“Science is no country for storytellers, baby.”: Bones as Forensic Procedural.

Curator's Note

In his 2005 compendium, Crime Fiction, John Scaggs describes the forensic pathologist procedural narratives of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs as distinct from the police procedural, mentioning CSI as the “televisual development of the forensic science procedural” (101), with its reliance on technology and scientific inquiry as the source and means of discovery. I agree with Scaggs that CSI expands greatly upon televisual predecessors such as Quincy, M.D. and posit that the forensic procedural finds its fullest expression in 20th Century Fox’s serial, Bones. Below are six central components of the forensic procedural at work in Bones (Season 1). In my video clip, I have selected extended moments from an episode, “The Woman in the Garden,” to support my observations.


Identification & Extraction. Although Brennan identifies gender, age, and race through a quick preliminary examination, exact cause and time of death are typically assessed at the lab, which serves as the locus of action for the forensic procedural. Even when Bones is working “on location”, she links via satellite to the lab. This constant interface underscores a synchronicity of discovery and analysis. Instead of lab technicians simply facilitating police work, their discoveries drive the investigation. Police and FBI agents are the muscle; the lab is the brain. Such a strategy allows creators to assert the scientists’ productive technophilia, as well as reassert the primacy of the visual for the solution of the crime.

Dissection. At the lab, the first task is to extract the bones from any remaining flesh and then separate particulates and surrounding trace evidence (soil, fungi, insects, etc.) from those bones. Often, bodies are far too decomposed for conventional autopsy, so dissection refers to dividing the body into component parts – bones, particulates, flesh – allowing specialists to scrutinize each element. This dissection of the body marks the specializations of the “squints,” while also requiring cooperation, as each brings separate findings to a central hub” (the examination platform).

Hyper-Visual-Verisimilitude. Brennan directs her team to “magnify” photographic or digital evidence, slides of particulates, or a cross-section or extracted pieces of bone. In these moments, the camera does not take us through the slide/screen and into the technology; rather, it forces us to connect the rendered close-up with the scientists’ technical description. While camera perspective in procedurals such as CSI allows the viewer to see as or with the forensic investigator, the viewers’ gaze is restricted in Bones. We see as Booth sees, outsiders to the scientific process.

Reconstruction. Perhaps Bones’ most unique contribution to the visual rhetoric of the forensic procedural is “the Angelator”, a fantastical projection of volumetric imaging, a technology more frequently used in geology, meteorology, and in medical applications. In seasons one and two, “the Angelator” was the central method for Bones three-dimensional facial and scenario reconstructions.

Experimentation. In addition to the bureaucracy of the FBI, there is another hierarchy at work: the competition among forensic specialties to solve the crime, frequently managed through another narrative component of the forensic procedural: experimentation. In Bones, experimentation becomes a more regular feature in season two once Dr. Camille Saroyan, a forensic pathologist interested in the “admissibility” of the evidence collected by the forensic team, takes over the Jeffersonian’s administration from archeologist Dr. Daniel Goodman.

Identification & Incarceration. These two elements coincide in the majority of episodes; however, there are times when the narrative implies that one or the other might elude the team, amplifying the tension between solving the mystery and punishing the guilty that exists in all procedural narratives. Nonetheless, the forensic procedural offers the viewer a measure of catharsis, letting viewers see for themselves the forensic evidence.

[My title takes its quote from Dr. Jack Hodgins in “The Girl at the Airport.”]



Hi Jules,

I am so happy to see you working on Bones -- a series I have found fascinating and so totally strange. I like very much your emphasis on the collaborative nature of the team -- seeing the lab, then, as the "brain," which, as I understand it (especially from the organization of your visual and written piece) means that different figures work in their own areas of expertise but as one larger body. I want to raise, then, a couple of questions. First (and maybe I already answered this question), could you talk about the organization of the two parts of your piece? The clips are arranged so artfully and the written piece so scientifically! Do you find your own process of analysis of the series to be provided, in a sense, by the divisions staked out by the series itself?

