Prudence, Fortitude, Justice

by Dan H

Dan is unimpressed and faintly offended by the heroine of Fox drama Bones
Bones is the latest in an infeasibly long line of TV series in which murders are solved by random members of the public whose mathematical ability/obsessive compulsive disorder/serial killing/job as a magician's assistant/time machine grant them an insight which mere professional crime fighters can't match.

The unlikely heroine of Bones is a forensic anthropologist by the name of Temperance Brennan. And she's fucking awful.

She's got a PhD. She's really good with guns. She's hot. She does Kung Fu. She's right about everything. Her one "weakness" is that she's not good at relating to people - except when her inability to relate to people might lead to her looking anything but awesome, then she develops the diplomatic instincts of a skilled hostage negotiator. She's travelled the entire world, written several best-selling novels, and appears to be approximately twenty-eight.

She's like Sherlock Holmes. Very much like Sherlock Holmes, right down to possessing no knowledge which does not pertain directly to her job: she spends the first three episodes saying "I don't understand that" at the most basic of pop-culture reference and I was honestly expecting to hear that she didn't know the Copernican model of the Solar System any second.

Like Holmes, she leaps to ludicrous conclusions based on no evidence, but is proved right because she allegedly uses "science". She kneels down next to a body, glances casually over its left shoulder, and then makes a bunch of arbitrary statements about not only the person's identity, but frequently their personality, desires, and life history (pretty much every female victim we've had so far has "fought for her life" in a way which I understand we are supposed to find admirable). And like Holmes she's got her very own Doctor Watson, following her around going on about how fucking great she is.

Brennan's personal Doctors Watson are the team of quirky scientists who back her up. The thing is, these guys are every bit as well educated as she is, every bit as experienced (twenty-eight, remember) and actually do the lion's share of the work. But because they don't have Mystic Protagonist Powers they have to go through the tedious rigmarole of actually performing scientific tests and admitting that evidence might have multiple interpretations, instead of just having the answers handed to them by the Gods of Plot Necessity. So somehow we're supposed to take everything which these guys work out as evidence that Temperance is Really Amazingly Cool.

In case you haven't cottoned on yet. I really, really, really hate Temperance Brennan. She's a total Mary Sue. But I think I could actually forgive that if she didn't have one last irritating habit: every couple of episodes, she suddenly morphs into a Neocon spokeswoman.

I first noticed it around episode two: The Man in the SUV. In this episode a moderate Muslim who has worked closely with the US government is killed when his car explodes, and Brennan is called upon to investigate. Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanas' character) brings Temperance to talk to the dead man's wife. The wife complains that she and her family are being treated like criminals, Booth apologises, but Brennan refuses to. Treating a respected member of the Muslim community like dirt is, according to her, completely justified because - and I quote - "Muslim fundamentalists have declared war on this country".

Now I consider myself an open minded man. I accept that some people will hold beliefs like those Brennan expresses in that scene, I even accept that those beliefs might be justified. What I cannot accept is those opinions being expressed as fact. Temperance Brennan's defining feature is her absolute reliance on fact, on her ability to remain utterly objective in any situation. When she speaks about moral issues, it is with the same authority with which she speaks on scientific issues. We are no more expected to question her assessment of the War on Terror than we are expected to question her assessment of a set of human remains.

If it was an isolated incident, I could probably overlook it, but right-wing assumptions and ideologies crop up all over the place. A disproportionate number of the killers seem to have come from minority groups - the obligatory gangsta rap killing, the Muslim fundamentalist making dioxin in his kitchen, and most recently the "S&M Perverts" who handcuffed a (nice, middle class, white) girl in their bondage dungeon and force-fed her drugs.

The episode that upset me the most, though, was The Man on Death Row. The bulk of the episode is extremely strong: it's the good old "find the evidence to clear the innocent man, before he gets executed" plot. Even better, he actually turns out to be guilty, which is a nice twist on the old chestnut. About halfway through, though, Temperance has another one of her Daily Mail outbursts, when another character dares to suggest that they oppose the death penalty. "Some people deserve to die," says Temperance with her trademark scientific detachment, she then goes on to talk about her experiences in Rwanda, and talk about the people who "decapitated children as they sat at their desks at school."

And of course nobody has a reply. Because Temperance is arguing from a position of absolute authority. The passionately abolitionist lawyer in car with her can't summon a single word in response to this argument, despite the fact that Miss Brennan seems to be suggesting that capital punishment would present an effective deterrent to genocide.

From this point on, the episode becomes a poorly handled public information broadcast about Why It Is Morally Wrong To Oppose the Capital Punishment. You see, it turns out that the man they were trying to acquit was actually a serial killer, and his plan all along was for Booth and Brennan to uncover the bodies of the other girls he'd murdered, in order to start a new inquest, in order to get out of being executed. His gloating final words to our heroes are particularly telling: "There might not even be a death penalty by the time they're finished."

On hearing this, the defence lawyer whose determination to reopen the case got the whole thing started in the first place develops a look of absolute despair, as she realises the full horror of what she has done: blinded by her moral objection to capital punishment, she has allowed an evil man to evade justice. When the episode ends, the audience is left in no doubt of its message. If capital punishment is abolished, the criminals will have won. There can be no justice if we can't kill people who commit horrible crimes.

