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Castle: An Old-School Detective Drama

on Mon, 04/04/2011 - 00:00

“There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people,” Richard Castle explains at the start of the ABC drama Castle. “Psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better.”

Mystery writers assisting law enforcement in tracking down murderers was originally championed in the mid-1970s by television writers Richard Levinson and William Link with the short-lived Ellery Queen. Set in the 1940s, author Ellery was inevitably drawn into the latest New York City slayings being investigated by his father Inspector Richard Queen and would famously gather all of the suspects together at the end of each episode and subsequently reveal the identity of the culprit. Unfortunately, Ellery Queen failed to attract a large enough audience to keep it on the air longer than one season, but Levinson and Link enhanced the concept with their creation of Murder, She Wrote. Changing the setting to both contemporary times and tranquil Maine, as well as the gender of the main protagonist, the two crafted one of the longest running and most successful crime series in television history.

Castle, meanwhile, explores the same terrain that Levinson and Link traveled in the 1970s, 80s and 90s but gives the “mystery writer turned real life detective” a more modern edge and style. A lot has changed, after all, within the crime genre since Murder, She Wrote ended in 1996. Classic detective shows of the past have given way to forensic dramas of the present, with the procedural aspects of crime solving overshadowing the intellectual connecting-the-dots of yesteryear. Castle thus walks the fine line between its modern day contemporaries and old-school premise while mixing in its own ingredients for success in the process.

While the first season of the series featured gruesome elements to the cases in the same manner as other Twenty First Century entries into the genre, Castle has added a more nuanced level to its narratives as it has evolved. The inaugural effort, for instance, witnessed one victim being stuffed into a laundry drier while another corpse was found frozen solid. Subsequent seasons have centered more on gunshots, stabbings, stranglings and poisons, but while the methods may have become more generic, the particulars surrounding the events have incorporated all the elements of good storytelling.

Although other contemporary crime shows have utilized underground and non-traditional elements of society within their episodes, the treatments have often been for humorous effect and relied upon generalities and misconceptions. Castle has ventured into similar territory, exploring such outer edges of mainstream society as vampire fixation and S&M, but has done so with a level of respect for such cultures.

In the season two episode “Vampire Weekend,” for instance, a member of a vampire cult is staked to death in a cemetery. Rather than paint the victim as a member of something foreign and demented, the narrative features small snippets of understanding towards the subculture. Upon discovering that the recently deceased had ceramic veneers created to reflect vampire teeth, Richard Castle offers that he knows the best “fang master” in the city. When Castle and his NYPD partner Kate Beckett later search the victim’s apartment, meanwhile, they ask the landlady if she ever noticed anything unusual. “The vampire thing was a little weird,” she replies. “But my first husband was a Civil War re-enactor, so you tell me which was weirder.”

That is not to suggest that Castle relies on the obscure for its storylines. The motives on the series are in line with those throughout history, from greed and jealousy to innocent situations that inevitably spin out of control. The victims, on the other hand, are a mixture of nannies, politicians, fashion models, bridesmaids, pop singers, bike messengers, art dealers and baseball players. It’s just that the writers on Castle have proven a knack for taking the generic and the non-mainstream, the offbeat and the ordinary, and building strong and engaging narratives around them.

Of course it doesn’t matter how intriguing of a storyline one creates if the characters are not equally strong and engaging, and here again Castle excels. Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), for instance, is a successful crime novelist with over 25 best sellers to his name. He finds himself assisting NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) in the pilot episode of the series when a killer begins murdering their victims in the same fashion as those found in his books. Castle’s fame and fortune has won him many high profile friends, including the mayor of New York, and he thus maneuvers his way as Beckett’s “consultant partner” under the pretext of basing a new set of novels on her and thus needing to conduct research. It doesn’t hurt that Castle also finds himself both attracted and intrigued by his newfound muse.

Beckett, meanwhile, is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense police detective of the old school variety. Although a fan of crime novels—she even has a personal library of Richard Castle’s writings—she continually exhibits a low-level of tolerance towards her new partner’s boyish enthusiasms and juvenile remarks but eventually comes to accept his intuition and ability to connect the dots. There is an obvious sexual chemistry between the two leads, much like David Addison and Maddie Hayes from the 1980s hit Moonlighting, but circumstances during the early seasons of Castle continually prevent any sort of romance from developing between them.

Whereas David Addison’s sunglasses, unorthodox behavior and womanizing ways were often left unchecked—to continue the Moonlighting comparison—similar traits in Richard Castle are tempered by his personal life that includes a theatrical mother (Susan Sullivan) and a teenage daughter (Molly C. Quinn) that serve as the true center of his world. The relationship between Richard Castle and his live-in nuclear family, while containing the same ups and downs as anyone, is truly built on mutual respect, honest communication, protectiveness and genuine love.

In that sense, Castle has found the perfect actor to portray its male lead. Nathan Fillion was cast as Captain Malcolm Reynolds in the short-lived cult favorite Firefly in the early part of the Twenty First Century, and the same smug charm that Fillion brought to that character is likewise reflected in Richard Castle. The writers of the series have also played homage to the earlier role on a frequent basis. In the aforementioned Halloween-themed “Vampire Weekend,” for instance, Castle dressed in the same costume that Fillion wore on Firefly, while references to and dialogue from the space-western are peppered throughout other episodes of the crime drama.

“I was aiming for his head,” Richard Castle replies when complimented on his ability to shoot an escaping criminal. In “The Train Job” episode of Firefly, meanwhile, another character makes the same remark under similar circumstances.

Although Castle includes elements of contemporary forensic dramas as well as old school detective shows, in actuality the ABC drama is more akin to the type of crime novels that the fictitious Richard Castle writes on a regular basis. Intriguing characters, self-contained settings and gripping narratives are often the basis for the latest New York Times bestsellers, and those ingredients are consistently found within the plots and storylines of each episode of Castle. In fact, Richard Castle himself outlines the necessities for a good book in the pilot episode of the series when he explains to Kate Beckett why he is assisting on their first case together.

“I’m here for the story,” he remarks. “Why these people, why these murders? There’s always a story, always a chain of events that makes everything make sense. You just have to find it.”

As so it is with Castle.

Anthony Letizia

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