Secondly, I love the description of Booth as he who is responsible for the "murky ways of the human heart." What do you think of Brennan's uber-specialization in the brainy area of science? What does this show provide by way of gender reversals? How does it dissect the body so that the "brain" and "heart" must appear distinct and separate from one another, only to be conjoined in the body of the collaborative team?


My strategy for this post was to boil my observations down to a set of narrative elements, common to almost every episode of Bones, that, for me, exemplified the characteristics of the forensic procedural as a related but unique kind of police procedural. Originally I had a series of video clips that strung together all the "identification" moments from Season 1 with all the "Angelator" moments with the "reconstruction" moments and "experimentation" moments ... you get the picture. But since I am a very novice video maker (with no editing software of my own) that series was running too long, made too big of a file, and was just too chaotic for viewers. So I turned to "Woman in the Garden" which had strong extended examples of most of my observations. The formulaic construction of the procedural is part of its appeal. Here I'm trying to carve out that formula, perhaps to the expense of what its unique compositional elements might mean for the genre as a whole.

I am working on a separate paper about the romantic pairing of Booth and Bones as a brain and heart union, a complimentary gender reversal (she thinks, he feels; she is solitary, he is communal; she collects data, he interprets ...) and an example of interdisciplinary collaboration between the "hard" science of forensics and the "soft" science of psychology. I have a lot of issues with how the series makes Bones a genius but interpersonally inept, makes her an anthopologist who seems incapable of understanding elements of her own culture (certainly nothing about its popular culture), and a best-selling book author who refuses to craft or assess dramatic scenarios in the context of her work (though in season 1 it seems less like she refuses to do this and more like she lacks the capacity!). I have been disappointed by the slow erosion of the more cultural elements of analysis given by Dr. Goodman (and Brennan) in Season 1. He's quickly dispatched and replaced by a forensic pathologist who provides the more typical 'reading' of the bodies in the lab as evidence of the criminal's behavior and motive. Also, the addition of Dr. Sweets, the forensic psychologist, really shifted the show away from exploring crime's social and cultural underpinnings in favor of a more conventional narrative of personal deviance. I have yet to do a closer reading of these later seasons to see more specifically how the brain and heart collaboration functions with the presense of Saroyan and Sweets as members of the Jeffersonian team.

Hi Jules,

I don't think you've carved out the formula of Bones at the expense of the genre. For one thing, we have just 300'ish words! For another, I think it's important to start with the specifcs of the series itself -- and you do, in fact, link it throughout your comments here and in response to other pieces this week, to other series. One of the things that makes an investigation of the procedural interesting to me is that, ultimately, there is not just one process of investigation within the shows which might fall under this generic rubric. (I say that having pushed it a bit by including a series that isn't exactly a "procedural" itself.)

I totally agree with you about the gender dynamics and the irritating ways in which Brennan's scientific knowledge seemingly undermines her interpersonal relationships and knowledge as well as her understanding of American culture (seemingly inconsistent, as you suggest, with her role as an anthropologist). I watch the series and wonder regularly how Kathy Reichs feels about this representation -- or if indeed, it is a kind of self-representation. Have you read much by or about her? Could she, too, be a popular writer and also be so clueless about popular culture?!


From all accounts that I've read, Reichs is happy with the way the series has been constructed, esp. the character of Brennan. She's actively involved in the production and draws *some* of the cases from her own history. I stopped reading the Brennan novels after the first 3 because I really didn't like the direction that the character was heading in that medium, but I wonder whether there's been any influence on Brennan in books that Reichs has written since Bones became a TV show. In the novels, Brennan is older (divorced with a college age, if I remember correctly, child), much more emotionally connected to people and her work, and works in the service of the police (in fact she often becomes embroiled as potential victim in at least a few of the stories). The TV show gives her greater authority. She stands outside of FBI procedures but right in the thick of scientific protocols, which provide the crucial data upon which the ultimate solution is built. Interestingly, in the early novels used no kind of "fancy" technology like the Angelator. The solutions were produced by Tempe's ability to "read" the body of the victim. There's usually one episode per season where Bones overtly articulates the "silent witness" status of the victim and the special ability of forensic anthropologists and pathologists to "hear" and "understand" this language. That's certainly a discourse reiterated by many many of the non-fiction texts by current professional MEs and forensic anthropologists: Bill Bass' Death's Acre, Mary Manheim's The Bone Lady and, of course, Michael Baden's Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (which becomes the basis for his HBO series Autopsy).

