"I'm giving up all shows with higher stakes than Bones," I slacked a coworker with two episodes to go on a TV revival that would eventually kill off its male lead. I didn't mean it, but it's a nice idea. It's a fantasy I return to whenever shows betray the integrity of their main characters' relationships or put too high a premium on "subverting expectations." Bones hardly ever crossed that line. The long-running Fox procedural, which played like a deeply optimistic show made by people working through a lot of cynicism, liked to tease that dramatic things could happen, but on-screen there was almost nothing that couldn't be fixed or soothed. It was a good show for people who were tired of worrying all the time.
One of the first times I watched a full episode of Bones, David Boreanaz's Booth hallucinated Stewie from Family Guy to herald in a last-minute brain tumor twist and I thought, "Maybe not." The joke was on me; I watched all 12 seasons. Bizarre Fox tie-ins aside, Bones was chill in a way that was both infuriating and intoxicating. The show wrote out a major character at the end of Season 3 and waited a full nine years to get him out of a mental hospital for a crime he didn't commit because the writers were sure no one watching would remember him. Bones had staggeringly low expectations that the average viewer would return week to week, which only made me want to return more. The more determined the show was to offer a casual viewing experience — a no-strings-attached, check-in-when-you-want-but-no-pressure kind of deal — the more welcome I felt to treat it as the opposite. I love to be made to feel I am exceeding expectations just by tuning in every week to watch a network procedural where people solve crimes using bones.
Aside from the spark between Booth and Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and the satisfaction of watching a bunch of take-charge ladies do science, Bones scratched the itch that every procedural does: seeing characters excel at jobs that have a purpose. They caught killers in 42 minutes. They upheld systems of justice that protected the victim and prosecuted the bad guy. (In 2019, just two years after it ended, Bones is almost old school.) But Bones took a step back from the Law & Order: SVU model by focusing on victims who were already dead, which kicked the urgency down a notch. The killers Booth and Brennan chased weren't usually repeat offenders, so when they weren't on the hunt for a bona fide Bones Serial Killer, future victims weren't their big motivator. They wanted justice for justice's sake.
Bones was about high stakes because it was about murder, but the main characters' traumas were mostly in the past. Aside from a pair of very notable exceptions — Zack Addy's (Eric Millegan) serial killer apprenticeship in Season 3 and Sweets' (John Francis Daley) death in the Season 10 premiere — the series defiantly moved its characters toward better lives. A lot of their progress was romantic, because Bones absolutely had to Bones, but the show wasn't so narrow as to suggest that there was just one way to be happy. Hodgins (TJ Thyne) was paralyzed halfway through the 11th season, and Bones (good on it) never gave him a miracle cure. It just gave him the time to adjust to and embrace his new life. And while the showrunners were probably right, especially in the later years, that the typical viewer wasn't versed in the show's history, Bones' respect for its characters also netted it loyal fans who returned week after week to a show they could trust not to be too upsetting.
That's not a small thing. That sort of storytelling isn't upheld as prestige — and, to be sure, some of the best shows are brilliant at being upsetting. No series has an obligation to cater to its fans, either. But Bones understood that it was comfort television, and it took that responsibility seriously. (The writers left 11 full minutes at the end of the series finale for the characters to, basically, hug it out.) In a Peak TV era where shock value is king, Bones lasted 12 seasons by trading buzzy twists for dependability. There should always be room for that kind of warmth.
Bones is available to stream on Hulu.