Most of us stateside have probably never even heard of Bonekickers, an archaeological mystery show created by the Life on Mars team of Matthew Graham and the aptly named Ashley Pharoah. Frontloaded with an intriguing concept -- a little bit CSI, a little bit Indiana Jones -- Bonekickers often proves fun but ultimately disappoints by blending enjoyably ludicrous twists on history with underdeveloped characters and uneven pacing. It's not surprising that the show only lasted six episodes, but it is a bit of a shame. Given some more time to find its footing, it could have become something truly worth unearthing.
Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah had a hell of a self-imposed bar to hurdle with Bonekickers. Their time-hopping police serial Life on Mars is one of the best shows of the past decade. Bonekickers was Graham and Pharoah's chance to prove whether or not they could recreate that show's genius with another high-concept series. Following a team of archaeologists lead by Dr. Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham), Bonekickers presents a new historical mystery each episode, ranging from the search for the True Cross to a buried World War I tank containing the remains of a unknown massacre. The rest of the team includes a colleague Gillian used to be more than friends with (Hustle's Adrian Lester), a blustery loudmouth professor (Hugh Bonneville), and the new kid (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). While the mysteries presented are usually interesting enough to hold interest, the characters are hit or miss and even at its best Bonekickers never approaches the brilliance of Life on Mars.
Mixing the team's investigations with flashback footage of the events they're uncovering, Bonekickers is heavy on forgotten artifacts, mysterious manuscripts, and malevolent conspiracies. The team also gets held at gunpoint rather more often than you'd expect for academics who don't own fedoras and aren't named after the dog. This is the perilous balance a procedural must walk. Very little police work actually involves car chases or rooftop gun battles, but you're likely to tune out if Gil Grissom spends 20 minutes of every episode filling out paperwork. As with the various CSI outings, a core of forensic investigation is spiced up with outlandish action. But even with the unlikely thriller elements, Bonekickers consistently suffers from pacing problems. Nobody's expecting a forensic archaeology show to unfold at the pace of 24, but most episodes feel like they would have benefited from another pass through the editing room.
Bonekickers' kickers of bones are probably about as similar to their real-life counterparts as CSI's fingerprint-dusters are to theirs, but in a show like this accuracy isn't really the point. Bruckheimer's TV crime-show dynasty has succeeded thanks to a mixture of solid character work and uniquely out-there cases. Bonekickers does well at the latter, but not so well at the former. The cast are all fine performers, but for the most part they just aren't given much to work with, falling into easy clichés and familiar patterns. Bonneville's Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton -- yes, they went there -- gets the best lines, but even his character doesn't have much going on once you've scratched the surface.
Writers Graham, Pharoah, and Tom MacRae have made an effort to make each episode's snippets of faux history timely by tying them into events like the election of President Obama or the turmoil in Iraq, and by using them to explore timely themes such as the perils of extremist fundamentalism (of all stripes). Inevitably there are modern forces working to control or prevent the truths Dr. Magwilde's team hopes to uncover, which gives the team more to struggle against than just archaic booby traps and pockets of toxic subterranean gas. It's a solid structure that works well for the most part, but these modern antagonists do become a bit repetitive. Even if you expect me to believe there are secret societies and factions that would like some areas of history to remain buried, it's a little ridiculous that Magwilde and company cross paths with a different one every episode.
Still, a show like this will live or die on the strength of its mysteries, and for the most part they are well crafted and satisfying, hitting the same sweet spot that keeps history junkies glued to late-night History Channel segments with titles like "The Untold Occult History of the Third Reich" or "Cannibal Secrets of the Founding Fathers." If you're a fan of conspiracy-laden archaeological action like the Indiana Jones movies, the Assassin's Creed games, or even, God help us, the Dan Brown books, you'll likely find enough in Bonekickers to keep you entertained for six episodes. The show works well enough as pure escapist entertainment, it's just a shame that the great premise is never realized well enough to become more.
Regardless of the show's failings, this set won't disappoint anyone curious to know more. Each episode includes behind-the-scenes segments highlighting everything from set design to script writing, even delving into less frequently explored areas like editing and sound mixing. All together the segments clock in at well over an hour, which is a good deal for a show that's only six episodes long. I would have loved to see an episode commentary or two with Graham and/or Pharoah, but with this much behind-the-scenes footage, it's hard to complain.