Monday, March 11, 2019

Castle: A Ten-Year Appreciation

This show had me at the trailer.

Love at First Sight

Somehow, it's been ten years since the TV show "Castle" first debuted. It was 9 March 2009, a Monday. It was in the 9pm slot, opposite ratings juggernaut and personal favorite show "CSI: Miami." But on that night, there was never a doubt at to which show we'd watch live and which show we'd tape. Sorry, David Caruso, you got bumped.

And every subsequent Monday night.

You see, "Castle" was right up my alley. The show starred Nathan Fillion, the guy from the cancelled show "Firefly." The wife liked Firefly and it was an easy sell to get her to watch Castle live, at least the first night. That was the nibble. The story and the characters of that debut episode, "Flowers for Your Grave," set the hook.

Every Monday night for eight seasons, I was glued to the TV. If the phone rang anytime during the 9pm hour on Monday, it wasn't answered. I was too focused on the show. Each week, I was entertained, charmed, and, truth be told, educated in how to write this kind of twisty mystery story.

A Writer's Education

I would love to be able to say that I watched Castle then became a famous novelist myself. Nope. But I learned the vibe of the show, the play-off of each character against the rest of the ensemble, and how story is structured. I know I absorbed that information because I can recognize it in my own writing.

I have watched various episodes over and over, breaking down the beats and outlining the story, just to understand how a story is constructed. The writing was always strong on this show, but a script is only words on paper. You need strong actors to bring these characters to life, and "Castle" struck a mother lode of talent.

A Gem of a Cast

Sure, Nathan Fillion is a famous actor, but he always comes across as that good friend who has connections that'll get you backstage at a Comic Con so you can meet the latest Hollywood actor. Truth be told, I think Fillion brought a lot of himself to the role of Castle, and he took the fictional character to another level. I don't think even creator Andrew W. Marlowe knew how well Fillion would fill out the role. It's safe to say that if any other actor was cast in this role, the character of Richard Castle would have been something else entirely. With Firefly, we pretty much knew what were going to get with Fillion as Castle, and he knocked it out of the park every single week.

But with a TV mystery show that centers itself on a romance, Fillion would only be as good as the actress cast opposite him. And in Stana Katic, the creators found perfection.

For longtime fans of the show, I think a lot of us contend the show could have easily been titled "Beckett." Katic plays Detective Kate Beckett, hard-nosed NYPD homicide cop who is as by-the-book as you could get. From episode one, Castle correctly guesses what drives her: the death of a family member. In this case, it was Beckett's mother who was killed, and that was the turning point in the young lady's life. She became a cop, and sought out justice on behalf of those who could not.

Katic didn't merely play Beckett as a no-nonsense cop. She brought real depth to the role. She fleshed out the character way beyond what was originally intended. In a show with Fillion's name more or less at the top of the marquee, it was Katic's Beckett who turned out to be the true star of the show. That's not taking anything away from Fillion or any of the other cast members. It's just that Stana Katic was that good.

Characters as a Family

In nearly every TV show, the core cast become a sort of surrogate family. And if Beckett was the mom and Castle the goofy dad, then Detectives Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas) and Seamus Dever's Detective Kevin Ryan were the kids. The two mismatched detectives--Esposito, the tough former soldier, and Ryan, the smallish but dogged former narcotics cop--were a fun B story each week. In the eight seasons, the two actors were able to bring a lot of chemistry to these two characters, so much so that I would have watched a spin-off series with just them.

Speaking of family, the divorced Richard Castle lives in a nice New York apartment with his teen-aged daughter, Alexis (Molly Quinn), and his mother, Martha Rodgers (Susan Sullivan). As goofy as Castle could be with Alexis--playing laser tag indoors, cosplaying as some space cowboy with a brown coat--he dearly loved his daughter and mother, and they him. These three actors forged a bond so good you'd be surprised they weren't actually a family. And as time went on, as Castle's relationship with Beckett blossomed, the two stalwart ladies in Castle's orbit welcomed her with love and open arms.

Will They or Won't They

Speaking of the relationship central to the series, the creators did an excellent job of maintaining the romantic tension for four years. Look, from the outset, we knew Castle and Beckett were going to end up together. We watched to see how. And to avoid the pitfalls of previous shows.

