Monday, January 27, 2014

How I Almost Became a Fan of TV's Bones

For almost 10 years now, we've been watching the TV show Bones, and for nearly that long I've been complaining about it. When Bones premiered, it seemed like a perfect fit for the rest of the content on our Tivo: we were already fans of CSI and both Shira and I had read a number of Kathy Reich's books that the main character was based on.

I wasn't a huge fan of the books because I felt that men were portrayed as somewhere between useless and evil (whereas Brennan, the main character, could do no wrong). On the show however, they flipped this dynamic 180 degrees: suddenly the main character was lost without a man in her life. Bones, the main character's nick name, was nearly incapable of navigating any social situation. Instead she had to rely her partner, then boyfriend, and finally husband, Booth to help her along. Of course, Booth, the man in her life was incapable of processing the science Bones was so adept at. It was like the writers needed to hit us over the head: they *need* each other. Yeah, we got it.

But in the last few months, I've started looking at the character differently. What if Brennan's difficulty with social skills wasn't just a cheap writing trick. What if the writer's were making an elegant point. What if Brennan had Asperger's syndrome, which would put her on the Autism spectrum? Now I know extremely little about Aspergers and Autism, but I'm fairly sure they would exhibit themselves as social awkwardness and help explain why the main character just doesn't "Get It" when it comes to social situations.

It turns out, there's some truth to this hypothesis. Back in 2007, the actress who plays Brennan answered this question directly:

So clueless is Brennan when it comes to the way most humans interact that Boreanaz's Booth has been forced to become a sort of guide to the world outside Brennan's laboratory.

When asked if Brennan might not actually have Asperger syndrome - a condition many doctors consider a form of high-functioning autism - Deschanel nodded.

"Hart Hanson, the creator of the show, and I discuss, you know, that my character almost has Asperger syndrome, and, you know, if maybe if it was a film, that I maybe specifically would have Asperger's," she said.

"If you look at the character of Zack, [a Brennan subordinate who's] played by Eric Millegan, he almost definitely has Asperger syndrome," she added.

"I think it's fascinating to have a character who's brilliant in one area and clueless" in others, Deschanel said.

Through this lens, Bones becomes a much more fascinating show. Here's a woman with a condition many would think would be debilitating, and she's an accomplished scientist, wife and mother. Further more, she's surrounded by people who know her, yet never apologize for her. They accept her for who she is, and embrace her strengths, and help her with her shortcomings (like we'd want anyone to do with us). The fact that they never come out and say she's Autistic may even make it more more powerful. (Would I like to be introduced as: "Hey, this is Ben, and he used be dyslexic?)

That's not to say that the show plays her character perfectly; this whole notion that she's a prize winning author who pens steamy sex scenes, seems a little improbably considering her loose grip on social interactions. But, I was willing to let that slide. Instead, I was happy to support a show that put a member of a potentially disenfranchised group front and center.

And then, they lost me.

In a fairly recent episode we're treated to a dream/fantasy sequence with the main character and her Mother. During this episode we learn that Brennan's inability to step out of her analytical world is due to her mother leaving her at age 11 or so. In other words, what we're looking at is a character with trauma due to a loved one leaving, not a genetic condition like Aspergers.

I doubt the writer's want me to read this much into it, but as you can tell, I'm disappointed. They had crafted a successful TV character who many would have thought impossible: a female lead on the Autistic spectrum. And then they throw it away. Why not own it? Why not embrace the personality you've created, and use it as a vehicle for making a difference in our society?

What can I say, I believe TV can make a difference.


  1. Great post, Ben. I think you know this condition runs in my family. I've always viewed Brennan's character as just over the autism spectrum fence. On the other side is Sheldon Cooper.

  2. Thanks George. Good to know I'm not totally off in left field.