Sunday, March 8, 2009

(Auto) Pilot: A Review of the Castle Pilot Script

*Simul-posted on Pink Raygun.*

If it’s true that everything old eventually becomes new again, Castle might very well have a long life ahead of it. Like Diagnosis Murder and the Father Dowling Mysteries, Castle uses the tried and true TV formula of taking someone from a sort-of related profession — or not — and having them solve crimes. Because, you know, anybody can do that. And of course I’d be remiss not to mention Castle’s most obvious sibling, Murder She Wrote. I say most obvious because Castle starts from the exact same basic premise, that of a mystery novelist drawn into murder cases to help solve them. But the point isn’t how similar it is to shows that have come before, but how well Castle works on its own merits. And for the most part I’d have to say… pretty darn well.

First and foremost, this show wants to be a fun piece of pulp entertainment, not unlike the tawdry mystery novels of its protagonist Nick Castle. With that in mind, I think writer Andrew W. Marlowe has made some good choices with his characters. Nick is all roguish charm, a literary rockstar whose fans send him him death threats and let him sign their breasts in equal measure. Except that he just killed off his popular main character and hasn’t been able to write for several months. His daughter Alexis comes from the Hollywood School of Precocious Kids, a smart girl who can go quip-for-quip with her dad and isn’t fooled in the slightest by his emotional deflections. Nick’s mom Martha is the rascally grandma out to get laid and stay intoxicated for as much of the day as she can. And Kate Beckett, the police detective who more or less acts as Castle’s partner in this pilot, is the tough cop who took the job after something bad happened in her past. Types, you see, not real people. What makes all of this fun to read is how well Marlowe handles writing that aforementioned “roguish charm.” Admittedly, it helps that I can imagine Nathan Fillion reading Nick’s lines, but even without them the character stuff is just good, fun writing.

The plot of the pilot follows Nick getting pulled into the police station for questioning when someone starts murdering people in the exact way he described in his books. Immediately, Nick is very interested — in getting copies of the murder photos. You see, he has a weekly poker game with other bigshot writers like Stephen King, and the fact that someone is killing people based on his stories will really impress them. Lovely guy, right? But eventually — as we knew he would — Nick gets intrigued by the murders and starts investigating. He tags along with the reluctant Beckett and is given numerous moments to show how smart and awesome he is. Becket has a few cool moments of her own, but definitely doesn’t fare as well in this regard. We’ll come back to that later.

Once we’re into the meat of the investigation, this mostly feels like a tonal cousin to something like Bones, which is not a bad thing at all. Nothing particularly surprised me, but just about everything along the way felt more or less believable and fun. It even had one moment I thought I was going to love, where a cop mentions finding a fingerprint at the murder scene. Nick is ecstatic and asks who the print belongs to, only to have the cop smack him down by telling him that this is the real world, not one of his stories, and it’s going to take at least a week to get lab results. Very interesting. This god of the literary world who thinks he knows everything about everything is getting schooled a bit and will have to reconcile the fictional stories he writes with the reality of actual police work. It felt organic to the concept. And it’s especially smart and relevant considering the many stories coming out now about “The CSI Effect,” where the legal system is having problems with juries because they expect things to work like they do on CSI. Shock of all shocks, reality is never that black and white. Unfortunately, Castle does not get schooled; instead, he turns this moment on its head and uses it as yet another opportunity to show what a rockstar he is.

And that, in a nutshell, is my biggest problem with Castle. And Castle. Nick’s just too damn… awesome. I get that he’s the main character and the hero, but it would be nice to see him wrong some of the time. It would be nice to see him screw up. And it would be especially nice, considering the end of the pilot and what will ostensibly be the franchise of the show, if it was Beckett proving him wrong and having to pick up the pieces after his screw-ups. It would not only make both of their characters more interesting (not to mention more evenly matched), but create a more compelling show overall.

Still, this is the pilot. Not only that, it’s a good, fun, well-written pilot. And one of the most wonderful things about TV shows is that they are always works in progress, so there’s always the potential to make fixes and changes along the way. If, you know, it stays on the air for long enough to do so. Here’s hoping Castle finds enough of an audience to give them that time.

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