Friday, March 13, 2009

"Castle" Won't Challenge for Any TV Thrones

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

It's not hard to see what ABC is trying to do with its new show "Castle" (Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern). From "Remington Steele" to "Moonlighting" to "The X Files" to "Bones," the idea of a mismatched guy-gal team solving crimes has been a go-to concept for the networks. So the pairing of crime novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion of "Firefly") and tough-but-pretty detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic in her first lead TV role) in "Castle," a procedural with a huge helping of comic one-liners thrown in, must have looked awfully good on paper to ABC. Unfortunately, on paper is probably where this series should have stayed.

So much of "Castle" seems borrowed from other programs. In the debut, Castle is about to release a new crime novel that kills off his long-running hero, something everyone thinks is a big mistake, especially his ex-wife, who is also his publisher. Outwardly, Castle is confident he has done the right thing, but we find out he is in the midst of writer's block, unable to deliver his next novel. Watching Castle struggle to write, booze it up, hit on women (including signing a fan's breast, followed by the groaner of a line, "Call me when you’re ready to wash that off"), act self-destructively, care for his wise-beyond-her-years daughter (Alexis, played by Molly Quinn), and use his rakish charm to try and get what he wants, I couldn't help but wonder if "Californication" executive producer Tom Kapinos had already contacted his attorney about a possible lawsuit. Castle, to me, seems like a less interesting rip-off of Hank Moody (David Duchovny's character in "Californication"). At least Hank is supposed to be a serious novelist, as opposed to Castle writing crime fiction for the masses.

Even worse, Castle lives with his mother, Martha (Susan Sullivan of "Dharma & Greg"), who is a boozing actress, past her prime, with a checkered history with men. Not only is the character a dead ringer for the grandmother played by Jessica Walter in "90210" (which is already a take on Walter's mother from hell in "Arrested Development"), but Sullivan even looks disturbingly like Walter in "Castle" (and seems to be channeling Walter's performance, too).

I can only guess that ABC was hoping that witty banter would carry the program above the sea of police procedurals currently on the networks' schedules. But creator/writer Andrew Marlowe (in one of his first stabs at television after writing films like "Air Force One" and "Hollow Man") just doesn't deliver the kind of smart, funny dialogue that is needed to make up for the plot and character problems. Instead, I found myself rolling my eyes at forced exchanges, like a cop, upon seeing a female murder victim covered in flowers, saying, "Who says romance is dead?", with Kate replying, "I do, every Saturday night." Not only does the line not work, but the idea that someone who looks like Kate would be alone on Saturday night for any reason other than her own choice is kind of preposterous (and certainly not inducing any sympathy in the viewers).

Nothing quite feels right in the world that Marlowe has constructed. Castle and Kate are brought together when a murderer kills two victims in the manner described in two of Castle's books. Kate, a fan, recognizes the correlation and seeks out Castle for more information. Eventually, he wants to be involved (for the thrill and to help his writer's block) more than she wants him around (she thinks he's a "bad boy" who jeopardizes her investigation). They end up trying to one-up each other, with Castle trying to show that he knows as much as Kate does, and Kate trying to make it clear that she is the professional who knows better how to do the job.

I found myself asking, Is there such a thing as rock star crime novelists? I doubt a glance at TMZ would reveal many writers amongst the paparazzi photos. And is it me, or is there no humor left to be mined out of a horny older woman? "Castle" wants you to howl in laughter at Martha being on the make, but it just felt a bit degrading and exceptionally silly and done-to-death to me. It doesn't help when Martha is given dead-on-arrival zingers to spit out, like "I just got a hit on my greydar" when she sees an attractive older man she wants to try and pick up.

I also didn't buy the degree to which Castle, and to a lesser extent Kate, can figure things out based on subtle clues. It's not that skilled professionals can't put pieces of a puzzle together like that, but the problem is that the two of them, especially Castle, gain too much from too little. In one scene, Castle comes up with a critical piece of information to solve the case, that the father of one of the victims is suffering from cancer, from the slightest of clues (he's heavier in a photo and he is wearing makeup and a toupee). I just didn't buy it. And then when Castle dictates to Kate that he has figured out her backstory, it was both unbelievable and cliche all at the same time (a loved one was a crime victim, and the perpetrator was never caught, so Kate became a cop).

But I think the biggest problem with the world of "Castle" is that I don't buy the extent of Castle's fearlessness. In one of his first meetings with Kate, he asks her suggestively to spank him. He continually disregards her instructions to stay out of the action, and when she finally handcuffs him to a car, he pulls a key out of his wallet and frees himself so he can chase after an armed murder suspect, even as he is unarmed and missing a shoe. When Castle asks Kate for copies of crime scene photos to impress his writer friends (James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell do an acceptable job playing themselves), it goes beyond "Californication"-level self-obsession to Castle just being a thoughtless ass.

The funny thing is, I wanted to like "Castle." I am a writing geek. I love great banter. In fact, it can carry an otherwise problematic show for me (Exhibit A: My love of the little-loved "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"). And the program certainly had its moments that sucked me in. When Castle hangs out with Patterson and Cannell, the scene worked. Watching them talk about plot points (actually, they think they're talking about a novel, but Castle is really trying to figure out the copycat murder case) was entertaining. And Fillion and Katic do have chemistry. The dialogue between them may not work, but you are pulled into their interactions anyway, thanks to the personalities of the actors. A great example of this dichotomy came when Castle tells Kate that if they had gotten together, it would have been great, and Kate whispers into his ear, "You have no idea." There was nothing special about the words. We've seen that exchange between couples a million times on the big and small screen. But Katic and Fillion play the scene in a way that makes you want to see more of these characters together.

Despite all the negative things I've written, I'm half-inclined to give "Castle" a few more weeks to see if it finds its footing. But I'm not sure how long it will survive. The debut episode lost more than half of the audience of its lead-in, "Dancing with the Stars," and fell more than three million viewers short of its competition on CBS, "CSI: Miami." ("Castle" did trounce NBC's "Medium," for what it's worth.)

As I watched the premiere of "Castle," it occurred to me that, in some ways, the show is a Hollywood writer's fantasy come to life. Castle, who is "only" a writer, knows nearly as much as Kate about being a detective. After all, television scribes get paid to put their characters in situations that they themselves often have never experienced first-hand. It's almost like a TV writer can live vicariously through Castle as he sticks it to the so-called professionals. But maybe that's why "Castle" feels so false. Because, really, writers don't know as much about police work as real officers do. The best scripters find a way to translate the experiences of actual law enforcement professionals to the screen in a way that is both authentic and entertaining. Unfortunately, it's not something that Marlowe has done well in "Castle."