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Human drama brings Fox's 'Bones' to life

Is ''Fingernails" in our future? Or, perhaps, ''Nose Hair"? As TV's forensic detectives become evermore specialized, Fox is introducing ''Bones," about a Washington, D.C., anthropologist who uses skeletal remains to catch murderers. Painstakingly, she pieces together decomposing tibias and fibulas and patellas, reading them as if they were some kind of cartilaginous I Ching.

And you just might dig it. ''Bones," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 25, is an engaging crime show that borrows plenty from the ''CSI" franchise but adds a layer of light character drama. While the Jerry Bruckheimer series are impersonal and coolly scientific, ''Bones" gives us a team of astute crime-solvers who also happen to be slightly off-balance, most of all Dr. Temperance Brennan, played with crusty appeal by Emily Deschanel. Based on the real-life anthropologist and novelist Kathy Reichs, she has unwillingly acquired the professional nickname Bones.

Like Hugh Laurie's ''House," Brennan is a brilliant scientist with no patience for touchy-feely self-analysis. As unyielding as the ribs she puzzles over, she likes to remind her colleagues that she ''hates psychology." She's all about the work, passing lonely nights in her high-tech lab at the Jeffersonian Institution. ''My most meaningful relationships are with dead people," she admits, though she does manage to express feelings indirectly, writing juicy novels on the side that her assistants love to gossip about.

The second lead on the show is FBI agent Seeley Booth, played by David Boreanaz, who appears to be happily liberated from the vampiric broodings of ''Angel." When he works with Brennan on a case, they form a Mulder-Scully-like team of opposites whose gruff banter only slightly masks a profound attraction. He arrogantly labels her and her assistants ''squints," or academics, telling them, ''You guys don't know anything about the real world." But his old-school investigative methods benefit from the squints' physical evidence, and he knows it. They all form an offbeat work family, including the geeky young Zack (Eric Millegan) and the feisty Angela (Michaela Conlin).

Based on the premiere, the ''Bones" homicide cases will resemble those on ''Cold Case," in that the crimes occurred long before the remains were unearthed. Tonight, a skeleton discovered in a pond at Arlington National Cemetery helps Brennan and Booth solve the years-old disappearance of a congressman's aide. It's very familiar procedural material, but presented with the zip of futuristic technology that allows Brennan to create a holographic image of a victim from a few bones. The dead person appears to be standing in the lab.

Deschanel was a good casting choice for Brennan. She's model pretty, but so hard-jawed and stubborn you know the producers aren't going for window dressing. While her Brennan's been saddled with a hokey back story, in which her parents were murdered when she was 15, Deschanel doesn't milk it for sympathy. Indeed, in a slight gender-role reversal, the show makes Boreanaz the more sensitive and intuitive one. Deschanel's Brennan doesn't seem to have a mawkish bone in her body.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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