Bones - Season 6, Episode 1 (Review)

I watch Bones. I could say it's because I frequently assign students in my Human Osteology, Bioarchaeology, and Forensic Anthropology classes to watch and critique it, but even when I'm not teaching, I watch Bones. It's a guilty pleasure. The drama of the show is pretty bland and the forensics tends to be far too slick for reality. But mostly it's a kind of academic schadenfreude - I wait for the writers, prop people, and actors to slip up. And they always slip up. I sometimes read a blog in which a doctor critiques House, M.D. With a hat tip for the idea, here goes... some (semi-)regular analysis of the forensics of Bones. (Feel free to post in the comments if I missed something!)

The Mastodon in the Room

Episode Summary
Overall, this was one of the worst episodes in recent memory. The season opener has a lot of work to do. When we left the team, they were all headed for different places: Brennan and Daisy to Indonesia to search for Homo floresiensis fossils, Booth to Afghanistan to train the locals in military practices, Angela and Hodgins to France for some reason I don't recall, and Sweets apparently to play at a piano bar because Daisy dumped him. The conceit that gets them all back is that Dr. Saroyan, the pathologist and medical examiner for D.C., is in trouble. She can't conclusively identify the remains of a child that were discovered three months ago as those of a missing boy. Miss Julian, whose job is fairly elusive, calls the team back from their sabbaticals abroad to help save Dr. Saroyan's job.

Upon their return, the team figures out quickly that the skeleton and the missing boy do not match up. Saroyan first notes that all she can tell is that the skeleton is from a boy. Brennan discovers Harris lines in the tibiae, and Intern Guy notes porotic hyperostosis of the cranial vault, which add up to malnutrition. Angela pokes her head in and says that the eye orbits are really round, and Brennan exclaims that she definitely sees that the skull is brachycephalic. They conclude the child was Asian. Hodgins estimates a much earlier time of death that doesn't fit in with the disappearance of the missing boy. Later, Brennan sees a hyoid fracture on the x-ray, and Hodgins finds a sliver of wood embedded in the bone. Coupled with damage to the sternum, they conclude it was likely an accidental death (from a toothpick or something similar) and failed CPR/Heimlich maneuver. Based on the finding that the twine used to wrap the child's limbs was industrial-strength thread and the analysis of the jacket, which was made from a fabric only manufactured in North Korea, Brennan and Booth look for an industrial sewing operation. They find the only North Korean in the place and confirm that the 3-year-old child choked on a wooden crib nail and CPR did not work, so the mother and great-grandfather buried the boy. To round out the episode, Booth and Brennan find the missing boy, who was with his father all along.

Forensic Comments
  • Why didn't Dr. Saroyan do a DNA analysis of the skeletal remains? If the case was so high-profile, surely she could have gotten the funding to test the kid's DNA. This would have told her that the child was male and, more importantly, that he was Asian, thus saving her job and not needing the rest of the people to come back.
  • Cam inexplicably said she knew the skeleton was male, but unless the field has progressed significantly, she has about a 50/50 chance of knowing this from skeletal remains. Brennan did not question this assessment. (However, see here for some new research coming out of neighboring NC State in this regard.)
  • Harris lines that are evident on xray show arrested growth of long bones, and porotic hyperostosis is related to iron-deficiency anemia (which can be caused by a host of things, such as malaria, parasites, and nutritional issues). These two issues do add up to malnutrition. The team probably should have noted whether or not there were enamel hypoplasias, which are also generic indications of a disease or nutritional issue.
  • Angela's estimation of Asian for the race of the skeleton is pretty ludicrous. Again, I'm not up on the latest research, but a forensic anthropologist's ability to estimate ancestry from the remains of someone so young is marginal at best. The subadult skeleton just has not matured enough for the typical ancestry characteristics to be seen. If anything, they should have looked at the incisors; shovel-shaped incisors could be seen in the deciduous dentition and would indicate Asian or Native American ancestry better than the eye orbits.
  • Physical anthropologists don't use the cephalic index anymore. (Side note: I just discovered that Wikipedia's page for cephalic index cites me. Odd.) Brennan's comment that the skull was brachycephalic can refer to the general shape, but again, estimating ancestry in a child is very difficult. DNA analysis would have been a much better way to go here.
  • Intern Guy pointed out the lesions on the skull but claimed that he forgot what they were called. No self-respecting graduate student of physical anthropology would forget in the last 7 months what porotic hyperostosis is: it's common and easy to identify, so Intern Guy would have had a lot of experience with it. It was especially unbelievable because he busted out "Harris lines" and "histological profile" immediately after that.
  • Speaking of porotic hyperostosis, someone should have coached Emily Deschanel how to say it. I laughed out loud at her attempt, which was something more like, "porotic hyperostotosis." There was definitely an extra syllable in there.
  • Is it just me, or was that child skeleton super fakey fake? Was the production budget of the show cut?
  • Finally, why were Brennan and Daisy looking for fossils? I think last season the explanation was that Brennan is the best physical anthropologist in the world. But she's not a palaeoanthropologist - she's actually kind of the opposite. She appears to be trained to figure out cause of death, not to do comparative anatomy of hominids. I'd love to find some H. floresiensis bones, but I don't have the training to know what to do with them.
The dialogue in this episode was really quite atrocious too. Brennan is always on a continuum - sometimes the writers make her the most socially-stunted and ridiculous-sounding person in the world (as in the episode in which she attempts to flirt with a fellow forensic anthropologist in England), and sometimes she seems like a typical academic. Last night was somewhere in between. The episode's drama was a bunch of anti-drama: all the characters acted in the way you would expect. Booth found a girlfriend, Brennan was weirdly socially stunted, Angela and Hodgins moon over one another, Lance and Daisy look forlorn, Saroyan is a mix of confused and bemused.

