Just imagine Richard Castle and Frank Castle going to a White Castle in Castle Rock, Maine.
Of all the genres out there, the mystery is one of the most enduring. Even if you’re not a hardcore mystery enthusiast, chances are you nonetheless enjoy the occasional whodunit. We all do. When a crime, usually a murder, is committed, the detective steps in and, against all odds, puts the pieces together. We the viewers respond to this because life doesn’t make sense. We wish were like that detective, able to walk into the crime scene that is our miserable lives and figure it out.
Real life is not like detective fiction, however. The series Castle plays around with that contradiction, by teaming a writer of sensational mystery novels with a real cop and watching the sparks fly.
Meet Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, Serenity), a bestselling mystery novelist living the high life in New York City. His readers adore him and the ladies love him. At home, he’s a single dad, taking care of his wise-beyond-her-years daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). His mother, Martha (Susan Sullivan, Falcon Crest), has moved back in to lend a hand. Despite the many perks in his life, Castle is bored, so he kills off his most popular character and looks for inspiration elsewhere.
Meet Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, Quantum of Solace), a New York homicide detective, acting in a big sister role to two fellow detectives, Esposito (Jon Huertas, Generation Kill) and Ryan (Seamus Dever, Army Wives). She takes her job seriously and is very good at it, but isn’t above the occasional wry wisecrack. She doesn’t like to talk about her past, or where she goes when not on duty.
With a murderer running around the city killing people in ways based on Castle’s fiction, Castle is called in to consult on the case. He helps solve the case, and decides to base his newest character on Beckett. With help from the mayor, a friend of Castle’s, the writer is given permission to partner with Beckett on an ongoing basis for research.
As any writer will tell you, every mystery plot has to start with a hook, some outrageous attention-grabbing device to draw readers and/or viewers into the case. Castle follows this to the letter:
• “Flowers for the Grave”
The hook: A young woman is murdered, and then her body is decorated with rose petals.
The book: It’s the “origin story,” in which crimes based on Castle’s books draws him into Beckett’s world. As they (sort of) work together, a partnership is formed.
• “Nanny McDead”
The hook: A dead nanny stuffed into a clothes dryer
The book: Castle is delighted to start his first day on “the job,” officially shadowing Beckett. Alexis and Martha, though, are the ones who could be the keys to solving the case.
• “Hell Hath No Fury”
The hook: A political candidate is found rolled up in a fancy hotel rug
The book: On the day Castle’s new novel hits the bookstores, he’s avoiding the attention—and the online reviews—by spending all his time at the station.
• “Hedge Fund Homeboys”
The hook: A teenager’s body floating on a small boat on the lake in Central Park
The book: As Castle and Beckett look into a case involving wealthy prep school teens, Castle worries about what trouble Alexis might be getting into.
• “A Chill Goes Through Her Veins”
The hook: A dead body frozen to the core
The book: The case involves a years-long missing person case. If Beckett and Castle reveal the truth, it could forever traumatize the families involved.
• “Always Buy Retail”
The hook: Death by freaky voodoo ritual
The book: Castle’s ex-wife is in town, and she might stay permanently, much to Castle’s frustration. Her fashion knowledge comes in handy, though, as a clue in the case involves a stolen designer purse.
• “Home is Where the Heart Stops”
The hook: A home invasion leads to a dead body stuffed inside a wall safe
The book: To track down this killer, Castle and Beckett go undercover at a white tie gala. It’s no party, though, when Castle confronts an old enemy—a thief whose life of crime was ruined when it was revealed in Castle’s writing.
The hook: A corpse in a bathtub full of motor oil
The book: In between searching for clues, Beckett joins Castle’s weekly poker game, leading to competition as to who can out-bluff who. The trickery continues when a rival writer gets involved.
• “Little Girl Lost”
The hook: A child is abducted from her home while her father is in the next room
The book: Beckett is reunited with an old flame, who is now an FBI agent. A lot of surprises about her are revealed as the two of them—and Castle—race against the clock to find the missing kid.
