The Trouble with Castle; The Allure of Fringe

on May 7, 2009

Our MSW sister Toni told me I HAD to watch CASTLE, so I bought it on iTunes and watched the first five episodes in two nights. As far as I know, there’s only 10 . . . I don’t know when, or if, there will be more. Matt from TV Guide says it will be back . . . but ABC has yet to announce it officially.

No major spoilers, but some general commentary.

CASTLE has a great premise and strong acting. I adore Nathan Fillion (Malcolm in FIREFLY, a brilliant show that was killed by the station that moved time slots around and showed the shows out of order.) I think the actress who plays Kate Beckett is good, and I really like the supporting cast, especially Castle’s daughter.

The show in a nutshell: Successful crime fiction author helps detective solve cases in NYC.

As a writer, I find the show’s writers have done a wonderful job getting into the mindset of a crime writer. I really enjoy Rick Castle’s humor, the way he looks at the crime scene, the way he takes parts of his books. “Like in XYZ, the killer did 123.” Kate Beckett, a fan, is more serious and resents being forced to let Castle tag along—think a more hands-on ride along program 🙂 They don’t ridicule writers, yet expertly showcase their foibles and fears and frustrations. As well as the hard work that goes into writing the books. (Though I think Castle must be a night owl since he’s hanging with Kate during the day . . . )

I can buy into the premise very easily, and am willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy the banter between the two protagonists. I like the characters very much and think that the show could be terrific.

But there are a few problems that I hope the writers will address if the show returns next season.

1) Humor. I love the humor. I think it’s strong. But when I watched the five minute intro to the show–sort of a pre-show–and they hit me over the head with the fact that it wasn’t going to be a dark program, that it was light and humorous while dealing with some darker aspects–but it’s not dark, no, it’s funny! Think Moonlighting. Maybe I went into it skeptical–but I think they are trying so hard to keep it light that’s it’s almost become a cozy. A little darkness is good. I’m not opposed to cozies, but the premise and the subjects of the episodes I’ve watched aren’t really cozy set-ups. Keep the humor by all means, I love the chemistry between Kate and Rick, but don’t after-school-special the conflict.

2) Plot. I hesitate to mention this, but after five episodes I’ve discovered the formula and I am banging my head. There’s a crime. They have a lead. They pursue it, confident they’re right. They’re wrong. They ponder. Rick has an idea based on one of his books. They pursue it, confident they’re right. He oversteps. They’re wrong. They ponder. Kate has a lead based on evidence. They pursue it, confident they have the killer. They’re wrong. They ponder. Rick uses psychology to figure out what’s what, Kate’s skeptical, but pursues it, and voila, case is solved.

Okay, maybe I’m simplifying it, but I have the sensation that everyone is moving in one direction–the same direction–and then as lemmings do, following en masse off the cliff. Whoops, that didn’t work, let’s do something else. En masse they go in another direction. Charge! Sometimes, they all just seem dumb as far as crime solving is concerned. Maybe I’ve just watched too much Law & Order, but I just don’t get the feeling that I’m dealing with super smart people. Fun, yes. Funny, yes. Interesting, yes. I just hope as the show grows into maturity, that the stories themselves don’t follow the same format.

So while I’m having some trouble with CASTLE, I’m sticking with it for at least one more season if it returns (it’s apparently on the bubble.) I’d love to see Castle at the ITW conference this July where there’s a murder and he’s one of the suspects . . . Just this once, I’d love to be a script writer. 🙂

Where I have unwatched episodes of CASTLE on my Apple TV, I don’t have unwatched episodes of FRINGE. Why? Because as soon as I started watching it, I was hooked. I have to know what happens. The show is smart, savvy, with great acting, strong characters, and a fantastic conspiracy plot. Think: CSI meets the X-Files. It’s already been renewed. No surprise there. It’s officially my second favorite show, and my favorite since season one of HEROES . . . I have the same strong feeling of anticipation and have to watch as I did then. (My favorite show is SUPERNATURAL . . . but I can write 10,000 words on that show, so I’ll save it for later.)

What is FRINGE doing right?

First, Joshua Jackson. Need I say more? My only quibble . . . give him more screen time. Please. 🙂

Okay, seriously:

To like FRINGE you have to buy into the premise of “fringe science”–ideas that are theoretically (cough-cough) possible in science, like telepathy, time travel, telekinesis and teleportation. And like the X-FILES, there’s an over-arcing conspiracy plot that is unraveling slowly, taking the characters in new directions so you never quite know what to expect. But, also like the X-FILES, there are “stand alone” shows that, while they may loosely connect to the over-arcing storyline, they “stand alone.” This helps if you miss an episode or have a bad memory 🙂

CHARACTERS: I was skeptical about Agent Olivia Dunham. I really didn’t want to like her. I’m picky about my female characters, maybe too picky. But by episode two, I was hooked on her. She’s smart and strong without being masculine and bitchy. She’s pretty without being drop-dead gorgeous. She’s resourceful without being a superhero. She’s driven without being obsessed. What’s not to love? She was betrayed at the beginning of the season . . . or was she? She’s the best female law enforcement character since Dana Scully and Olivia Benson. The show did something smart right off the bat–they gave her a family. True, a sister and young niece, but it helps soften her enough so that she’s not obsessed.

