Rejections: Why show’s fail: Castle

Why shows fail: Castle (ABC)

“I forgot I wasn’t a cop”

Like Ally McBeal in reverse Castle (ABC Tuesdays 10 PM) is a better series now then at its inception. Its found its tone, style, pacing and a growing audience. Now deep into Season Two, the murder mystery dramedy seems to have hits its stride but trouble seems around the bend.

On its surface Castle is quite similar to other similar procedural dramadies like Fox’s House or CBS’s The Mentalist. Charismatic Firefly alum Nathan Fillion plays metro-sexual murder mystery novelist Richard Castle (who everyone calls Castle), lives with his daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn), and his mother Martha (Dharma and Greg vet, Susan Sullivan). When Castle kills off his main character he manipulates his way into shadowing hardened yet sexy New York City detective Kate Beckett (the ever icy Stana Katic) to develop his new leading lady character.

What separates Castle is its fatal flaw. House and The Mentalist created loan wolf central characters with no equal in the cast. In premise, this is true about Castle, but its reemerges in flaw in each episode’s execution. Every episode’s plot hinges on both Castle and Beckett. Not just as “partners,” and murder mystery lovers but as potential lovers.

The writers got about two thirds of it right

Fillion more than fills Castle with a wonderful zest for his new life helping solve actual crimes and and his natural comedic flair and Canadian newcomer Katic is convincing as a tough cop, I even bought them as partners. But even as the story slings, the characters slip down the proverbial will they won’t they slippery slope, toward a partner/lover relationship it becomes harder and harder for the viewer to fathom.

The Third Man (Season 2: Episode 14) was pivotal plot wise and a perfect vehicle to bring their sexual tension to the fore. In Third Man, Castle and Beckett investigated a “real live Goldilocks.” A family comes home from vacation to find that someone has been living in their apartment while they were away. They find someone dead inside their apartment. From there, the plot has enough twists and turns to keep even the most lazy viewers interested.

At the same time, an article comes out in the naming Castle one of New York’s top ten hottest bachelors. The blurb also mentions that he’s dating Beckett. In several well timed comedic sequences Castle attempts to keep it from Beckett. When she does find out their mutual jealousy overflows and eventually assists them in cracking their case and leading the two back to each other.

Which speaks to the first crack in Castle’s foundation. Despite the writers’ screaming intentions and the improving chemistry between Katic and Fillion, Castle and Beckett are clearly captivated by the murder not each other.

The characters jealous reactions seem half heated and unnatural. Beckett’s reaction to Castle’s moves are beyond belief and serve the purpose of tying the episode with bows.

As a TV show, Castle is still quite puppyish, constantly bending plausibility. Castle’s character has evolved and is no longer a curious unwanted observer with “House” style breakthroughs, he’s now a “Mentalist” style partner with an increasing amount of insights on cases within his dialogue. This now semi equal partnership exposes new cracks in the show’s logic.

Unlike The Mentalist or House, Castle doesn’t even allow the viewer plausible deniability. Castle seems to have no boundaries or consequences for his actions. Castle goes on busts, inside interrogations, and Beckett’s fellow NYPD detectives and their boss Captain Roy Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) don’t seem to remember that he’s an author unless its for comic effect. At one point, as Beckett pulls her gun and tells Castle to hold her purse.

But in this case, the lack of plausibility has helped transform the show into light basic cable popcorn drama, akin to USA’s Burn Notice or Psych. All three shows ask you to suspend your disbelief but Castle’s cast crumbles in comparison.

But that comparison speaks to another major crack in Castle‘s armor, Castle’s minor characters are all underdeveloped. The worlds of Burn Notice and Psych are full of characters and character actors (like Burn’s Bruce Campbell) that are either utterly believable or eccentric yet indispensable.

Its often hard to tell Beckett’s fellow homicide detectives Ryan and Esposito apart. Other than race, there’s no distinguishing traits between two. Both have the same habits (odd trivia), they sarcastically poke Castle with similar quips and are constantly together. Even the show’s Captain calls them, “They” or “Them.” And why wouldn’t he? These characters are discard-able.

Developing the characters is an opportunity for story-lines going forward but unlike other procedurals who’ve followed that logic like Law & Order: SVU there doesn’t seem to be anything worth mining in either character.

These weaknesses bring give me pause when thinking of the show’s longevity. Add Castle & Beckett’s shaky shift from partners to lovers and I see a creative train wreak. Unlike The Mentalist or House, it doesn’t matter how interesting Richard Castle is his character and this series’ fate are bound to Beckett and how they resolve their will they/won’t they scenario.

Stronger show like Frasier were troubled after they cracked that safe, let alone a show who relies on it for half their plot.

For now Castle gets by on Fillion’s charm and its clever murder mysteries but not much else. But with all these cracks in its foundation its doubtful how much longer it can keep up.


