It's been a while since ABC had a successful crime show on the air -- you have to go back to NYPD Blue, which ended four years ago, to find a cop show that's had any kind of staying power on the network.
Judging by the timeslot it's given Castle -- it premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday, March 9, after the network's top-rated show, Dancing with the Stars -- ABC seems to think it's found the show to break that drought. And while the first two episodes have some good moments -- thanks in large part to Firefly and Waitress star Nathan Fillion in the title role -- the show doesn't immediately announce itself as a hit.
If anything, Castle plays things a little too down the middle. It's a variation on the outside-help subgenre of cop shows (for further explanation and other types, check out our cop-show taxonomy), with Fillion playing best-selling novelist Rick Castle, a charismatic and slightly smarmy guy who's just killed off his best-selling character and is a blocked about where to write next.
Enter NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, Heroes), a savvy and sharp-tongued investigator who's working a murder that eerily resembles a scene from one of Rick's novels. Through a not very surprising (but also more-or-less believable) bit of contrivance, Rick is soon working alongside Kate and finding out that real police work (or, you know, real TV police work) isn't exactly like the stuff of his books.
Kate is naturally miffed at having to squire around a civilian, particularly one who has trouble staying put when he's told and is constantly trying to flirt with her. She grudgingly comes to see, though, that the way Rick always looks for "a good story" is at least a fresh perspective. Another small contrivance -- the mayor's a fan of Castle's work -- lets him stick around to do research on a new character he's basing on Kate.
There's not a lot you haven't seen before in Castle, so the question becomes one of how well the series executes its familiar material. The first two cases hold few real surprises -- they're nothing a veteran cop, mystery writer or crime-show viewer won't be able to solve by well before the last commercial break.
The responsibility for making the show go, then, falls mostly to Fillion, and he does an admirable job of it. The extent to which Castle works is due mostly to Fillion's charm and Rick's attempts to crack through Kate's tough facade. Fillion and Katic play off one another reasonably well, but Kate is at the moment a little underwritten. Indications that she's a fan of Castle's work are brought up early in the pilot and then basically dropped, and while she's good with a dismissive line, it would be nice to see Katic get a little more room to work.
It might also be nice to see Rick get roughened up a little. Though he's presented as something of a bad boy, the character is almost too nice, raising a stable teenage daughter (Molly Quinn) and putting up with his ex-actress mom (Susan Sullivan, who could challenge 90210's Jessica Walter to a boozy grandma-off) crashing at his house. Monday's premiere has an amusing scene in which Rick plays poker with some fellow best-selling novelists (James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell play themselves); more glimpses into Rick's day job and professional life might be a good thing.
Castle certainly isn't a bad show, and despite dealing with murder every week, it could work pretty well paired with Dancing with the Stars as something for the grown-ups in the audience. Given time to draw the characters a little more sharply, it has potential to grow into something pretty compelling. But it's not quite there yet.