Murder has never been so much fun.
Castle isn’t the highest-rated show on TV, and it hasn’t racked up huge amounts of awards. However, there’s no denying it has a following. Look it up online and you can see the series has legions of passionate admirers. When you’re a Castle fan and you meet another Castle fan, there’s a slight smile and a nod among you, as you both think, “Yeah, this person gets it.” Just what is it about this show that makes it so beloved by those who watch it each week? As its third season arrives on DVD, let’s take a look…
When we last left bestselling mystery novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, Serenity) and NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, The Spirit), he had left her for the Hamptons to spend the summer with an old flame. Now, it’s months later, and Castle storms back to New York in an unexpected way.
Before long, Castle and Beckett are back on the job, with help from fellow detectives Esposito (John Huertas, Generation Kill) and Ryan (Seamus Deaver, Army Wives), sassy morgue worker Lanie Parish (Tamala Jones, Up in the Air) and fatherly Captain Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, American Gangster). At home, Castle is supported by his wise-beyond-her-years daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn, Avalon High) and his outrageous actress mother Martha (Susan Sullivan, Falcon Crest).
As always, any good mystery begins with the “hook,” a big attention-getter to draw audiences into the plot. The third season of Castle sticks to this like glue:
• “A Deadly Affair”
The hook: After not hearing from Castle for months, Beckett and her fellow cops arrive at a crime scene to find a man with a gun standing over a dead body. That man is…Castle?
The book: Castle walks a fine line. He’s a suspect in the same crime he’s trying to solve, all while working to get back into Beckett’s good graces.
• “He’s Dead, She’s Dead”
The hook: A famous psychic is killed and stuffed into her fold-up couch. (Castle: “She didn’t see that coming.”)
The book: Did the psychic predict her own death? Castle wants to believe, but Beckett insists that all her amazing predictions were faked. Meanwhile, Martha’s relationship with her new beau Chet takes some surprising turns.
• “Under the Gun”
The hook: A bail bondsman is shot in his own office, and the killer dials 911 and leaves the phone off the hook before fleeing the scene.
The book: The case involves strange codes and hidden microphones. It’s complicated when Beckett’s former partner, now a bounty hunter, gets involved in the investigation.
The hook: A body is found in Central Park, shot by a 200-year-old bullet.
The book: Castle theorizes time travel. The presence of a familiar-looking Delorean and a secret society devoted to steampunk would seem to confirm that.
• “Anatomy of a Murder”
The hook: A casket accidentally falls over during a funeral, and two bodies fall out of it—one of which doesn’t belong there. The “stowaway” is a murder victim.
The book: The victim is a doctor, leading our heroes to a hospital, where all manner of TV medical dramas are satirized. We also learn more about Beckett’s new boyfriend, the motorcycle-riding Josh (Victor Webster, Surrogates).
The hook: A woman is killed in the style of the Triple Killer, or “3XK,” a famous serial killer who was never caught. Is it a coincidence, a copycat, or has the murderer returned?
The book: Everyone is driven to find the baddie before there’s a second murder. Castle is so driven, in fact, that he ends up face-to-face with the killer. Elsewhere, Alexis has a secret admirer, and Castle fears for her safety.
• “Almost Famous”
The hook: A cop is found murdered. But, wait. He’s not a police officer; he’s an exotic dancer in a cop costume.
The book: It’s a journey into the strange underworld of male strippers, where our detectives learn there’s more to these human slabs of meat, as they long for a better life. Tobias Fünke does not have a cameo.
• “Murder Most Fowl”
The hook: A man is found dead with a bird of prey’s feather in his pocket.
The book: The victim, a “light bulb renaissance man,” is just the first layer of this crime, which includes a child’s abduction and threats of a vast conspiracy.
• “Close Encounters of the Murderous Kind”
The hook: An astrophysicist’s body is found decompressed, as if exposed to an outer space, zero-atmosphere environment.
The book: Guest starring Lance Henriksen (Aliens) and Lyle Lovett (Short Cuts). The show puts all the Mulder and Scully comparisons to rest by doing its own spin on The X-Files. Could the killer really be an extraterrestrial?