Two favorite shows that pre-dated Castle were "Moonlighting" and "The X-Files." In both shows, but especially Moonlighting, when the two leads ended up romantically together, the show fell apart. I'm confident Marlowe, Rob Bowman, and the other showrunners were dead-set on crafting a show that kept the sexual tension high, but not prolonged past its inevitable prime. When the pair finally had that steamy, passionate kiss in the finale of Season 4, it was well and truly earned. I'm a romantic at heart and now, remembering that scene and writing about it, makes me fell all warm and toasty inside.

Going into Season 5, everyone wondered how the united Castle and Beckett (AKA "Caskett) would work. Would the show be another Moonlighting casualty? Fans needn't have worried. A template for how the pair could co-exist was already out there in plain sight.

The Meta Nature of Castle

In the series premiere, novelist Castle is suffering from writer's block. He has killed off his main character, Derek Storm, but doesn't know what to write next. The events of that episode--someone is killing people and staging the corpses the same way Castle did in his books--leads Beckett to Castle for some insight. She's a fan and has read all her books, something he clues in on quickly. In the process of helping Beckett solve her case, Castle is inspired to write a new series about a no-nonsense lady detective by the name of Nikki Heat, based on Beckett. Castle uses his connections with the mayor's office to get himself assigned to the precinct so he can observe and gather details for his new book series.

By the fall of 2009 when the second season starts, the TV show "Castle" has the character Castle promoting his new book, HEAT WAVE. In an utterly brilliant bit of cross-promotion, you could go to your nearest bookstore and actually purchase the novel itself. On the back was a photo of Nathan Fillion as Castle. For all intents and purposes, this was a book by Richard Castle about the character Nikki Heat as inspired by Kate Beckett.

The Nikki Heat books are the mirror image of the TV show "Castle." Beckett is Heat, the character of Castle is Jameson Rook, journalist, while Esposito and Ryan become Detectives Ochoa and Raley, cutely nicknamed "Roach." But, more importantly, in the first book, Heat and Rook get together.

For a time, each new fall season of the TV show would bring a new novel in the real-world bookshelves. In the relationship of Heat and Rook, readers could see how how Castle and Beckett could still have tension between them and still be in love. I have read all of these books via their audiobook versions, and both narrators--Johnny Heller and Robert Petkoff--really nail the sardonic Fillion-like vibe.

These books became an integral part of enjoying this show for me, so much so, that when the show was cancelled, I knew the Castle books would end, too.*

That Final Season

Let's get one thing straight: I loved every episode of Castle, but there were some that didn't always reach the lofty levels of the best episodes. I think we can all agree on that, right?

As the seventh season neared its conclusion, the ABC network hadn't decided to renew the series or not. Wanting to please the fans, the writers ended the seventh season incredibly well. If that season finale turned out to be the series finale, it would be perfection.

But we got an eighth season. And of the episodes that didn't reach said lofty level, some were in this season. My wife, an avid watcher with me, peeled away from the series early on in the eighth season. I think it was mainly a reaction to the way Castle and Beckett were forced apart. Gone was the witty banter and fun of the show revolving around two character who had come to love and trust one another. In its place was a seemingly out-of-the-blue story arc that took Beckett away and left Castle with Esposito and Ryan. They have good chemistry, too, but the center wasn't as solid as before.

By the time the eighth season came into the spring of 2016, rumors were rampant as to a ninth season. Judging from the quality of the eighth, even I, a die-hard fan, started questioning whether or not the show should continue. When the news broke that the contracts for Stana Katic and co-star Tamala Jones would not be renewed for a potential ninth season, fans reacted with passion. How in the world could you have Castle without Beckett? You could, but it wouldn't be the same show.

In a wild reverse of how Star Trek fans lobbied for that show's renewal, Castle fans lobbied for ABC to cancel the show rather than have a Beckett-less Castle. Who can say if they truly played a role, but Castle was cancelled, ending up at eight seasons.

Still a Wonderful Show

I've met a few folks in the years since Castle ended who never watched the show and ask me about it. When I start in on my enthusiastic response and praise of the show, they probably wished they wouldn't have asked. I wax eloquent about this show, the characters, the stories, the books. It all comes spilling out. And, to be 100% frank, I often tell them to stop at season 7. That ending was perfection to a show I have loved since Day One.

It is a show that is among my favorites of all time. It holds a special place for me, and I will love it.

How long, you ask?


*Tomorrow, a brand-new book, CRASHING HEAT, comes out!

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