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About a year ago, Bones creator Hart Hanson was presented with the opportunity to write a new crime show in a TV market saturated with CSI clones. Turns out, Hanson is up for a challenge.

In the 1990s, he developed the TV series Traders, about a group of stock brokers in Toronto. “Coming up with new stories set in an investment bank was just really tough,” he says now of his creation, which won several Canadian television awards.

After three years of that particular challenge, his now-agent cautioned him against moving away from a comfortable career in Canada, saying “you’ll just be another of the millions of people in L.A. looking for a break,” Hanson remembers. In response, he headed south, and soon got that break on Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven (Entourage) and Paula Marshall (Out of Practice).

Hanson went on to work for such character-driven shows as Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia before 20th Century Fox approached him about the idea for Bones. When he told them that he had no interest in a procedural drama, “they said, ‘Oh no, we know. We think your take on a forensics show is what we’re looking for,’ ” Hanson recalls.

So he met with executive producer Barry Josephson about the idea of basing a show on forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs and the character she created in a series of bestselling books, Temperance Brennan. “We had a real meeting of the minds on how Bones might unfold, so I signed on, wrote the pilot, and here we are,” Hanson says.

Reichs herself has a producer’s credit on the show. “She was very involved at the beginning, and intermittently we have her come in to sit with the writers,” explains Hanson. “She reads every script and gives us comments on them, and she’s a pretty good resource for the writers. When they’re coming up with ideas, they call and ask, ‘Is this possible? Would this ever happen?’”

Character under the microscope

Hanson’s solution to making Bones stand out from the crime drama crowd was to focus on character and humour as much as the case of the week – following the precedent, he says, of shows like Moonlighting and The X-Files.

Bones‘ version of Dave and Maddy, Mulder and Scully is FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and anthropologist Brennan (Emily Deschanel), who works with him on cases where the bodies are too decomposed or mummified for normal investigative techniques.

“We found that you can take almost any murder and figure out how the body degrades to the point where a forensic anthropologist is the only person who is going to be able to give you any clues, and we go from there,” says Hanson. “So instead of finding a fresh body, we usually find one that’s anywhere between a week and 10,000 years old, and it applies to her.”

Hanson doesn’t see Brennan’s specialty as limiting the show’s range of cases, but rather putting a different spin on the crime solving aspect. “The whole field of forensic anthropology is really technically advancing to the point where we can do almost anything that the CSI people can do, just with a different set of tools,” he explains.

Deschanel was cast after a long search for the right actress to play the brilliant but socially clueless Brennan, nicknamed Bones by her partner. “She walked in and she just was the character,” Hanson recalls. “She is smart and beautiful and funny, and she’s slightly different. She’s just left of centre as an actress.”

Brennan’s parents disappeared when she was 15 – their bodies were never found – and she ended up in the foster system. “Her incredible drive and curiosity to find out what happened to people, and not to let anyone die anonymously, comes from that,” Hanson notes.

Booth, a former sniper, is “a guy in search of redemption,” he says. “He has to do a lot of good to make up for what he sees as the evil he’s done in the world.”

Because of his admiration of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (“he’s just a brilliant man”), Hanson was familiar with Boreanaz’s work. “I saw David over many years just grow and grow and grow as an actor, and I thought he was a great leading man. An old fashioned kind of guy – Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, mixed with a little Cary Grant.”

Hitting the funny bone

The chemistry- and quip-laden interactions between Brennan and Booth are byproducts of the show’s focus on character, as is Brennan’s comical ignorance of popular culture; her catch phrase is “I don’t know what that means.” There’s also an ensemble of scientists, or “squints” as Booth calls them, working with her, all with varying levels of social ineptness.

Booth: “When the cops get stuck we bring in people like you. You know, squints. You know, to squint at things.”
Brennan: “Oh, you mean people with high IQs and basic reasoning skills?”

“The characters as I designed them are very intelligent – much more intelligent than I am – and we get a lot of fun out of that degree of intelligence and their dysfunctional approach to the normal world,” says Hanson.

He describes the humour of crime investigators and emergency responders as an inspiration for the tone of the show. “They’re very funny people, and they’re very funny about things that generally you can’t be funny about. We’re trying to do our network television version of that kind of humour. We’re definitely not way over to where those people are – they can laugh at anything. We have to be a little more sensitive. But we really like that sense of black humour they have as a coping mechanism.”

FBI Agent: Look, you’re very experienced within your field on bones and such, right? Doesn’t your gut say suicide?
Brennan: I don’t actually use my gut for that, sir.
Booth: She really, really doesn’t.
Brennan’s boss: Like all of us at the Jeffersonian, Dr. Brennan prefers science to the digestive tract.

Raising the dead

The comic relief is welcome given the often-gruesome subject matter. But the show also strives to add some heart, not treating victims as simply a pile of bones to be investigated. Originally, Hanson intended to use the show’s holographic device to bring the victims to life. Known as The Angelator, after Brennan’s colleague Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) who invented it, the characters use it to recreate the crime.

Angela: This computer program which I designed, patent pending, accepts a full array of digital input, processes it, and then projects it as a three-dimensional holographic image.
Booth: Okay.
Brennan: Did you get that?
Booth: Yeah, that patent pending part.

“We thought that would be our version of doing flashbacks,” Hanson explains. “We thought we’d be able to see them and connect with them, but it didn’t work. It’s still very technological. It’s a cold thing. It’s very good for describing what happened to people, but not showing who they are.”

Instead, Bones turned to other means to humanize its crime-of-the-week victims. “If you think of what would be left behind if you simply vanished off the earth now, it would be people’s memories of you, and video and pictures,” says Hanson. “So we use that as much as possible.”

Life after American Idol

Bones returns for the second half of the season in a new Wednesday timeslot, which Hanson expects to be less of a challenge than the original pre-House slot. “Now, we get the benefit of promotions on House and American Idol, and the benefit of following American Idol. I think a whole bunch of eyeballs are going to realize we exist, and we hope they’ll check us out and stick with us.”

He promises to explore the mystery of Brennan’s missing parents, and to maintain the balance between character and case. “I think we have caught our stride in the tone of the show, so I think our plots are a little better, our mysteries are a little tighter and more compelling than they were in the first half,” he says. “Since the most important thing in this show is the characters, we’ll keep on peeling them back, and I hope have people as invested in their personal lives as in their professional lives.”

Cast your eyeballs on new episodes of Bones starting Wednesday, January 25 at 9 p.m. on FOX, or Global in Canada.

Check out the full Q&A of my interview with Hart Hanson, with more on the show and the writing process.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)