Tom Shales TV Review: "Castle"

Stana Katic plays Kate Beckett.
Stana Katic plays Kate Beckett. (Eric Liebowitz - AP)
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

"Wildly famous mystery novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is bored with his own success," says ABC publicity for the new crime series "Castle." Bored with his success? Poor bay-beee. As it happens, he won't be the only one. Viewers who stumble into this misbegotten "Moonlighting" imitation will likely be bored, too, but not because of too much success.

"Moonlighting" was quite the seminal, pivotal hit in the '80s -- or so it would appear, since it still inspires copycats 20 years after it left ABC. Then again, it was hardly the first crime caper to feature a spatty, chatty couple; the "Thin Man" movies probably did it best. "Castle" does it half-heartedly, with the two principal characters exchanging flat patter and bottom-of-the-barrel banter.

Owing a little something also to "Murder, She Wrote," "Castle" presents us with a middle-aged novelist hero who forces himself on the New York Police Department so he can hook up with feisty, flinty Detective Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic, and come up with more ideas for novels.

Shame on anyone who takes the easy road and says of Katic's performance, "I can't Stana." (Pause for uproarious laughter.) In fact, there might be a substantial young actress under the cliched character Katic has been forced to play -- another brittle and bitter career woman who traded in her femininity for a job. In real life, this doesn't have to happen, but in TV shows, a woman with a career still tends to be portrayed as a woman with big fat chips on both her padded shoulders.

Fillion, meanwhile, plays novelist Castle as a good-hearted, wisecracking puppy dog, romping around Detective Beckett in vain efforts to loosen her up and, in time, warm her up, no doubt hoping for a little romance. But as of tonight's premiere, the sparks fizzle and flop to the ground, soggy and damp and barely identifiable.

Wouldn't you know, a serial killer is the first culprit for the oddball crime-fighting team; serial killers are about 20 times as common on prime time as they are in the daily news. And of course he's a bit of a psycho, too, leaving his first victim -- a shapely young woman, surprise, surprise -- naked except for strategically strewn red rose petals and a large yellow sunflower plopped down on her face.

A later victim, introduced in a bid to sustain viewer interest, is found floating in a swimming pool with an embedded knife acting as a kind of mast, sticking straight up. Inevitably, a corrupt and perverse old billionaire is also involved in the mayhem, and though Castle keeps coming up with good clues, impulsive Beckett keeps trying to shove him out of the spotlight.

"Why are you here?" she asks him when they meet at a crime scene. "Why are you still here?" she asks him later, in an office he's demolishing. When not solving crimes that he can rip off for his next novel, Castle plays poker with a group of guys who include real-life mystery writer Stephen J. Cannell, creator of "The Rockford Files." He's obviously slumming here.

Maybe the show is trying to be fashionably "retro" while seeming merely old hat, the little trick that "Mad Men" gets away with on cable. There's much less going on in "Castle" than there is in "Mad Men," however, and by the time Beckett complains that "there is no story," many viewers will have wearily figured that out for themselves. "There's always a story; you just have to find it," Castle says at one point -- but too little about "Castle" makes you want to hang in there and keep looking.

Castle (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

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