An unspeakable crime has been committed in the world of TV police procedurals

A new CBS crime show finds itself at the center of a mystery.
A new CBS crime show finds itself at the center of a mystery.
Image: CBS
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TV police procedurals often investigate a different mystery in each episode. This time, two TV shows are themselves the subjects of a perplexing crime.

The assailant: this week’s episode of the CBS police procedural, Instinct. The victim: a 2009 episode of the Fox police procedural series, Bones. The crime: plagiarism.

Instinct, a new crime show on CBS starring Alan Cumming as an openly gay author and former CIA officer, aired an episode on Sunday night (April 1) titled “Secrets and Lies.” The episode follows Cumming’s character and his partner, a New York police detective, investigating the murder of a young Amish man shortly after moving to the city.

Some fans of the Fox show Bones noticed that the Instinct episode was oddly, and indisputably, similar to an episode of their beloved crime show that aired almost 10 years ago, called “The Plain in the Prodigy.”

The evidence is extremely compelling.

Both episodes feature almost identical stories. In Bones, the investigators look into the murder of an Amish teenager after moving to New York. At his childhood home, they find a box of rocks under his bed that look like piano keys and deduce that the teen was a genius piano player, which leads them to his piano teacher. The same exact thing happens in Instinct, except they find popsicle sticks, not rocks.

It’s not just the plots that are similar. There are several lines in the Instinct episode that are word-for-word identical to those in Bones, including even throwaway jokes and lines. (“Nice quilt though, huh?”) A Bones fan put together a video on her Tumblr page detailing all of the similarities, which, for now, is available here.

The person credited in entertainment database IMDb with writing the Instinct episode is Christopher Ambrose, who was a writer and producer on Bones from 2006 to 2008. The Bones episode that Instinct clearly lifts from, however, is credited to Bones producer Karine Rosenthal and didn’t air until October 2009—over a year after Ambrose’s last Bones credit.

Michael Rauch, the showrunner of Instinct who has never worked on Bones, apologized for the incident on Twitter, saying the parallels between the episodes were “100% unintentional” and that he was looking into it to make sure it didn’t happen again. A CBS representative did not respond to Quartz’s inquiry.

Intentional or not, the case of the copied TV episode only highlights how painfully unoriginal and formulaic most broadcast police procedurals are. This may be a particularly egregious case, but these shows borrow from one another all the time, recycling plot lines, settings, and character archetypes.

Procedurals are typically on air for a few years at least before they totally run out of ideas. (Bones, for instance, aired for 12 seasons.) Instinct was only on its third-ever episode.