The XX Factor

If You’re Not Watching Bones, You’re Missing the Best Female Nerd On TV

Emily Deschanel as Temperance Brennan in Bones.
Emily Deschanel as Temperance Brennan in Bones

Ray Mickshaw/FOX.

The fall television season is full of new distractions and new potentially great female characters, be it Carrie-Anne Moss’s crusading (and environmentalist) district attorney on CBS’s period drama Vegas or Connie Britton’s country star on ABC’s upcoming Nashville. But I have to admit that the show I’m most excited to have back in my week is Fox’s Bones, a workhorse drama about a brilliant forensic anthropologist now in its eighth season that rarely gets much critical attention but that features one of the best female characters on television, Emily Deschanel’s Temperance Brennan.

In case you haven’t been watching, Bones is the story of a brilliant scientist, the FBI agent she’s partnered up with, and the crimes they solve with the help of her lab team. But like My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Community, both shows that have garnered a following among male nerds in part because they break down the basics of friendship and social interaction so well, Bones is also about Brennan’s struggle with social interactions. Brennan may be more grown-up than Community’s Abed or a bunch of cartoon teenage horses, and she may be a gorgeous woman, but she’s no one’s idea of a traditional heroine.

The show has left it deliberately vague as to whether Brennan has a condition like Asperger’s syndrome, or whether it was her difficult upbringing in a series of foster homes that left her unable to read social cues, underequipped to express emotions, and unable to take other’s needs into consideration. Either way, the show’s always been clear that the way she treats people has real costs. Her insistence on being clinical rather than showing emotion has made it difficult for her to give convincing testimony about murders in court, she fails at mentoring a young scientist, and her sometimes-dismissive treatment of her partner, FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), has made their working relationship more difficult and delayed her own personal happiness.

There are a lot of socially awkward men on television, boys who are taking refuge in their own arrested development, nerds who need to be told how to interact before they can get the girl. But while female characters often get a makeover montage, pop culture usually ignores the possibility that they might have social deficits that don’t have anything to do with their self-esteem or their makeup. In Brennan, it’s a relief to have a female character who is imperfect in ways most movies and television shows aren’t interested in exploring, and in ways that have given her room to grow, becoming a much more flexible and empathetic person over the last seven seasons.

The ending of the last season of Bones drove me nuts, because, for the first time, it felt like the show was maneuvering to keep Booth and Brennan apart. After they got pregnant, got together, and moved in together (in that order), a brilliant serial killer framed Brennan for murder and forced her to go on the run. It was frustrating to see this couple that worked so hard to overcome their differences on everything ranging from religion to social niceties separated by such a hackneyed plot device. But in last night’s season premiere, Brennan solved a mystery and fought her way back to the home and family she and Booth had started to build together. It was a reminder that for Brennan, fighting to have it all has involved both overcoming external obstacles and the barriers she’s thrown up in her own path along the way.