Walter Bishop, brilliant scientist, is both a driving force of the show as well as comic relief (especially him and his son Peter Bishop, aka Joshua Jackson.) Walter isn’t all right in his mind and quite eccentric, but he also has secrets . . . which makes him even more intriguing. How much is an act and how much is him? What does he really know? And Peter also has secrets–there are people who want him dead. But he’s also very smart intellectually, as well as street smart–so Olivia, the trained agent, doesn’t emasculate him. (I don’t think anyone can emasculate him . . . )

Yeah, yeah, yeah, get on with it.

The secondary characters all have a part to play–they are pivotal. They aren’t just window dressing. There’s a purpose and they may only be on the show for a short time, but you know that they are not window dressing. They are all deeply developed, from Olivia’s friend and second-in-command of the fringe science department, Charlie to Astrid, an agent who assists Walter to Nina Sharp, the gatekeeper of Massive Dynamics. Everyone has secrets, everyone has allies and enemies, and Olivia is “us” — she’s the constant. We might know a little more than her in some areas, but not much, only enough to know that she’s important to certain people . . . but why?

Hand-in-hand with great characters is great acting. The show was smooth and polished from the first episode.

STORY: They said that “character is story” and that is always true, but more important is how the characters react to conflict. Unexplained paranormal phenomena is always an allure, but more than that is how the situation drives the characters into both external and internal discoveries. So not only is the crime solved (or explained, or not solved, or partly solved), it has a lasting effect. It’s like each episode is building a foundation, and you just know that the next stone is going to make it even better.

I have not been disappointed.

I think the reason this show draws me is not just that it’s original–or rather an original treatment of common themes–but that it’s intelligent. It doesn’t overexplain. The characters are growing, and you can see the hero’s journey unfold, particularly with Olivia Dunham. All the classic archetypes are present–the mentor, the trickster, the gatekeeper. She has allies and enemies, and sometimes her enemies are her allies and vice-versa. There is a classic story element laid over the new and original contemporary science fiction storyline. It’s like season one of HEROES is that way.

Maybe that’s my problem with CASTLE. The character growth from episode to episode is practically the same. It’s the coolness of the plot twists and the dialogue that makes the show. With FRINGE, it’s that everything that happens has an impact on the characters, and that impact is taken into the future. It creates a sense of forward motion, impending doom, all leading to a final confrontation that Olivia and the others have been unknowingly preparing for.

On a personal note, I finished CUTTING EDGE over the weekend and have started writing the first book of the Seven Deadly Sins series. We’re talking titles now . . . I can’t wait to share when they’re settled. Toni helped me work out some hiccups in my premise, and I think I’m good to go. I have 80 pages written from long ago, but they need major editing. Tuesday night I wrote the prologue, which takes place during and immediately after the fire at the end of “Deliver Us From Evil” in the anthology I share with Rocki and Karin, WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE. And, before I blog here again in two weeks, FATAL SECRETS will be out! Yes, it’s on sale on May 19! RT Book Reviews gave it a Top Pick: “A master of suspense, Brennan does another outstanding job uniting horrifying action, procedural drama and the birth of a romance — a prime example of why she’s tops in the genre. “ And my mom just finished it and told me she really liked it, and she doesn’t lie 🙂 Oh, and watch for the July issue of RT Book Reviews . . . I’m on the cover (gulp) and Brenda Novak interviewed me for the article. But even more fun, I wrote an article about Brenda, myself, Anna Stewart and Regan Taylor visiting the morgue . . . and the fun that ensued! We took pictures and more . . . I don’t know what’s going to make it in the article, but I really had fun writing it.

So what’s new with you? Read any good books lately? Watch any good shows? Seen any good movies? Anyone looking forward to the Star Trek movie coming out . . . when? This weekend? Next? And . . . today is my son’s birthday! Brennan #3 is EIGHT YEARS OLD. I’m having TEN little boys over at the house on Saturday . . . yep, I’m feeling every one of my nearly forty years . . . .

OH!!!! And before I forget . . . check out Brenda’s Diabetes Auction. I know many of the MSW gals donated items to the auction, and some of us are bidding (and losing!!! damn! gotta go back in . . . ) I donated a Crime Fiction Readers basket that includes all eight finalists for Best Romantic Suspense in the Ritas, and the 10 finalists for Best Novel and Best First Novel of the Thriller awards, plus many more goodies including my books, my favorite season of CSI and more. AND I donated a Crime Fiction Writers basket with my favorite research books, writing books, and . . . a 50-page critique. Shoot me now. I just had one of those moments. Believe me, they are rare. But it’s for a good cause!

Now I’m really going . . .