In Praise of: Juno

If there were a mantra for Juno, it would come from an unlikely source, Bowling for Columbine.  Michael Moore summed up teenage life in a sentence when he said “What adults always seem to forget, is how much it sucks to be a teen.”  Whether it was American Graffiti,  Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or American Pie filmmakers have constantly, sometimes classically found comedy in just how truly terrifying and dreadful teenage life is.  In time Juno will take its place among those classics.

Much like the films mentioned above, Juno but both the film and its central character refuse to be pegged. 16-year-old Juno McGuff (Academy Award Nominee Ellen Page) is a sarcastic brat, who despite her 5 foot 2 frame can’t help but stand out as she walks the halls of her high school. She’s almost too smart and self aware and more importantly the character feels cut from decade and plopped into this  decade.

Her inner circle defies stereotypes and is populated with Leah (Olivia Thirlby , United 93) her best friend/schools cheerleaders. Leah and Juno serve and volley a slang all there own, a blend of Ebonics meets cute cultural references through the lens of a white bread suburb. They use terms like “Silencio,” “Yo Yo Yiggady Yo,” and “Honest to blog.” No one seems to mind that the two logically would exist outside of each other’s cliques.

Her only other “friend” her age is a clever character uniquely cut out of high school. Arrested Development alum Michael Cera (Superbad) plays Bleaker a frail dork-jock pseudo-boyfriend. Bleaker is an awkward soft spoken champion runner in starched gold short shorts, stolen from the 1980’s NBA. Bleaker and Juno are dating without saying they’re dating and its that relationship which launches the movie.

A domineering Juno sleeps with a nervous yet very willing Bleaker, and finds out she’s pregnant. Juno tells Bleaker and Leah  decides to abort the child.  Until in strangely hilarious turn of events around the abortion clinic she learns that unborn babies have fingernails. Juno’s decision to have the baby and give it up for adoption  is when the film hits its stride. Diving into Juno’s best element, its meaty well drawn supporting characters and its outstanding cast.

Its easy to get lost in all the accolades laid at the feet of Page who deservedly been given the next Hollywood it girl tag. But the film’s best performance came from an it-girl who didn’t pan out ex- Alias star Jennifer Garner. Juno handpicks The Lorings, Vanessa (Garner) and her husband Mark, a brilliant Jason Bateman (Golden Globe winning Arrested Development Alum ) from the penny saver to be the perfect family for her child. Every time Garner is on screen you could feel an emptiness that she’s yearning to fill. And that that all she is that she believes that being a mother solves all. This is especially evident when Juno meets the Lorings and  inadvertently hurts Vanessa. In a moment without tears or dramatic speech  she said it all.

Ex-West Wing star and multiple Emmy winner Allison Janney steps in as another magnificently misshapen surprise of a character, Juno’s stepmom Bren a nail salon owner who has married Juno’s father Mac (J.K. Simmons of Law & Order, Spiderman Trilogy)  a decade earlier. Both resentful and motherly at the same time she steps up to fill in for Juno’s mom who for the entire film is off in parts unknown. While Simmons character scolds, supports, Juno. His manner and mannerisms also help explain how Juno became Juno.

With all this, the film hinges on Ellen Page’s pitch perfect performance.  Her mix of naiveté, strength, and even more impressive
using her sharp tongue  to get through moments of weakness is awe-inspiring and terrific on many levels. A teen that walks and talk like Juno isn’t easily believable until you see Ellen Page do it.

The films few flaws come from its script and its score. Academy Award nominated First time Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s screenplay is very funny but almost too self reverential. Too often the movie feels like it exists in a Generation X fantasy land.  Juno not only listens to but deifies 70s and 80s punk,  which isn’t as far fetched with the onslaught of file sharing makes it more plausible for this generation to connect musically with the past then say Ferris Bueller jump on parade float and sing Danke Schoen.

But Juno doesn’t stop there, she uses phrases like “THUNDERCATS ARE GO!” from the 80’s cartoon and references Etch-sketches and Diana Ross. While that may seem knit picky and its possible that today’s outsider 16-year-old would know those references its highly unlikely. And the fact that those references are slathered on the film while under-representing how electronic and internet driven Americans under 30 are is a major mistake. There are few if any cellphones, no Myspace, Facebook, or reality television, in the film. Sans Juno’s I-pod I could easily believe this film was set in 1997.

The film’s soundtrack is over praised, overused yet beautiful. The Moldy Peaches fit both the film and the character. If used sparingly instead of slamming the viewer over the head with  film’s hipness it would be more effective. Instead the film’s score is another causality post-Garden State. Music can be a character, but it can also easily be a distraction. Often during the film it was.

Juno is at times awkward, sweet, abrasive, laugh out loud funny, and to be honest  it has all the pros and cons of a teenage girl. When a film achieves all that its quite the feat. And I say bravo.