It is a lie commonly perpetuated by the neoconservative media that liberal attitudes to things like terrorism, capital punishment, and gun control are the result of wishy-washy emotional hand-wringing, and that conservative attitudes are based on a logical, rational analysis of the evidence. This argument is embodied in Temperance Brennan. As a "scientist" she cares only about "facts" and "logic". So when she says that "the world would be a better place if some people were killed", we have to accept it as gospel. We aren't allowed to point out that the idea that killing one person can materially improve the lives of other people who have no contact with that person is manifestly nonsensical. We certainly aren't allowed to play anthropologist ourselves, and point out the similarity between Temperance's belief in the beneficial effects of executing serial killers and the belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice. We are told that Temperance is a totally rational person, so her opinions must be the result of totally rational argument.

Or to put it another way, we are told that Temperance is really smart, so if we disagree with her, we must be dumb.
Themes: TV & Movies

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 01:29 on 2007-09-08
You know which fictional detective I really like? Dale Cooper, from Twin Peaks, mainly because of the way he's used to lampoon Sherlock Holmes and all the other ultra-rationalist fictional detectives out there. Holmes and his ilk use apparently-rational methods (which actually involve wildly irrational leaps of logic) to solve crimes. Cooper inverts that and uses explicitly irrational methods, ranging from dream-quests to throwing rocks at a bottle while thinking about Tibet, and finds that his investigation progresses equally well.

Temperance, based on your description, sounds incredibly odious. She reminds me, oddly, of Creationism: she represents the idea that if you dress something up in supposedly scientific, rational terms, then you can claim to be scientific and rational, which isn't the case at all (just look at, say, Scientology, which uses E-meters and carefully documented "tech" to preach crazy garbage). It's like a cult of science as opposed to actual science: using the forms and rituals of the scientific priesthood to utter prophecies and edicts that have no actual empirical basis.
empink at 09:33 on 2007-09-08
I knew there was a reason I didn't need to glance in the direction of this show XD. Personally, I think everyone that's come in contact with it probably needs to be strapped in a chair and forced to watch the first season of The Wire to balance things out.

As for the neocon bent of Bones and its extreeeemly unlikely heroine, all I can say is YIKES. Even 24 occasionally allows us to have pity on the wives and children of terrorists.
I suppose the next thing is for some senator in America to come out saying that if Temperance said it, it must be true :P

@Arthur B she represents the idea that if you dress something up in supposedly scientific, rational terms, then you can claim to be scientific and rational, which isn't the case at all
And personally, I don't know which is more distasteful, shunning science because it is scientific and rational, or pretending your batshit theory is science. The funny thing is that most cults of science will actually do both, dismissing other legitimate science as the bad stuff and setting its crazy theories up as the only truth to ever walk the earth.
Wardog at 11:30 on 2007-09-08
Hey, hey, hey, I can think of at least one immensly compelling reason to watch Bones: David Boreanaz and his Funny Little Face. Seriously, I was never into the guy when he was Buffy's main squeeze but over the years he's gone all soft round the edges and he has this permanently confused caveman crinkle between his dark eyes, and I find that bizarrely irresistable. Witness my horrific middled aged woman crush. He's basically Angel with a thin layer of ordinary cop-guy but it works for me. Also I like to support him. Because he's so cute and confused and he always seems to be saying "Gosh, I'm on the set of a TV show. How did I get into this acting gig?"
Arthur B at 11:34 on 2007-09-08
If there is an episode of Bones where he flips and tears out someone's throat with his fangs that would be totally awesome.
Dan H at 15:12 on 2007-09-08
And on today's installment: Temperance's Authorial Voice tells us that Cosmetic Surgery Is Evil.

What's annoying is that the show *does* have a lot going for it. Pretty much any scene in which "Bones" is off-camera is great.
Wardog at 15:46 on 2007-09-08
We also learned that being a lawyer is slightly worse than being gay. I'm still waiting for the Evil!Homosexuals episode.
Dan H at 17:46 on 2007-09-09
And it gets better and better:

Episode 12 "The Superhero in the Alley" we meet a group of roleplayers and comic book geeks, who are "delusional, unable to distinguish reality from fantasy".

Episode 13 "The Woman in the Garden" Temperance beats up an El Salvadorian gang leader in a fist fight without breaking a sweat.
Rami at 10:25 on 2007-09-10
From the way this is going, I wonder if they're going to try and come up with an episode where Temperance coolly points out that it's rational to believe that the supreme power that created the universe comes down to speak to national leaders every so often, and therefore it is only logical to follow unquestioningly everything the Bush administration says...
Wardog at 16:05 on 2007-09-10
Dudes, what is WRONG with you all! WHERE is your damned sense of priorities. In Episode 15, Two Bodies In The Lab, David Boreanaz DANCES in the most adorable fashion imaginable. Screw the oppressive and fucked up right wing agenda. Get a sense of PERSPECTIVE. David. Boreanaz. Dances.
Dan H at 16:10 on 2007-09-10
Of course in the same episode, she beats up an armed FBI agent-slash-mafia-hitman with her hands tied behind her back
Arthur B at 16:30 on 2007-09-10
And I suppose if David Boreanaz danced off a cliff you'd dance after him, huh?
Wardog at 20:45 on 2007-09-10
Wouldn't we all?

Like a pied piper for the 21st century...
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