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This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
There’s nothing outwardly glamorous about making a broadcast television procedural — which makes walking through Bones‘ expansive, sun-drenched offices a bit startling. Tucked away off one of the quieter backstreets in the northwest corner of the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City, the plush space is the envy of many a neighboring executive producer.
“This was Zanuck’s office,” says showrunner and executive producer Stephen Nathan, with a deferential eyebrow raised to late film exec Richard Zanuck. Bones‘ decadelong tenure in the offices has been a source of pride for Nathan. On this November afternoon, in the middle of filming the series’ 200th episode, he’s arranging his office furniture in an intimate circle for creator Hart Hanson and this reporter. Nathan names his current and past Fox lot neighbors Steve Levitan (Modern Family) and David Shore (House) as contemporaries with arguably more high-profile series who nonetheless envy his workspace. “David had the shittiest office I’d ever seen in my life,” says Nathan. “No. 1 show in the world, and it looked like a bomb shelter.”
Bones earned these digs the hard way. Never a media darling or awards magnet, the show has chugged along and has become an unlikely golden child for both its studio (20th Century Fox Television) and its network (Fox), which will air the milestone episode Dec. 11. It’s a feat shared by only a handful of primetime dramas, nearly none of which managed to retain the status of their networks’ second-most watched series in season 10. Bones pulls in an average 9 million weekly viewers, trailing only hot freshman drama Gotham. The show is licensed in more than 150 territories and has been translated into more than 45 languages, becoming one of the studio’s most lucrative dramas of all time.
ZZ Top lead singer Billy Gibbons has made several cameos on Bones, playing Angela’s (Conlin) unnamed father.
Still, the case-of-the-week dramedy starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz has been a network outlier since its 2005 premiere. For years, it was the only Fox crime procedural, and its tone — a frequently comedic take on grizzly murders — wouldn’t exactly fit on a crime-loving network like CBS.
“I think somewhere there’s a mathematical formula to determine how many people you can get to come and watch a show and how many you can get to continue to watch the show,” says Hanson, who affectionately admits his series is “a little bit weird.” “Very early on, we decided that we had to hang on to the audience we had and not try for more with stunts.”
That’s not to say they haven’t pulled off a few. Bones flirted with the so-called Moonlighting curse when it coupled off long-platonic Dr. Temperance Brennan (Deschanel) and Special Agent Seeley Booth (Boreanaz) at the end of its sixth season. Despite anxiety about the decision from all parties, losing the tension of the central will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic didn’t scare off loyal viewers. Hanson and Nathan, who can resemble a younger, good-natured Statler and Waldorf when they bicker, spent a long time debating the romantic timeline — though they now seem to agree they were right in having the two leads get married.
Deschanel and Boreanaz (in the pilot, left, and in the 200th episode) say camaraderie with the cast always has been a priority. “A lot of shows last for a long time, and the actors don’t like each other. … I’ve heard some stories,” says Deschanel. “I think it’s something that’s always been important to us. It’s not an accident that we got along.”
The 200th episode, a longtime passion project for Nathan, also takes a risk, striving for cinematic scale in the most literal sense. It’s a Technicolor homage to Alfred Hitchcock‘s catalog, reimagining the cast — co-stars Michaela Conlin, T.J. Thyne, Tamara Taylor and a slew of returning guests (Ryan O’Neal and Cyndi Lauper) included — in an L.A.-set 1950s thriller. Boreanaz, helming his ninth episode of the series, returned to the director’s chair for a whopping 14 days of often-complicated filming. “We have a shot of David hanging off of a DC-3 as it flies away,” explains Nathan of the estimated 20 percent lift to the episode’s budget. “Knowing that this was going to be much more expensive, we carefully saved money over the course of the first nine episodes of the season, but it was much more than anything we’ve done before.”
