This review really is ruggedly handsome, isn’t it?
The second season of a TV series is always an interesting beast. During the first season, the characters and their world were introduced, and viewers got a feel of the show’s overall themes and concepts. Then, when the show miraculously returns for a second year, the question is, where will the creators go with it? In the best of cases, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Farscape, the creators build on what they’ve established, progressing the characters and their stories in exciting new directions, but doing so in a way that feels natural to what was previously established. In the worst of cases, such as Heroes, the second season falls short of expectations, as creators scramble to recapture what made the show initially popular.
To outsiders looking in, Castle might look like yet another network procedural show in an endless sea of network procedural shows. Upon watching it, though, I was immediately impressed with the razor-sharp dialogue, likable characters, and talented cast. Now it’s time for the second season, and I’m pleased to report that it’s the better kind of second season, one that not only maintains everything that makes the show great, but improves on it.
Blockbuster mystery novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, Serenity) continues to follow tough New York homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, The Spirit) on the job, as research for his new series of mystery thrillers. She takes the business of solving murders seriously. He takes it…not as seriously.
Castle is backed up at home by his wise-beyond-her-years teen daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn, A Christmas Carol (2009)) and his outrageous actress mother Martha (Susan Sullivan, Falcon Crest). At the station, Beckett is supported by fellow detectives Esposito (Jon Huertas, The Hurt Locker) and Ryan (Seamus Dever, General Hospital).
As we all know, every good mystery begins with a “hook,” a big, attention-getting moment that draws the audience in, keeping them involved with the plot that follows. Castle once again follows this to the letter:
• “Deep in Death”
The Hook: A dead body is found in a tree, and then its stolen by gun-toting thugs while on the way to the morgue.
The Plot: Beckett learns that Castle investigated her mother’s murder without her permission, and she wants him out of her life. Castle has until the case is solved to get her to change her mind.
• “The Double Down”
The Hook: A couples therapist is murdered, and the killer writes a frightening message on her face.
The Plot: While Castle and Beckett work on their case, Esposito and Ryan work another one, a random shooting, which they argue is more difficult to solve than a premeditated murder. A bet is made, and now the race is on to see which pair of detectives can solve their crime first.
• “Inventing the Girl”
The Hook: It’s Fashion Week in New York, and a promising young model is found dead in a fountain.
The Plot: The glitz and glamour of the high-class fashion world is, in Castle’s words, “to die for.” There’s a mystery of another kind as a hot model knows Castle, but he can’t remember where he met her.
• “Fool Me Once”
The Hook: An artic explorer is murdered while on a live internet broadcast.
The Plot: Castle and Beckett are called in to investigate, because it turns out the guy wasn’t in the artic, but in New York the whole time. If you think that’s a spoiler, then you have no idea that crazy twists and turns this case takes before it’s all over.
• “When the Bough Breaks”
The Hook: An illegal immigrant is found dead inside a sewer manhole.
The Plot: After the successful publication of Castle’s novel Heat Wave, Beckett has mixed feelings after Castle gets an offer to write the adventures of an unnamed but famous fictional character.
• “Vampire Weekend”
The Hook: Shortly before Halloween, a body is found in a cemetery with a stake through its heart.
The Plot: Castle and Beckett explore the city’s fetish-y underground—not for the first time and not for the last time. Be warned: your head will explode when a certain browncoat-wearing spaceship captain makes a cameo.
• “Famous Last Words”
The Hook: A woman is found not just murdered, but dangling from a fire escape with her face painted in a macabre way.
The Plot: It turns out that the victim was a popular recording artist, and Alexis is one of her biggest fans. As Castle and Beckett take on the music industry, Alexis gets involved in the case by using her encyclopedia-like knowledge of the singer.
• “Kill the Messenger”
The Hook: A bike messenger is run over by a masked man in a stolen car.
The Plot: Beckett’s boss, Captain Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, American Gangster) takes center stage, as the mystery has to do with a troublesome case he worked on years earlier.
• “Love Me Dead”
The Hook: An arguing couple’s spat is cut short when a dead body comes crashing through the windshield of their car.
The Plot: The case involves politicians and prostitutes, but Castle could jeopardize the investigation when he tries to help out a troubled young escort who wants out of that life. Meanwhile, Alexis and Beckett have been sharing secretive phone calls, driving Castle crazy about what secrets they’re keeping from him.
• “One Man’s Treasure”
The Hook: A man’s body is found stuffed into his building’s garbage chute.
The Plot: Two women show up to identify the body, one is his fiancée and the other his wife. (Castle: “Dude, you are so busted!”) Now Castle and Beckett have to find the murderer while trying to keep the women from killing each other. Also, Alexis volunteers at the police station and finds a mystery of her own to solve.
