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Sunday, 12 of July of 2020

In Defense of Castle (and Smart TV Criticism)

Timothy Yenter alerted me to this article from the New York Times reviewing ABC’s Castle. While Timothy sums up what should be the general response to this article well, (“Nothing interesting to say about artifice. Random, unhelpful asides. Disdainful tone”) I felt compelled to chime in with something a bit more than a tweet.

I don’t review Castle here on the blog because I’ve never been happy with anything I’ve ever written about it. It’s not that that I have nothing to say about it, it’s just I don’t find anything I write particularly interesting. I know that Matt also watches it, but he doesn’t write about because, and I think this is correct, he likes enjoying the show on a purely non-critical level.

But this article isn’t just about defending Castle (and it’s worth defending), it’s about demanding smart writing about television, and not the wildly dismissive, bordering on elitist, dreck that the Times has passed off as television criticism.

First off, Castle isn’t great television by any means. But it’s an enjoyable hour of crime fiction with two likable leads (more on that in a minute) and a strong supporting cast. It also appeals to a wide range of folks, from those who simply like Nathan Fillion to people who like procedurals to people who have written books about television. As  Ms. Bellafante notes, the show’s ratings are impressive. Some of this could simply be people staying in from Dancing With The Stars, but if they’re sticking with it, it must mean that some people likes it.

And why shouldn’t they? Despite its well-worn procedural shell, Castle is a well-executed one. Fillion and Stana Katic work the material well, and the stories are often twisty enough that sometimes the murderer is difficult to predict. Yes, I do think the show often coasts on Fillion’s charm and mugging, but it’s such good charm and mugging that I don’t really care. He’s charismatic and is clearly just having a fun time, and when the actors are having a fun time, so does the audience.

The review, however, describes Katic’s performance as “egregiously flat and chilly affect, performing as though she has been cast in ‘CSI: Kiev.'” I’ll concede that Katic’s performance is the show’s weak link, but I’ll also defend the performance in that Katic has the hardest role on the show: the straight man. It’s hard to be both interesting and play the sane one opposite Fillion’s smart but goofy Castle. But the character and the performance have grown leaps and bounds since the first season, when both were, in fact, painfully flat and chilly.

As for this Oedpial romance between Castle and his mother, this is a step too far as it seems more interested in essentially re-writing the show’s genetic structure as opposed to asking for tweaks to a formula that works rather well. I’m not particularly interested in the UST between Castle and Beckett, and it’s not why I tune in.

But then there’s the actual approach Bellafante takes: it’s lazy and half-baked. First: seriously complaining about a show not getting a city’s geography right this day in age is pretty pointless. When we here at Monsters of Television pick at The Walking Dead for its geographical inaccuracies regarding Atlanta, we don’t let it bog us down and make it a driving critique of the show. We poke fun at it, sure, but we’re not going to criticize the show for not getting it right.

Which leads my elitism contention: New York City isn’t the only city that watches Castle, Ms. Bellafante. The NYC-centrism is unnecessary and irrelevant for a review that will circulate beyond the boroughs. If it’s that big a deal, I suggest that Ms. Bellafante start a series of reviews by local critics who may dismiss CSI: Miami for not being shot in Miami itself and also writers from every small town in The X-Files that posed as various spots in the United States but were actually shot in LA and Canada. This is how television production works, Ms. Bellafante. We’ve all come to grips with it, and I suggest you do so as well.

Finally, there’s the meta-fiction/artifice argument. There’s a kernel of interest to be had in this argument, but it gets bogged down not only by Ms. Bellafante’s tone but also in how terribly old it is. Was Ms. Bellafante not aware of, say, Lost‘s bits of meta-fiction shenanigans with Gary Troup? Likewise, Castle isn’t interested in playing with that sort of meta-fiction about Castle’s books being published in our world. It’s much more interested in referencing Fillion’s career, including not-so-sly nods to Firefly.

Ultimately, it seems that Ms. Bellafante’s complaints about Castle stem more from its industrial context, novel tie-ins and its production practices, than with the show itself. While I’m all for criticizing industrial practices, actually criticize the industry and not the shows themselves. Likewise, see beyond your city-centric point of view to take a gander at a show that can be an entertaining look at various sub-cultures with twisty murderous fun.

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