• “Last Call”
The hook: A fisherman’s wife scolds him, telling him he’ll never catch anything in the East River. Just then, his hook snags a dead body.
The book: This time, the secret underground of New York is literal, as the case leads Castle and Beckett to discover sealed tunnels dating back to the days of prohibition, a dark labyrinth far beneath the city streets.
• “Nikki Heat”
The hook: A high society professional matchmaker is found impaled on a metal spike.
The book: An actress (Laura Prepon, That 70s Show) has been cast as Nikki Heat, the Castle-created character based on Beckett. As she imitates Beckett’s every move, our heroes have to solve the case with not one but two Becketts running around.
• “Poof, You’re Dead”
The hook: A magician drowns to death inside Houdini’s famous water tank escape.
The book: It’s a journey through the strange and quirky world of stage magicians. Meanwhile, Esposito and Lanie start a romance, and attempt to keep it secret from everyone else.
The hook: A detective who worked on Beckett’s mother’s case is himself murdered, right in front of Beckett.
The book: The mystery of who killed Beckett’s mom is brought to the forefront in this one, with new revelations and intense drama to go with it.
• “Lucky Stiff”
The hook: A millionaire lottery winner is killed and a wad of his cash is stolen. Routine robbery, or something more?
The book: The victim is beloved by all, giving part of his fortune to charity. Parallel to the case, Martha finds her feelings torn when she receives an unexpected $1 million inheritance.
• “The Final Nail”
The hook: A rich woman’s body is found with nails hammered into her face. Creepy.
The book: Castle’s loyalties are torn when he learns the victim’s husband is an old friend of his. Does he stand by his friend, or consider his friend a suspect? Also, it’s Valentine’s Day in New York, and when not chasing down a killer, everyone’s thoughts are turning to romance.
The hook: This season’s big two-parter starts as men in hazmat suits seal Castle and Beckett off in quarantine, as Castle shouts, “At least tell me how serious it is.”
The book: The initial murder, a taxi cab driver shot in the head, is the tip of the industrial-sized freezer, leading to evidence of a nuclear bomb in New York. Homeland Security takes over, with a government agent (Adrian Pasdar, Heroes) kicking Castle and Beckett off the case. They continue to investigate anyway, putting their lives in danger.
The hook: On the verge of death, Castle and Beckett’s rescue comes from an unlikely source.
The book: As Homeland Security and the NYPD do the 24 thing, racing against the clock to track down the nuke, Castle and Beckett believe that solving the initial murder is the only way to save the city.
• “One Life to Lose”
The hook: A dead body is found on the set of a soap opera in the middle of filming.
The book: The sleazy shenanigans behind the scenes at the soap opera go far beyond the actual show itself, as Castle and Beckett uncover everyone’s dirty secrets along the way.
• “Law and Murder”
The hook: During a high-profile murder trial, one of the jurors drops dead of poisoning.
The book: It’s time for the show to put its own spin on courtroom dramas. Among prosecutors, defendants, and fellow jurors, there are more suspects than usual.
• “Slice of Death”
The hook: A man is found dead and smoldering inside a pizza oven.
The book: The case involves two rival pizza joints across the street from one another, and the obnoxious reporter who exposed their rivalry in the press.
• “The Dead Pool”
The hook: An Olympic-level competitive swimmer is found dead, floating in his own training pool.
The book: An up-and-coming mystery novelist, one who admires Castle, shows up in town. Everyone is enamored with the fresh new face, must to Castle’s frustration.
• “To Love and Die in L.A.”
The hook: Beckett’s ex-partner is gunned down in an alley. Before dying, he says to his killer, “You have no idea the hell that’s about to rain down on you.”
The book: A break in the search for Beckett’s mother’s killer has her and Castle traveling to L.A., against orders from Montgomery. In a luxury hotel, surrounded by palm trees and bikinis, the sexual tension is more intense than ever.
• “Pretty Dead”
The hook: A beauty pageant contestant is found dead in the middle of a rehearsal.
The book: Turns out pageants have their dark, unseemly side. Who would’ve thought? Elsewhere, Alexis worries about her future with her new boyfriend as he leaves for college while she still has another year of high school. Plus, world-weary medical examiner Perlmutter (Ayre Gross, The Experts) makes his one and only appearance this season.
