I enter any piece of entertainment that uses a writer as a character with a healthy skepticism. I suppose it's a little like being an emergency room doctor watching ER. Everything wrong with the portrayal and just how much of the inherent drama has been cranked to 11 to make it more exciting is going to be glaringly obvious to the expert. The latter is going to be doubly so for a story about a writer, as most of our lives are rather dull and solitary. Have you ever noticed how many of us joke about not wearing pants when we work? It's because it's not a joke, we generally sit around our homes all day typing, so why get dressed? (Though, I have my trousers on now. I had to go to the library earlier. Thrilling!) The fact that writers get their own profession wrong is a crazy irony, given that if there is one thing every scribe should know, it's the life of a writer. I guess even guys who invent fiction for a living need some wish fulfillment. Still, it's also kind of a lazy choice. What do you write about when you have nothing to write about? Hmmm, I know, a guy with nothing to write about! In the first scene of author Jonathan Ames' new HBO show, Bored to Death, the character he has seemingly based on himself (he didn't even change the name) laments how hard the second novel is to write and how it's screwing up his relationships. I almost right then wrote iTunes to see if they'd take their free download back.
That said, I think every writer should be allowed at least one piece of work about a writer. One and no more. I've taken mine, and thank goodness that Andrew W. Marlowe took his. His charming little detective show Castle was my surprise hit of the 2008-2009 television season, arriving midway through to replace something cancelled early and probably best forgotten.
Castle's basic premise is that best-selling author Richard Castle has killed off his longstanding P.I. character, Derek Storm, and is seeking inspiration for a new series of thrillers. Played with manly charisma by Nathan Fillion (Serenity, Waitress), Castle is a bit of devil-may-care rake in public, but a loving single father in private, a balance that actually rings fairly true. Writers generally have inner worlds and outer worlds. A different guy stares into the laptop than the one that gives readings in crowded bookstores.
To figure out what to do next with his career, Castle steps out into public in a big way. In the pilot episode, "Flowers for Your Grave," a series of murders based on the killings in Castle's novels puts him in contact with police detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, The Spirit). Impressed by Beckett's fierce dedication and the way she doesn't take any of his nonsense, Castle decides that she would be the perfect model for his new heroine, Nikki Heat. He pulls some strings, and the series then follows the pair as Castle shadows the officer on her cases. Their two worlds often clash--Marlowe and his writers use the disparity between a private citizen's resources and what the public servants have available as both comedy and commentary--but a mutual respect and friendship develops, as they regularly do in buddy-cop stories. There is also the requisite romantic tension, but that thankfully never feels forced or contrived. Both Castle and Beckett are written well enough that they actually would make a very believable couple.
"Flowers for Your Grave" is an excellent first episode, smartly constructed to give us a quick introduction to both sides of the story. The copycat murders give us insight into the kind of writer Castle is, while the investigation itself shows us how both he and Beckett approach a problem. Interwoven in all this is Castle's private life--his two wives; his daughter Alexis (a smart, likable Molly C. Quinn); and his pushy mother, Martha (Susan Sullivan), an aging actress whose narcissism may have something to do with her son's self-confidence. Most of the cases Castle goes on will reflect back on his life in some way, if even for no other reason than when he returns home, the author ponders what he saw that day. I would mildly complain that sometimes this feels forced, and Castle's mother is often played a little too broadly for my tastes, but I can see why it's there and where the show creators are going with it. Who Castle and Beckett are off the job is as important to the job they do as anything. Given the personal nature of the majority of homicides they investigate, it colors how they perceive a particular subject. Beckett's sympathy for the killer in episode 2, "Nanny McDead," for instance, speaks to her womanhood, whereas Castle's uneasiness with the behavior of the young suspects in episode 4, "Hedge Fund Homeboys," is directly related back to his relationship with Alexis. Throughout The Complete First Season, the writers are carefully building these folks, and we learn about different aspects of who they are the way one does in any relationship, each encounter revealing a little bit more. Thus, we get the return of Castle's first wife, Alexis' mother, a woman very much like his own mother, later in the season, as well as Beckett's old flame and former partner, now an FBI agent (Bailey Chase).
The character elements are important, also, because Castle mines a genre that is less about innovative plotting and more about who is involved and how it's told. The cases that Castle and Beckett catch are usually your garden variety whodunit--the frozen body of a woman turns out to be a missing person (episode 5), a jewel thief could be an old friend of Castle's (episode 7), a politician with a dark secret is found in a dumpster (episode 3), etc. Each script is structured to drive a forty-minute episode, with lots of switch-ups and twists so that the prevailing theory never prevails for long. What I like is that these shows are about legwork and the interrogation of suspects rather than flashy CSI technology. The duo is aided by the county medical examiner (Tamala Jones) and two detectives working under Beckett (Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever), and that's it. The mysteries are solved by the team staying after the target, constantly asking questions...you know, real detective work. Though a couple too many climaxes are reached by Castle disobeying orders and getting into harm's way just as the suspect is making a run for it, the way he aids the investigations by imagining how a case might go were he writing it as a novel can be a real treat, and I dig how the writers balance this against his appreciation for Beckett's use of intuition and honest-to-goodness police work.