• “The Fifth Bullet”
The Hook: An art dealer is gunned down inside his own gallery.
The Plot: Not only is a bullet missing from the crime scene, but an man (Marc Blucas, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) shows up near the crime scene, suffering memory loss after being hit on the head. Memories are no problem for Martha, though, who starts up a romance with her high school sweetheart.
• “A Rose for Everafter”
The Hook: A murder is committed at a wedding, just before the big event begins.
The Plot: The bride (Alyssa Milano, Embrace of the Vampire) is an ex-girlfriend of Castle’s—she’s the one (or one of the ones) that got away. During the investigation, old emotions stir between her and Castle, and Beckett fears they might be compromising the investigation.
• “Sucker Punch”
The Hook: A gangster is found dead while armed to teeth. The killer somehow got to him before he could get off a shot.
The Plot: The case takes our heroes from one side of the city to the other, with them encountering Irish mobsters, infomercial hosts, and international drug smugglers. By the time it’s over, there will be big revelations in store for one of our main characters.
• “The Third Man”
The Hook: A family comes home from vacation to find a stranger dead in their daughter’s bed.
The Plot: Castle makes the “New York’s Most Eligible Bachelor” list, and the press also incorrectly reports a romance between him and Beckett. This is a distraction during the case, in which the squatter might be more than he seems.
• “Suicide Squeeze”
The Hook: At the batting cages, it’s death by pitching machine.
The Plot: Guest starring Ray Wise (Twin Peaks)! The victim is a pro ball player, and another famous slugger is involved in the case. While investigating, the question, “Who is Castle’s father?” comes up.
• “The Mistress Always Spanks Twice”
The Hook: A dead woman is found half naked, covered in caramel, handcuffed to playground equipment.
The Plot: It’s more fun with New York’s secret fetish underground (again!) Needless to say, the sexy innuendo goes into overdrive in this episode.
• “Tick, Tick, Tick”
The Hook: A man calls the police, saying he committed a murder and, “that’s all you need to know.”
The Plot: The action-packed two-parter begins as a serial killer is loose in the city, and the FBI is called in to assist Castle and Beckett on the pursuit. The psycho has become obsessed with Beckett, and is one step ahead of our heroes the whole time.
The Hook: The title says it all. “Boom,” indeed.
The Plot: The adrenaline-rush two-parter concludes in an explosive way. With Beckett’s life on the line, Castle and the FBI put their lives on the line, going to extremes to find a killer playing sick game with them all.
• “Wrapped Up In Death”
The Hook: A museum curator is killed by a falling gargoyle.
The Plot: Superstition is the theme of the week, as the museum is about to open a new exhibit featuring an ancient mummy. Naturally, you can’t have a mummy with a mummy’s curse. Is there a logical explanation, or could there be something supernatural afoot? Also, Castle took a look at the cursed mummy. Does that mean the he’ll be next?
• “The Late Shaft”
The Hook: Castle appears on a late-night talk show. During a commercial break, the host whispers, “They’re trying to kill me.” Later that night, he’s murdered.
The Plot: This one spoofs the embarrassment of humanity that was the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien Tonight Show controversy. During the investigation, Castle is seduced by a Hollywood starlet. Is she for real, or is she just using him?
• “Den of Thieves”
The Hook: What appears to be a robbery gone wrong is more than that, as the killer took time to shut the victim’s eyes before fleeing the scene.
The Plot: Esposito is in the spotlight this week, when a suspect is someone he has a personal connection with. This gives us a chance to learn about his background. Also, Beckett starts a romance with a fellow cop, Demming (Michael Trucco, Battlestar Galactica), creating mixed feelings for Castle.
• “Food to Die For”
The Hook: Death by liquid nitrogen!
The Plot: A murder is committed in a high-class restaurant, which happens to be owned by an old friend of Beckett’s. Love is in the air, as she and Castle hit it off, while Beckett and Demming continue their relationship.
The Hook: A cleaning woman finds a strange message written in blood on a mirror.
The Plot: It’s a robbery-homicide, so Demming joins the case. The simmering love triangle comes to an overflowing boil as the two guys go overboard trying to outsmart each other in front of Beckett.
• “A Deadly Game”
The Hook: A man is on the run from a shadowy figure. He calls his “handler,” asks for an “extraction,” and is denied, only to be killed.
The Plot: Castle and Beckett try to solve a case involving secret agents, only to discover these agents aren’t all that “secret.” Plus, summer is about to begin, and Castle is thinking of leaving, spending it in the Hamptons. He invites Beckett to join him, just as Demming offers her a similar invitation to join him for the summer. What will she choose?
Castle: “We need a slogan. ‘She’s armed. He’s dangerous.'”