The hook: A professional killer who might have information about Beckett’s mother kills another man in prison, and then escapes from a courtroom hearing with help from gun-toting thugs armed with tear gas, flash grenades, and a getaway chopper.
The book: The conspiracy involving Beckett’s mother’s murder goes deeper and deeper, with one shocking twist after another. Before it’s all over, a last stand will be made, bullets will fly, lives will be lost, and a secret will be confessed.
“The key to any good story is authenticity. It’s making it feel real for the reader. That’s why writers work so hard making all the details right.”
The above quote from the show sums up what makes Castle work so well. Those not familiar with the series tend to dismiss it as “just another procedural.” A quick glance at the series and its high concept “a cop and a mystery writer are partners” gimmick can make many think the show is by-the-numbers television. Fortunately, Castle rises above these criticisms week after week. Why? It’s all in the details. The dialogue in every scene of every episode is peppered with little witticisms, providing endlessly quotable lines, and making the show endearing and watchable. There are plenty of little details in the themes and visuals as well. Notice how the steampunk/time travel episode begins with horses galloping in slow motion through Central Park, an image meant to evoke the distant past. Or how a victim talks about preferring coffee from ceramic cups rather than paper cups, just before he dies. Afterward, there’s a shot of Beckett at the police station, holding her own coffee in a ceramic cup the same way, demonstrating an emotional connection between her and the victim. Little details like these can be seen throughout the series, making much more than just another procedural.
All that clever dialogue has to be performed by talented actors, and Castle has a great cast. Nathan Fillion continues to combine Castle’s cocky wisecracking with a genuine heart. Castle does a fair amount of growing up this season, growing closer with Beckett and dealing with Alexis getting older. Most of Beckett’s character development comes in episodes dealing with the ongoing mystery of her mother’s murder. Stana Katic successfully sells Beckett’s combination of determination and sadness during each twist in the case. As always, Fillion and Katic have great chemistry, tossing the flirty one-liners at each other in rapid fire throughout each episode. More importantly, the simmering romantic tension between the two simmers a lot harder this season, as by now there’s no question that the two have feelings for one another. The question now is, where those feelings will take them, and whether (or how) they will act on them. This means we get more dramatic moments between Castle and Beckett as opposed to constant humorous banter. The serious moments are handled just as well as the funny ones, though, and it feels like a natural growth for both characters.
The supporting cast shines as well. Captain Montgomery’s character comes to the forefront this season, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson excels, showing his character as not just a father figure for the rest of the cast. He reveals the depth of the captain’s courage and integrity as he has his big moment in the spotlight. Huertas, Dever and Jones continue to add a lot of personality to their supporting roles. Susan Sullivan gets some serious dramatic moments in addition to her usual comic relief scenes, and she makes the emotion feel real without going as over-the-top as she is with her comedy. Molly Quinn continues to be excellent as well, as Alexis is worldly in many ways, such as how she deals with her dad, but innocent in other ways, such as the ups and downs of having a new boyfriend. One episode ends where Alexis gives a speech about her relationship with her dad, and how much she cares about him. I thought, “This is awfully sappy for this show.” Then, the writers pulled a fast one on me, ending the scene by making me laugh out loud with a very funny line. This goes to show that the smaller character moments can be just as surprising as the murders.
Are there any negatives? The blockbuster two-part episode about terrorists and a nuke is an unfortunate change in tone. OK, I get it. The show takes place in New York, where the scars of Sept. 11, 2001 run deeper than anywhere else, so of course it’s going to be referenced from time to time. It’s not that the show mentions it, it’s how the show mentions it. Early on, Castle, thinking like a writer, bemoans how an Arab terrorist is a cliché, to which Esposito responds with deadly seriousness, “Think back, bro.” To me, those three words were really all that needed to be said. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t stop there, but instead goes overboard with the current event-related themes, with discussions about how terrorism has changed daily life, and with Homeland Security depicted as cruel, heartless and violent. I’m not here to agree or disagree with the writers’ personal politics, it’s just that Castle, despite talk of death and murder, is a fun, lighthearted show, taking place in a world slightly heightened from our own. It’s escapist entertainment. This jolt of real-world politics and themes introduces a harsh change of tone for the series, and that’s why the two-parter doesn’t work as well as it should have.