These days, no TV series is a sure bet for 22 episodes, let alone 200 episodes. In its early years, Bones often found itself on the renewal bubble and bouncing around the network’s schedule, though its loyal viewers ultimately brought it earlier orders and even a two-season pickup in 2009. “I think the network saw the value of the show, but they didn’t like it,” says Hanson. “Kevin [Reilly] didn’t like it.”
“Shooting at all of the different locations for this episode was a challenge,” says Boreanaz, who directed the 200th. “Films get five or six days at a site. We don’t have that luxury.”
The same can’t be said for their new network execs. Regardless of how much Fox brass cared for Bones — Gail Berman originally ordered the pilot before Peter Liguori greenlighted the series and Reilly oversaw the majority of its run — there’s little doubt about the feelings of current Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman. They have championed the series on the studio side since Hanson and producer Barry Josephson first broached the subject of adapting author Kathy Reichs‘ loosely autobiographical crime novels about an aloof forensic anthropologist. And in their new posts, they now oversee the show from both the network and studio side. “For the studio, it’s been incredibly successful internationally, in syndication, on SVOD and Netflix,” says Newman. “It’s been a great calling card, creatively. When we’re looking to bring writers in, and they’re not sure, we tell them to talk to Hart and Stephen. And for the network, this show has been on five different nights in seven different time periods. To have a show that resilient is an incredible luxury.”
To get an idea of how much the top players in the Fox world value the series, one only needed to look around at the 200th episode wrap party and cake-cutting. A few days after our meeting in Nathan’s office, the duo was sharing a stage with a who’s who from the parent company — 21st Century Fox CEO and chairman Rupert Murdoch, flanked by co-chair Lachlan Murdoch and Fox Networks Group’s Peter Rice, smiled on the stage throughout toasts.
The cast at the November cake cutting for the 200th episode
See more Kevin Reilly’s Eight Best Fox Moves
“I’ve never met the man before,” said Deschanel of Murdoch at the party. “When they told us he was here, I thought, ‘Wow.’ We all know we work for him, essentially, but I’ve never seen him.”
The pomp and circumstance that accompanies the 200-episode milestone — a banner of congratulations hangs over the Fox lot’s Motor Avenue gate — also has many looking back at the series’ genesis. Like a lot of shows, Bones could have gone in a completely different creative direction. “I thought it had a Romancing the Stone quality to it,” recalls Boreanaz of the pilot script, first given to him by Berman, whom he knew from his time on Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (she served as executive producer on both). “I went in, and we actually had someone else lined up for the character [actress Elisabeth Rohm]. But they had three other girls come in to read, and Emily was one of them. I remember she was just so confident and had this gusto to stand up to me about something during the scene. It was her role to get.”
O’Neill with Deschanel
Walden recalls working closely with Hanson to nail how the procedural elements should play out on the show. “I was in New York during the upfronts, and Hart was working on this series direction document,” she says. The two couldn’t agree on whether each week should focus on recent murders or cold cases. “I was at a restaurant, and I spent almost the entire dinner outside, in the cold, having this very heated conversation [debating] how old the bones should be.”
But in TV, longevity also brings change. Bones said farewell to a series regular this season with the departure of John Francis Daley, whose dance card as a feature writer and director is quickly filling up. Hanson, who ceded day-to-day control of Bones to Nathan years ago, now is almost solely focused on the Fox midseason dramedy Backstrom, starring Rainn Wilson, though both he and Nathan say that an 11th season of Bones seems more likely than not. Walden and Newman’s new roles could make that renewal more likely to happen, but it might all come down to whether Boreanaz and Deschanel decide to sign on for another run. (Neither star would reveal their plans.)
Either way, Bones now is a show operating on a playing field with few true contemporaries. Shorter orders and event series fill the schedule, leaving milestones like a 200th episode even harder to achieve. “We’re long-distance guys,” sums up Hanson. “We learned to make TV when the goal was to go for a decade. No one was getting their money back if you died before three years. … This is the end of the backend. I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.”
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