'Bones' 100th Episode
Fox's comedy-meets-corpses series is far from spinning in its grave
Stephen Nathan doesn't use the typical approach most executive producers of hit TV shows do -- ratings or awards -- to measure a show's success. In the case of Fox's "Bones," which celebrates its 100th episode Thursday, Nathan uses another criterion.
"There's a bit of tongue-in-cheek to every episode," he says. "We're winking at the audience when we show a body that's truly horrific. We know if we see the Twitter boards where someone says,
'I couldn't eat my dinner!' we're doing something right."
No show survives on the strength of disgusting corpses alone. "Bones," however, is an unusual television animal: A criminal procedural grounded in being a reliable, workhouse audience generator that's also very modern in style and tone. Think of all the quips cops are known to make at murder scenes to keep their sanity, and expand that dark humor into an hourlong series.
Call it -- as the producers do -- a "crimedy."
For the past five seasons, the creators behind this crimedy have built a skeleton piecemeal: Each week, a mystery -- what, or who, killed this body? And each week,
a romantic comedy between two leads (a social misfit forensic anthropologist and an FBI special agent with his own issues), clearly nuts about one another yet unable to take the obvious next step.
It has taken 100 episodes, but this show -- which almost couldn't cast its female lead, which played time slot musical chairs and which had a tone that baffled the suits -- is now earning its highest ratings ever (7.2/12).
"From the outside, I thought of 'Bones' as a well-produced show with two terrific leads that had chemistry; it was a solid utility player, but didn't have a home on the schedule," says Fox Broadcasting entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who joined the network from NBC in 2007. "Once I got to know the show, I started thinking of it as the secret weapon."
With good reason. "Bones" has never been a flashy, high-octane series. It never got the "event" treatment that Fox dramas "24" or "House" did. But it always drew a core audience that tuned in no matter where it turned up on the dial.
"It seemed that we had 6 million viewers who would follow us anywhere," creator/executive producer Hart Hanson says. "It was like we were trying to shake them and they'd still show up."
But "Bones" is more than the sum of its audience's dedication; it makes many bottom-line executives happy. The show airs in 175 territories around the world; the U.K.'s Sky has broadcast "Bones" nearly every day for the past year, and Germany's RTL has aired it in the same time period for the past 100 weeks. In Canada (where Hanson grew up), new episodes now air a day earlier than in the U.S.
"It's something that's proved almost bulletproof," says Mark Kaner, president of television distribution with Twentieth Century Fox, the show's production home. "It's not too American; it's empathetic, it's smart, it's funny."
"Bones" has also made TNT execs smile, thanks to repurposing and reruns. The cable network strips and stacks the series most evenings, averaging 2.25 million viewers. A Memorial Day marathon last year convinced programmers it also had a place in the dayparts. "It really is a great brand extender," says Michael Wright, executive vp and head of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM.
The other brand "Bones" extends is Twentieth's, chairman Dana Walden says. "No one looks to this studio for conventional programming, and 'Bones' very much supports our goals as a company creatively."
Still, early on, "Bones" was no sure thing. It was born when executive producer Barry Josephson saw a book by Kathy Reichs, a real-life forensic anthropologist. Intrigued, he pulled in Twentieth, and Walden suggested Hanson, who had an overall deal with the production company, to come in and write it.
"I had no interest in forensics," Hanson recalls. "But I thought I'd like to meet Barry, because he's quite a character. Then, I thought there was a good story here but no one would do it my way -- more humor, less forensics."
Josephson and Hanson were immediately on the same page, and went on to produce the pilot. Fox's then-head of programming Gail Berman brought on David Boreanaz (who had a loyal fan base thanks to his roles on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"). The first snag, however, came in trying to cast Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, a character modeled after Reichs' protagonist, one with certain challenges.
"The character Hart wrote was offbeat, she didn't understand certain cultural references, and had nuances to her that were difficult for some actresses to grasp," Josephson says. "I was grabbing at anybody and everybody (for casting)."
A friend of Josephson's pointed out Emily Deschanel's small role in a rough cut of 2006's "Glory Road," and she clicked right away.
"Emily has a quirk, but she's commercial," Josephson says. "The network was in transition and it didn't seem we could please either regime. Emily was our great white hope."
Cast in place, and pilot picked up to series, the next hurdle for "Bones" was surviving the first two years. "That first season, what was challenging for the writers was trying to find a storytelling engine in a show whose fundamental conceit is that the person is dead already," Walden says.
"This show to us always had a tremendous amount of humor, and that was odd for the network and the studio because they saw it as more of a straight procedural," recalls Nathan, who came on board with the first episode. "It was always more of a show about character."
On top of network and studio hovering, the writers and producers also had to get used to being shifted around on the schedule, thanks to the yearly interference of "American Idol" each spring. But it proved the show's durability -- those 6 million reliable viewers emerged and kept coming back.
"Most shows wouldn't weather that storm if they were moved around," Reilly says. "Audiences are impatient and get confused."
Then, a breakthrough came from an unlikely source -- the marketing department at Fox, which in the show's second season came up with this promotional slogan: "Solving murder takes chemistry."
"It was almost like those guys got it before anyone else and sold it to the network," Hanson says. "That's when the audience realized they could laugh and vomit in the same episode!"
While it hasn't ever been entirely smooth sailing, since then, "Bones" has been that solid, reliable workhorse that kept some laughing and some away from their dinners. These days, Hanson gets to focus on the show's finer points -- including the never-consummated relationship between its leads.
"There's a huge chunk of the audience who care very deeply about the Booth (Boreanaz) and Brennan (Deschanel) relationship," says Hanson, who'll be evolving their connection in the 100th episode.
"But," he adds, "I know the ending. If I see the end of the show coming -- I could do things in the time that would be best to unroll that story. For now, the longer I can keep them apart, the better. The noisiest fans say, 'Do it now or I'll never watch the show again,' but they've been saying that for two years."
Meanwhile, for Season 5, Hanson has his attention turned to a new pilot, "Pleading Guilty," and he'll be more of a "guiding light" for new "Bones" episodes, Josephson says.
But not to worry, he adds -- "Bones" is the classic well-oiled machine by now. "We have such a good staff now, and so many good executive producers, it'll be OK," he says. "And if necessary, I can step in."
Nor will "Bones" stand still. Twentieth isn't against selling the show's format to other markets.
"I could imagine allowing some of our licensees to create their own version of the series," says Twentieth chairman Gary Newman. "Many of the themes in 'Bones' are universal -- there's no reason that couldn't happen down the road."
For now, "Bones" is resting comfortably in its grave -- rather, time slot -- with at least temporary assurance that its first 100 episodes won't be its last. According to Reilly, they're done rattling things around.
"The show feels creatively alive, the cast and crew bring a lot of joy to their work, fans are really happy with it, and performance has been great," Reilly says. "We're staying the course. We're not going to fix what ain't broke."
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