When reviewing a show that is so reliant on its two leads the way Castle is, I'd be remiss if I didn't remark on how good the performances by Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic truly are. Richard Castle is the kind of role that Fillion does so well--the smart and funny rogue. He was, of course, great as the spaceship captain on Firefly and the sheriff in Slither, and a lot of people always forget what a scary bad guy he was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Castle pushes him fully into leading man territory. He is charismatic, a little goofy, and quite suave. The actor also portrays tremendous range and balance in the way he so easily moves from crime scene to daddy time.
Stana Katic more than holds her own against Fillion. She has the presence to pull off the toughness required to be a police detective, and also the intelligence to show that the wheels are always turning. Again, though, it's about balance and being able to traverse all aspects of the character, so her hidden vulnerability is just as important as her wisecracks (and the latter sometimes is an obvious cover for the former). This is particularly crucial near the tail end of The Complete First Season. Kate Beckett, it turns out, has a hidden past, and like many police officers, has one unsolved case that will always haunt her. For Beckett, it's the death of her mother, whose killer remaining at large was a big reason she got into police work in the first place. The season finale and its cliffhanger revolve around Castle's determination to use his means to dig back into the past and find out what really happened. (A writer looking for a mother's killer? Anyone else getting shades of James Ellroy here?) It's another smart move: the show's cast and crew have gotten us invested in who these people are and have now given us good reason to come back.
In terms of the current state of television, Castle: The Complete First Season doesn't really rate up there with some of the better known and highly lauded cable shows, but in terms of the kind of fun week-to-week entertainment that the networks used to provide us, this series is at the top of the heap. Relying less on continued story lines and refreshingly free of annoying gimmicks ("ooooh, he gets in your head!" "ooooh, he's a super math genius!"), it sticks to the old-fashioned basics of good characters and solid writing. As I said, I didn't expect much when I tuned in last year. Actually, I expected to hate it, but gave it a try because I like Nathan Fillion. It was my pleasant surprise that I became a fan, and now that I've gone back through The Complete First Season, I'm totally excited to watch the season-two premiere I taped the other night.
Castle: The Complete First Season spreads 10 episodes across three discs, with four shows each on the first two, and the final two shows and the bonus featurettes on the third disc. These are very nicely rendered DVDs, with crisp resolution, no interlacing, and very nice colors. The shows were shot and broadcast in widescreen, and that 1.78:1 aspect ratio is preserved here. Castle is a good looking set of discs. Very impressive.
The English soundtrack is mixed in Dolby 5.1 and sounds fantastic. Good tones, no drop-outs, no hiss. There is some speaker interplay, nothing too flashy. Solid work.
Subtitle options are English Closed Captioning, French, and Spanish.
Various audio commentaries are spread across three discs. Creator Andrew Marlowe and director Rob Bowman (both also producers) team with Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, and Jon Huertas for a track on the first episode, and the same group is also joined by Molly C. Quinn for the fifth episode ("A Chill Goes Through Her Veins," on DVD 2) and the final episode (DVD 3). Huertas records a second track for the finale with Seamus Dever. All the commentaries are light and full of banter, though the one with just the two actors is far more jokey than the others. I'd have preferred a little more focus on the big group tracks, particularly on the first one when I would have liked to hear more about the nuts and bolts of putting a series together. They are all entertaining to listen to, regardless. The best tidbits come when they talk about specific scenes, and each commentary gives some amusing attention to the state of that episode's murdered body. I think episode 5's track is my favorite for how much it gets into Katic's process.
DVD 3 holds the non-commentary extras, including a collection of trailers for other Disney TV DVDs. The lead is the 6-minute 14-second "Whodunit: The Genesis of Castle", the standard behind-the-scenes promo with interviews, etc.
"Castle's Godfather" (7:15) shows Rob Bowman and Andrew Marlowe talking with their hero Stephen J. Cannell, creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team, about how he inspired the show, including Bowman's history working for his "Uncle Steve." They also cover how Cannell came to appear in a couple of episodes as himself. More amusing is Cannell's participation in "Write-Along with Nathan Fillion" (9:07), a high-concept bonus featuring the actor turning the tables and shadowing an actual mystery writer for a day rather than a writer shadowing a cop.
"Misdemeanors: Bloopers & Outtakes" (2:37) pretty much explains itself. It's cute.
Castle: The Complete First Season comes in a standard clear-plastic case with three spindles for the discs. The cover is printed on both sides, and there is also an outer slipcover. A Blu-Ray flyer is included inside the case.
Highly Recommended. Castle: The Complete First Season was a wonderful surprise when it showed up on TV last year. The old-school cop show about a homicide detective and the mystery novelist that drives her crazy, played with irresistible panache by Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, relies on the two old standbys of classic detective stories: good characters and straight-up sleuthing. The balance between the professional and the personal works well, making Castle a fantastically good time.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.