I'm intrigued to finally witness the big screen incarnation of another forensic novel figure: Kay Scarpetta. There are some made-for-TV movies based on Cornwell's novels in the works for the Lifetime Movie Network but they aren't Scarpetta focused. The movie that's in pre-pre-production (supposedly starring Angelina Jolie as Scarpetta) is supposed to be drawn from multiple novels but Scarpetta has undergone such radical change in those books over the years (not to mention the attention to high-tech gadgetry and forensic profiling/psychology and now neurobiology) I'm having a hard time imagining what kind of unified product might emerge. Of course the project is currently helmed by Mark Gordon of Criminal Minds and Grey's Anatomy, so I'm extra worried.

I have written a couple of responses that I keep erasing, not to disagree with you Jules by any means!  But, to be honest, I have never found Bones very engaging to watch.  (I have primarily caught it on an ad-hoc basis as reruns on TNT.)  And I am trying to figure out how your analysis of the series' forensic template either accounts for my response (why does CSI strike me as so different?) or can turn it upside down (for instance, have I been blinded by my dislike of the two lead actors? or is the heart/brain dualism as an ideological mode of structuring the forensic investigation what I am strongly resisting?). 


I appreciate your struggle to respond. : ) Even though Bones has grown on me, I must confess that I've been a resisting viewer partly because I really dislike the construction of Brennan's character and the show's turn towards more conventional psychologizing of violence (especially since the introduction of Sweets). I basically look to those first two seasons for the kind of forensic procedural structure that I find intriguing.

I wonder if your preference for CSI has to do with the way it draws viewers into the mechanisms of analysis (literally as we can enter the corpse and the forensic machinery) whereas Bones holds the viewer at bay. In your response to Amelie, you mention the "I Like to Watch" episode of CSI (one of my favorites!) and I confess I feel a bit like the Hard Crime crew (I think that's the name of the pseudo-reality show that follows the CSI characters) when I watch Bones. As if I'm on the outside looking in; I hear and am shown things that I will never (really) understand on my own. I mean CSI has inspired a whole generation of forensic education for college students and a readily recognizable tool to teach science to elementary and high school students. I'm not sure the same can be said for Bones, but I've not done any research to back up that hunch.

Sidenote: While I appreciate the more viscerally dead bodies on Bones rather than CSI's 'pretty' corpses, I also don't think that Bones avoids spectacularizing violence or its aftermath. I'm still grappling with the mechanics and meaning of death display difference in the two shows.

I also think Bones takes itself WAY seriously. While there's been a bit of play with the hard-boiled detective narrative (esp. in the Season 4 finale "The End in the Beginning" when we see Booth's pulpy coma hallucinations, which seem to have been inspired by a booth Brennan writes while sitting by his hopsital bed ... and that really make me wonder about what kind of writer she's supposed to be in the series!), overall, there's little if any self-reflexivity about genre conventions in Bones.

What are your thoughts about the other CSI incarnations: Miami, NY? I've had the same kind of luke-warm interest in taking up regular viewership of either. I just can't get past David Caruso's casting in one case, but I'm not quite sure why NY just hasn't caught my eye.


Your articulate my ambivalence about Bones extremely well!  That's exactly what I was struggling to say about the status of analysis in the two series.  I keep wanting to like Bones more than I do. 

As for the CSI spin-offs--I don't like them all that much, mainly because (like the NCIS spinoff) they are cop shows masquerading as forensice procedurals by virtue of the brand--and I also have problems with the male lead character on both series, whom I find to be very reactionary masculinist figures.  When I finished my CSI book I actually felt relief that I no longer had reasons to watch the spinoffs, and I have not watched either since turning in the ms. 

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