Why Castle? When everyone else keeps going on and on about how much they love stuff like Lost or Law and Order or some reality show crap, I’m over in the corner, waving my arms around while jumping up and down, preaching the greatness and glory of Castle. It’s the whole package—great writing, great acting, great direction, humor, drama, romance, intrigue, and action. It’s everything you could want in a TV series.
Chief among the show’s strengths is the razor-sharp dialogue. The writers must spend days (weeks? months?) fussing over each sentence, punching up the wordplay to make every line an outstanding one, no matter what the scene. Both the big dramatic movements and the quick move-the-plot-forward snippets are loaded with witty, clever turns of phrase. Then, there’s a cast of talented actors, led by Fillion and Katic, who manage to sell the dialogue with both style and ease. The result is a show that’s endlessly watchable and quotable.
The big selling point is the Castle and Beckett relationship. As usual, she is by-the-book, approaching cases looking only at the hard evidence and following procedure. Castle, on the other hand, thinks like a writer, questioning the motivations of the suspects and always asking “What’s the twist?” Because he’s not a cop, Castle isn’t beholden to the police’s various rules, which gives him a freedom to pursue clues in ways the cops can’t—not to mention that he seemingly knows everyone in New York. His “I know a guy” connections open doors that the cops otherwise could not. Aside from the mysteries at hand, there is the frustration and/or sexual tension shared between Castle and Beckett. The smartest decision the writers have made was to give Beckett a sense of humor. Some viewers have asked why she isn’t suing him for sexual harassment every two seconds. It’s because she knows that when he makes a lewd comment, he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just messing with her, to see how she’ll react. Instead, she messes with him by not reacting how he’d expect. The two of them play this mental game throughout the season, and it’s always great fun to see who will outwit who.
Our heroes are bolstered by an equally-excellent supporting cast. The writers have a lot of fun with Alexis, with her teenage drama and/or mischief often mirroring the main plot in some way. Martha gets a little more to do this season, with a romance with an old high school friend, and some questioning of how her life has gone and where it’s going when it comes time for her to move out of Castle’s place and live on her own again. As usual, having her on the show informs us of Castle’s character, and how he ended up the way he has. At the police station, there’s more development for Esposito in an episode devoted him dealing with his past. Ryan doesn’t get as much focus, except for an ongoing subplot about his oft-mentioned girlfriend, leading the others to wonder whether she exists only in his imagination. A lot of comic relief comes from the wisecracking medical examiners who work the morgue, the sassy silver-tongued Lanie (Tamala Jones, Daddy Day Camp) and the world-weary Perlmutter (Ayre Gross, The Experts).
My only complaint about the first season was that although I loved the characters and dialogue, the actual mysteries weren’t that impressive. The writers must have felt the same way, because the cases are much more clever and engaging this time around. If you were to watch the first act of “Fool Me Once” and then skip to the final act, you’d swear it was two separate episodes. The crazy twists and turns in this one takes the plot in a wildly different place from where it began. It’s not the only example, as the cases keep taking unexpected left turns, ending an episode in a different place—both physically and thematically—from where it began. You could argue that the cases aren’t realistic, but the entire series has already established itself as a slightly heightened reality, so the strangeness of these murders fits right in with the show’s overall tone, even improving upon it.
The season hits its high point in the two-part episode that has Beckett pursued by a super-sinister serial killer. It’s not often that Castle makes with the big blockbuster action, but when it does, the show really brings it. The generous location shooting in New York and the huge set pieces make it feel like Castle: The Movie. As big as the production is, it’s also “big” in its emotion, pushing the characters to their extremes. This one also introduced a new sparring partner for Castle, an FBI agent played by Dana Delany (Desperate Housewives). When the episode first aired, the show was still new enough that viewers wondered if the killer would succeed in taking out Beckett, to have her replaced with Delany’s character. Star Trek fans know this is as the “Lt. Shelby” trick, in which producers make the audience believe a main character is going to die by introducing a new character as potential replacement. By now, it’s not a spoiler to say that Beckett survives, considering Stana Katic is back for a third season, but that doesn’t dilute the intensity of the two-parter.
Video on this five-disc set is solid, although some scenes set in overly red lights tend to have slight color bleeding. The audio is great all around, with the dialogue, sound effects, and quirky score coming through loud and clear. The bonus features seem interested in showing off the crewmembers not usually seen in DVD bonus features. These include a set visit with Huertas and Dever, a location shoot visit hosted by Fillion, and a look at how the production team stages crime scenes with equal parts special effects and research. There are also deleted scenes, bloopers, and a “for beginners” featurette on the first disc that brings Castle newbies up to speed. No commentaries this time around? They were best bonus features on the season one set, both amusing and informative. What a disappointment.
We snobbish film critics like to go on and on about theme, plot and character, but, really, at the end of the day it’s all about being entertained. Castle: The Complete Second Season is pure entertainment. Highly recommended.