On Bones, the TV series about a forensic anthropologist, there's an FBI agent who believes in old-fashioned detective work and gut instinct. He thinks science has little to tell him about crime. He and the other FBI guys barely tolerate scientists, call them "squints" and don't trust them to work in the field.
Ten years ago he could have got away with that. Producers would have let him win arguments, trusting in the audience's anti-intellectual conviction that experience counts more than microscopes and book learning.
But not in the autumn of 2005. Today, that poor sap hasn't a chance. We have arrived at the season of the scientists. Television has apparently decided that since science drives the world it might as well drive TV drama, too.
Bones (Fox/Global) introduces us to Dr. Temperance ("Don't call me Bones") Brennan. She was born in the novels of Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist who freelances for the police in both Quebec and North Carolina. Played by Emily Deschanel, Temperance demonstrates ferocious confidence in herself (her terrifying martial-arts skills enhance her authority) and contempt for the FBI. She and her team in Washington at the Jeffersonian Institution (read: Smithsonian) specialize in identifying anonymous and often ancient corpses. From an unidentified skull they create a holographic image that looks just like the deceased. Temperance can tell us all about teeth marks on the bones of the dead, spotting those that indicate cannibalism. Even FBI guys are impressed -- a little.
But if Bones makes the FBI seem simple-minded, Criminal Minds (CBS/CTV) makes it look more like Harvard Medical School. Mandy Patinkin plays Jason Gideon, world's greatest profiler, who steals time from his university career to guide the FBI's elite Behavioural Science Unit as they search for serial killers and other malefactors.
Criminal Minds unfortunately travels the well-worn grooves carved by Thomas Harris with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, written after Harris visited the FBI's private college at Quantico, Va., and swooned before the brilliance of the bureau's psychologists (a brilliance they don't necessarily demonstrate in the real world). After Harris became their most slavish admirer, his best-sellers infected police procedurals everywhere. Typically, Criminal Minds overstates FBI skills; profiling necessarily combines intuition with empirical science, but Jason's guesses seem divinely inspired.
The list of prime-time science-dominated entertainments reaches four when we add Bones and Criminal Minds to two shows that started last season, House (Fox/Global, about a genius medical diagnostician) and Numb3rs (CBS/Global, about a Nobel-level mathematician who creates algorithms to predict crimes before they happen).
This tendency owes a lot to the public's growing awareness of mysteriously scientific crime detection. That began with the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 and has been heightened in recent years by the platoons of gorgeous women and handsome men peering into microscopes while pursuing crime-scene investigations on the CSI shows. But surely the seed was put in the ground six years ago when viewers of The West Wing learned that President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was not only a former Dartmouth professor with a PhD from the London School of Economics but had also won the Nobel Prize in Economics, presumably in time borrowed from his two terms as governor of New Hampshire and three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The first law of television criticism dictates that we must seek meaning as well as provenance in a trend. And these shows apparently reflect the anxious belief that U.S. education must improve to stay ahead of the rest of the world; Americans fought much of the Cold War with scientific brains imported from Europe, but that's no longer such a promising source. At the same time, the science dramas may be based on a concern about the lack of imagination and skill in places where we need them most. Can the public be moving toward the belief that the egalitarian spirit went too far? Perhaps being nice isn't sufficient and the world needs the proud and uncompromisingly high competence that these fictional scientists embody. Eugen Weber, a great historian, has a motto, "Good enough is not good enough," the approach of the TV scientists.
It's pleasant to note that all this is happening in Einstein Year, designated by physics-promoting educators to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the scientific papers (including the theory of special relativity and E=mc2) that changed Albert Einstein from a patent clerk into a history-making scientist and the first individual revered by much of the world for his abilities in physics.
Einstein became the great example of the scientist as culture hero: Having established supremacy in physics, he also became known for the person he appeared to be, the man in the sweatshirt with the crazy hair who played the violin and appeared both wise and innocent. He became a common noun, as in "He's no Einstein." The adulation, no doubt based on ignorance, amused many scientists. Still, Einstein embodied an ideal of excellence that most of us could just barely imagine -- and without which civilization comes to a halt.
On TV the scientists are all, of course, geeks, in one way or another. Dr. Bones admits she gets along better with corpses than with living humans, and Charlie Eppes, on Numb3rs, finds it impossible to negotiate his way through a dinner date, even though he's played by the almost criminally cute David Krumholtz. Of course, any student of TV psychology knows that Dr. Gregory House, of House, viciously ridicules both his colleagues and his patients to mask his pathetic inability to develop true and lasting relationships. Mandy Patinkin's character, brooding over an error of his that cost four lives, has developed a taste for grim quotations. Either he's dredging up something from Nietzsche or reciting Conrad: "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary. Men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."
But it's one of Mandy's underlings, a wunderkind named Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), who most obviously suggests that scientists also have problems, perhaps problems stemming from their IQs. Reid, who looks too young to vote, has three PhDs. When someone asks whether he's a genius, he answers: "I don't believe intelligence can be accurately quantified. But I do have an IQ of 187, an eidetic memory and can read 20,000 words a minute." Still, he can't get a date.