• “A Death in the Family”
The hook: A tow truck crew hauls off an illegally parked car, not knowing there’s a dead body inside
The book: Here’s a case that involves both organized crime and botched plastic surgery. The real twists, however, come when Castle investigates Beckett’s past after she warns him not to.
“I’m a wiseass, not a jackass.”—Castle
The above quote sums up Castle’s character nicely. On paper, he could come across as too rude or abrasive to carry a series. He constantly makes wisecracks during murder investigations, and he makes numerous attempts to seduce Beckett. How is he not a sexist jerkwad? Because of Fillion’s performance. Castle is cocky, to be sure, but he also has his human side, and is able to drop the wiseass act and show that he knows murder is serious business. Why the act? It’s because Castle is an observer. He pushes everyone’s button, especially Beckett’s, so he can observe how they react. Because he’s not one of the cops, he’s not bound by all of their rules and regulations. This gives the character a sense of freedom to say and do whatever he wants during the investigation. That makes the show just different enough from the dozens of other procedurals on the air to have its own personality.
Of course, this show wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without a sparring partner for Fillion. As Beckett, Stana Katic is a perfect foil, and I can really believe she’s an equal for the over-the-top Castle. I love that the writers have given her a dry wit, so that she’s not constantly the tough-girl cop. She has a winning comeback ready for every one of goofball remarks. When not doing the detective thing, Katic shows us Beckett’s serious side at times, as her tragic back story is slowly revealed, bit by bit. It’s also worth noting how Beckett and Castle have two different approaches to solving cases. She’s by the book, looking solely at hard evidence, while Castle always asks “What’s the story?” He’s on the lookout for the twist, which there of course there always is. The case is usually solved by finding a middle ground between both viewpoints.
Both of our leads have his or her own comic relief backup. Esposito and Ryan are the “Artoo and Threepio” of the cast, providing a lot of humor, while also filling specific duties. As for Castle’s home life, Molly Quinn is a lot of fun as Castle’s daughter, the most mature member of the family, and often the voice of reason among the cast. As the series progresses, she too shows more sides to her personality with a crush on a shy boy at school, which has her turning to her dad for advice for once, instead of vice versa. Suzanne Sullivan, as Castle’s mother, is the character that might drive away some viewers, but her character’s presence reveals a lot about Castle, where he came from, and why he is the way he is.
As you’ve probably guessed, this is a dialogue-driven show, and the dialogue is totally the best thing about Castle. The writers have clearly worked hard on the dialogue, with is peppered with great lines throughout. Even the exposition info-dumps, of which there are many, are still enjoyable because of all the little personality touches sprinkled throughout. Equally impressive is how the tone of any given episode can turn, moving from light and funny one minute, and then darkly serious the next. It’s a credit to the writers and actors that these sudden tone shifts are handled smoothly and naturally every time.
I’ve discussed the characters and their interactions above, but maybe you noticed I didn’t write much about the specific cases. Aside from the initial gruesome hooks that start each episode, the individual cases aren’t that noteworthy. It usually follows a pattern of moving from one suspect to the next to the next until there’s a big surprise twist or two. Some cases end dramatically in the interrogation room, while a few might end with a big foot chase or two-gun standoff. That’s all fine and good, but the cases just don’t stand out, especially when held up against the great dialogue and character work in the same episodes.
As expected for a recently made prime-time network series, the picture and audio on this three-disc set are excellent. Three episodes get audio commentaries with producers and actors, which are lively and chatty, and with a lot of anecdotes from the set (geez, how many times did they stay up until 4-5 a.m. to finish a scene?) There are a couple of featurettes, one about the creation of the show, one an interview with mystery writer and legendary TV producer Steven J. Cannell (The Rockford Files), and a jokey one about Fillion and Cannell spending a day together. A brief blooper reel rounds out the extras.
What a fun show, and what a delight it is that it’s been given a second season. Castle is a must-see for anyone who likes a quirky detective show.