try to leave as much hanging in the balance as possible. The more fraught the ending is, the more people will follow us to Saturday morning at 8 or 2 a.m. on Thursday...we don't know when we'll be on.
Hanson: The series ender we have in mind, we keep bumping off because the series doesn't end, but I suspect that we will have to end season 10 that way. And if we do come back for an 11th season or more, we'll have to do some reinvention of the series to last that long. If not, we'll be OK for one more season with the ending we have in mind.
Nathan: Really, we've always been told that [the next] could be our last season. It doesn't change anything for us. We're writing ongoing characters, and they take us places we don't even know. They'll last into their 80s and we're just seeing them at one point in their lives. When Fox eventually cancels the show, these characters lives will end in this particular time frame.
Hanson: That was artistic and mystic, Stephen.
Nathan: That way we can do a kickstarter and do the movie!
Has your idea for the ending changed as it keeps getting pushed back?
Hanson: I have actually known since the pilot -- and I do on Backstrom, too. That doesn't mean it doesn't change, but I just got to have something to be aiming people at. That's just my way of working. I actually have it written somewhere. I also had Brennan's vows written, but when I went to plug them in, it wasn't them anymore. Life had changed. Here's the thing: We might get halfway through season 10, know that it's going to be the end of the show and Stephen, who is doing the heavy lifting on Bones, is going to say, "I don't like that ending. I'm going to do another one."
Nathan: Every season we start with the fantasy that we know where these characters are going to go, but it's just a fantasy. Maybe some people who are far better at their jobs than we are know exactly how a season will end and make sure it goes there.
Hanson: We go with the flow, baby. We're organic.
Nathan: We do plan for a season ender or an episode ender, but it's all up in the air. It can change. There are many variables at play.
What do you want most for the show right now?
Nathan: I would like a hiatus now. I would like a long hiatus.
Hanson: The fact is that you get really, really torn. It depends what time of day, what time of week, what time of the season you ask us. There are times where we go, "Oh f---, let's just pack this baby up and take a rest." Other times you get all excited about a bunch of ideas and realize the show still has life in it.
Nathan: I was at the mix the other day, talking to Emily [Deschanel], marveling at my experience on the show. We're at episode nine million or something, and I'm looking at it going, "Oh my god, this show still has life to it." It was an episode that I was enjoying so much. You're just supposed to have that feeling the first couple of years, and to have it in season nine.
Hanson: What can take the life out of a series is when the actors stop liking each other. By some miracle, these two incredibly different people -- I mean, they could not be more different human beings than David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel -- somehow enjoy each other's company. There's no tension on set, so it can keep going.
Nathan: Everybody likes coming into work, and we still like them.
Hanson: Sometimes we want it to stop and sometimes we want it to go on forever.
Do you think there's a reason it's becoming harder to launch a procedural?
Hanson: I wish I knew the answer to that question. There have not been a lot of new, hit 22-episode, hourlong shows on TV.
Nathan: People are also watching TV differently, they're watching the product differently.
Hanson: I think if you binge-watch a network show, you will start to hate it at episode seven.
Nathan: I disagree. I hear over and over again that people find Bones on Netflix or iTunes. They binge-watch a few seasons and then they start watching it on live TV. I think a lot of our viewers are replacement viewers in a way. I don't think it happens all that much, but I think it happens with the more established shows.
Hanson: We are starting to get letters from people who are graduating from science programs or even forensic anthropology because of the show.
Nathan: We hear from a lot of young women who have decided to go into the sciences because of the show.
Hanson: That's the best thing. We don't win Emmys, but we've got that going for us.
Would you ever attempt another spinoff after The Finder?
Hanson: We have talked about it to the network before, but it's a double-edged sword. I feel that if we did a spinoff from Bones while Bones was still going, our loyal audience would feel betrayed. Even when I did a weird non-spinoff spinoff with The Finder, the hate tweets I got from people.... There's a world for a spinoff if the audience knows Bones is going away.
Nathan: There's also the feeling that if it's with someone from our cast, they'd feel like it's them being banished.
Hanson: We could do something more along the lines of CSI or NCIS -- another bunch of people doing the same thing in another city.
Hanson: That sounds good.
Nathan: Hawaii Bones-0! No, we have no plans for a spinoff right now.