Forensic mystery - D (dead child is sad but not interesting)

Forensic solution - C (the team did an adequate job, but DNA would have been better, and it should have been done months prior)

Drama - D (too much recap, replacing people in their old roles)

(See also the A.V. Club's review of this episode. I don't think they normally do Bones, though.)


Anonymous said…
Bones is such a sad show. Not because the topics or story line are terribly emotional, but because it is supposed to have a true forensic anthropologist as a producer and, at least for one episode last season, a writer, yet it is horribly inaccurate. I would not think that someone would associate their name with a show like this when they are actually a professional in that field. I doubt most people in other areas of forensics would want to say they were involved in the show CSI or something like that, where everything so so unrealistic. And about the DNA, if they are supposed to have that crazy holographic projector thing, why would they not be able to run DNA? Clearly they have to burn. Also, why not just get a new forensic anthropologist? I know it is not a huge field, but I am sure that there is one that could be found. If I recall correctly, on the first episode of the series, the Brennan character, in her usual arrogant manner, states that the closest other forensic anthropologist is in Canada. Apparently background research is not anything the writers are familiar with given that, in 2005 when the show aired, I can, off the top of my head think of at least a few places far closer than Canada that would have had a forensic anthropologist and I think there would have been a number working right in D.C. Oh, and as a last note, how is it that three of the other intern guys got really rich, one through Jeopardy and the others through the lottery, I think? Seems a bit ridiculous to me.
They actually mentioned in the episode (when Intern Guy Who Got Angela Pregnant Last Season was talking to Brennan in the bus repair shop) that they had contracted with a forensic anthropologist out of New York. So yeah, at least they're admitting that there is more than one FA in the U.S. now (you're right that S01E01 claims that the closest other FA is in Canada - maybe that reflected the state of the discipline when Reichs was up and coming, but it certainly doesn't now). Unfortunately, that FA is apparently completely incompetent.

But at least the current lot of interns did reasonably well for themselves, since the last permanent intern, you know, turned into a murderer. ;)
goofygeorge said…
I love this show because it makes me feel super intelligent with just my undergrad in Bio Anthropology. If I can remember what porotic hyperostosis and Harris Lines are, intern boy really shouldn't have sounded so suprised/confused by them. Also, that comment about the child's head being cephalic and therefore Asian? Came out sounding a wee bit racist, quite frankly.
Anonymous said…
Right, I forgot they mentioned that. I would assume anyone board certified would be competent enough, but it seems that the standards on the show include things that are nigh impossible, however the pathologist had no problem determining the sex of the remains. She said she read forensic anthropology books and such and only managed to determine that; must be some pretty good books, I guess.

I still don't really understand the whole thing with the previous intern and the cannibals and all. It was all very confusing. Some how they tried to tie in his hyper-rationality, but that makes no sense to me: how is cannibalism logical in our society? I probably missed something in that season.

Do you agree that the Brennan character has become more arrogant and ridiculously condescending as the seasons have progressed, despite it seeming like it could not possibly get any worse?

I also wanted ask you if you ever had to get into any fist fights, which seem to occur rather regularly in the life of the Brennan lady.
Anonymous said…
I hate to post right after my own post, but I never feel smart during or after watching the show. I always feel like I lost a part of my brain somewhere between the bizarre "sexual tension," the lines where the main character claims superiority over all others, and the use of big words to make the characters sound sciency. Sometimes it seems like a scene that goes something like "Hodgins, 'I found some dihydrogen monoxide in this soil.' Booth, 'English squints, English!' Brennan, "It's water Booth!'" would fit right in.
Brennan has definitely gotten more robotic in the past season or two. She used to be endearingly "sciency" but willing to learn the ways of the normal people on the show. Now they're writing her all "error - emotions do not compute!" When she was congratulating Angela on her pregnancy - that was some of the most awkward, cringe-worthy dialogue the show's ever produced. No one talks like that, particularly not someone trained in anthropology. I may suck at talking to living people (which is one of the reasons I'm not a cultural anthropologist) but I still have to talk to (and not piss off) a variety of people for my job, and I'm pretty good at understanding what they're saying and where they're coming from.

And I agree that watching the show does not make me feel smart exactly. More, it makes me wonder how some of these forensic "solutions" make it into the script, what with the forensic experts on staff. I think in the past Reichs has mentioned how the writing team works and what goes into the show - perhaps in an interview somewhere? I could believe that she doesn't have complete creative control over the show, but she does get a producer credit, I think. Surely she has a good amount of say in the mysteries.
Oh, and no, I have not (yet) gotten into any physical fights with armed guerillas (or armed gorillas for that matter). I got a pretty nasty head cold doing dissertation research in Rome, though. ;)
Lauren said…
I'm an archaeologist, but I ended up as a physical anthropologist's assistant on a cemetery dig so I have a lot of hands on experience. I actually had to pause the show this time and rant to my father a bit about testing the child's dna and wondering how she knew the gender of the child.
Thanks for the links, btw.

ps The child's corpse looked an awful lot like the alien remains on X-files. I bet they retooled one of the props to save money.
onix said…
haha about the dna and funny about the age. however i understand the point of the research you linked and i think it is very promising.
(it is probs about dimensional characteristics that relate to grown up characteristics that are to small and different to have been measured before, allthough they might have if someone had the brilliant idea to do the research. i suppose you need an unpretty sample as well. i guess they use ctscans for dimensions, if you see how doubtfull early reconstructions of archaic skulls have become, its not so hard to imagine with earlier methods it was really hard to do.
Anonymous said…
Maybe DNA in bones was too derated? However, analysis of michitondrical DNA could be made.

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