By Mandi Bierly
Updated January 23, 2009 at 10:30 PM EST

When it comes to Bones, which returned last night in a new time slot with its first new episodes since November, absence tends to make my heart grow fonder. So clearly, this blustery New York winter has frozen my ticker, because I thought those two hours kinda blew.To me, they represent the creative conundrum at the center of this show that I love: Can you have too much character in a character-driven procedural? The answer is yes, if the writing of those “character” elements isn’t as sharp as it is for the cases. (Or, should I say was for the cases? Fingers crossed the forthcoming return to the Grave Digger storyline — with Booth being buried alive — is also a return to Brennan wowing us with her forensics and not just her ability to take a rhetorical question literally.)

In last night’s first episode, Booth and Brennan went undercover in a circus after finding the remains of female conjoined twin jugglers on the Oklahoma-Texas border. We learned that Dr. Sweets was adopted and that his birth mother was a psychic on the circus circuit…presumably just so that he could counsel “Buck and Wanda Moosejaw” on how to get in with the notoriously tight-lipped performers and ringmaster (guest star Andy Richter playing straight, except for when he fired a clown gun to stop Booth’s showdown with his paint-faced nemeses and said, “Tumbles, I’m serious”). Were there moments of this episode that I enjoyed? Of course. Booth and Brennan’s actual knife-throwing act (embedded above) was probably the reason this episode got made: Booth’s biceps and Brennan’s boobs on display — always good. Brennan’s childlike enthusiasm as she gave Booth smaller and smaller targets, DOWN TO A CLOWN NOSE — classic. Sweets explaining the “sexual component” to the act (“The knife representing…. Dr. Brennan is showing remarkable trust and willingess”) — definitely funnier than the twins’ doctor explaining how much privacy can be achieved by an eye mask and a MP3 player. I just found most of the episode to be as forced as the sight of Booth and Bones riding in a motorcycle and a sidecar. Does the FBI really not plan an undercover mission better than that? In the end, thanks to Brennan’s determination to show us her mad high-wire skills, we discovered that the twins had been trying to save the circus that they loved by taking their act to the tightrope. When they fell into the net, their heads knocked together, and Magnum the strong man buried them. Next!

Moving on to the second episode (directed by Chad Lowe and featuring Buffy slayer Kendra as a back-room loanshark!), we continued season 4’s mission of delving deeper into Booth’s past. I’m all for this, but I think they’ve got a tall order if they want to make this arc as compelling as Brennan’s family history. The plot was simple (and probably hockey fanatic Boreanaz’s wet dream): A hockey player that Booth the Enforcer roughed up on the ice is found dead below the ice in a fishing shanty. (Do not even get me started on how inappropriate that “She’s bleeding! She’s bleeding!” line was.) Booth is a suspect, so they have to bring in another FBI agent to lead the investigation. Since she’s female (guest star Marisa Coughlan), Booth gets to flirt with her. (I’d be okay if they wanted to give Booth a relationship to make Brennan jealous. You?)

Now, I could care less about who killed this hockey player. It was one of his teammates, who didn’t like that the fireman was stealing jewelry on the job or that the guy had ended his hockey career years earlier. What I care about is that Booth’s concussion-enduced hallucination — in which real-life hockey great Luc Robitaille appeared to give him cryptic insight into the case and assure him that he’s not, as Sweets theorized, as angry inside as his abusive alcoholic father — made me laugh. Out loud. Like, I don’t think they wanted it to be as cheesy as the “Beauty School Dropout” scene in Grease, but it was. To me anyway. I also care that Brennan “didn’t know” how she felt about Booth pummeling a guy on the ice to the point that he broke his hand. Hockey is a rough, sexy game, but there’s no way that the obviously excessive amount of force Booth used was hot. (Sorry, Cam.) The only reason I’m forgiving Seeley is that the guy he beat up had hurt my favorite of Brennan’s assistants, Wendell. (Mr. Nigel-Murray would’ve had to fend for himself.) Wait, I’m also forgiving him because when Brennan came into the locker room to check on Booth’s hand, Boreanaz was shirtless and smokin’. Seriously, it made me forget all about that season 3 bathroom tub scene. But not about the beer helmet Booth wore during it. Still hate it!

Anyway, the episode just felt a little self-indulgent and…off. I dug the end scene (embedded above), when Booth took Brennan to the ice rink to skate with him so he wouldn’t fall asleep with the concussion he’d acquired trying to beat some DNA evidence out of a suited-up suspect on the ice. But I can’t tell if I loved the fact that it was no big deal that they were holding hands so she wouldn’t fall (again), because it’s a subtle, sweetly realistic indication that their walls are coming down, or if I’m already starting to miss their sexual tension? I could learn to like this odd limbo, but I’m gonna need some drama injected into it. Maybe the Booth buried alive episode will raise the issues everyone but Booth and Brennan are talking about. Maybe they’ll come closer than ever to crossing “that invisible line that doesn’t even need to be there,” and one of them will retreat. Far. Maybe Booth could get a girlfriend and really make Brennan jealous, as I’ve already suggested. (It sounds like we’ve seen the last of Coughlan, but I’d welcome her back.)

Your turn. What did you think of last night’s return?