Fortunately, the season bounces back after that, with a stellar run of episodes in its final third. The trip to L.A. gets the characters out of their comfort zones and increases the sexual tension between Castle and Beckett, while furthering the mystery of Beckett’s mother’s killer. That same mystery takes on a number of new surprises in the powerful season finale. Dialing down the comedy and upping the drama, the finale is one of the best episodes the show has done. Not only does it contain some intense action set pieces, but it concludes with two gripping scenes that will be heartbreaking for viewers who’ve been invested in these characters since day one.
Do a search for “Castle” and “Josh,” and you will discover that Beckett’s motorcycle-riding surgeon boyfriend is the most hated fictional character since a certain Gungan went out looking for his morning munchen. Part of the fans’ disgust for Josh is because they want to see Castle and Beckett together, but part of it is that Josh is simply a non-character. Sure, he’s a cardiac surgeon who rides a Harley to work each morning, and who struts around the hospital in a black leather jacket instead of a suit or scrubs, and that’s kind of cool. I like to imagine that while Beckett and Castle are off having crazy “cop show” adventures, Josh is off having his own crazy “doctor show” adventures. But, no. Josh is only here to provide a complication in Castle and Beckett’s ongoing romantic tension. We almost never see him and Beckett interact. Heck, we almost never see him, period, but instead mostly hear about him when he’s not around. You could argue that we’re seeing Josh only from Castle’s point of view, and that’s fair, but I say that if the creators had made Josh an interesting, well-rounded character, then that would have made his role as a complication in Castle’s life all the more powerful and intriguing.
In fairness, Gina, Castle’s ex-wife-turned-girlfriend-again, suffers from much the same problem, as she exists only to drive Castle and Beckett apart at a moment when they’re feeling drawn together. Unlike Josh and Beckett, we actually see Castle and Gina’s relationship at work in a few times. I know, I know, the emphasis of the show is on Castle and Beckett, and that’s where the writers are focusing their characterization. Still, the presence of Josh and Gina doesn’t allow us to see Castle and Beckett in new ways, and they don’t appear to affect their growth in any specific ways, either.
Alexis’s boyfriend Ashley also suffers from Ken doll syndrome, as we never know anything about him except that he’s just a nice guy. Given how well-rounded and interesting of a character Alexis has turned out to be, shouldn’t her romantic interest be similarly well-rounded and interesting? Ashley’s role allows Alexis some development, though, as their relationship gets more serious, causing Alexis concern about her future. (Side complaint: What’s with all this talk about Ashley being Alexis’s “first love?” How could we forget about poor Owen?)
I was amazed by the flawlessness of the visuals on this five-disc set. If I didn’t already know, I would have assumed these were 1080p Blu-rays, and not standard def DVDs. That’s how jaw-dropping the picture quality is, with details, colors, and flesh tones depicted with marvelous accuracy. Audio is good as well, especially whenever the score kicks in. Extras begin with a funny and informative commentary on “3XK,” with Huertas, Dever, and the director. From there, we get a “starter kit,” which is a quick (too quick?) summary of the series for first-timers. There’s also a roundtable discussion with Fillion, series creator Andrew Marlowe, director Rob Bowman, writer Michael Connelly, and comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, as they discuss real writers’ lives in comparison to the fantasy version of a writer’s life seen on the show. Two other featurettes cover the making of the L.A. episode, and all the work that goes into creating each week’s “murder board.” There are number of deleted scenes, which are mostly short, but contain a great moment between Castle and Beckett’s father. Finally, someone must have been bored in the editing room, because they’ve included a music video for the rap song heard briefly in “Lucky Stiff,” made up of clips from that episode.
Castle exists in an odd space on television. It’s not geeky enough to be considered a “cult” show, but it’s too different to be considered “mainstream.” No matter how you categorize it, Castle is pure entertainment. This season has a few flaws, but overall, the top-notch writing, acting and production values are among the best you’ll ever see. Highly recommended.