There's a tendency to write off Nate Fillion as an actor, suggesting after "Two Girls a Guy and a Pizza Place" that he couldn't be a male lead, suggesting after "Firefly" that he could only play the square-jawed serial hero, suggesting after "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that he could only work with Joss Whedon, suggesting after "Drive" that he was best-suited for ensemble work. At a certain point, topping it off by watching him sing and preen in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," one has to acknowledge that just because Fillion isn't some sort of chameleon doesn't mean that he isn't very good at what he does.

Of course, more viewers saw Fillion in his less-than-inspired arc on "Desperate Housewives" than caught him in all of his series projects put together, which makes Monday (March 9) night's premiere of ABC's "Castle" something of a referendum on his star status. If viewers tune in to the "Castle" premiere, it will be because it comes on immediately after the premiere of "Dancing with the Stars." If they stick around after five minutes, it will only be because of Fillion.

"Castle" is being positioned as a cop dramedy, as a teasingly romantic will-they/won't-they two-hander, as a populist mystery. Really, it's The Nate Fillion Show.

[Review after the break...]

Fillion plays Richard Castle, a best-selling mystery writer. Castle lives with his precocious daughter (Molly C. Quinn) and his boozy mother (Susan Sullivan) and, after killing off his most popular gumshoe character, he's having a bit of writer's block. Of course, he'd killed the character because he'd become too predictable, so really, Castle's just bored.

However, when somebody begins killing people and modeling the murders after deaths in Castle's books, NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) seeks out the author's help. She's one of those quintessential TV characters who's so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time for romance or, if the two episodes available to critics are any indication, for any sort of outside human interaction. She is, however, a big fan of Castle's books.

She's a no-nonsense copper! He's an anything goes rapscallion! When they bump heads, sparks are sure to fly!

Or at least that's what ABC was hoping.

Written by feature scribe Andrew Marlowe, whose original "Hollow Man" script was far better than the Paul Verhoven movie, "Castle" is pretty familiar stuff. It could be "The Mentalist" or "Bones" or FOX's short-lived "New Amsterdam," just without the weird mystical elements. Unorthodox hyper-knowledgable crimefighter plus by-the-books competent professional plus weekly unusual cases equals formulaic fun. 

Memo to writers: That scene where our ultra-observant leading man sits across from a woman he's never met, gives her a quick once-over and proceeds with a rambling monologue deconstructing her entire lifestyle and delving into her past and instantly psychoanalyzing her has been done enough times. Not only is it no longer clever, but it's a little condescending. Take that back. It's a lot condescending and more than a little creepy, especially since all such moments must kneel before Hannibal Lecter's insta-deconstruction of Clarice Starling.

Fillion at least does something interesting with the scene. Yes, his Psych 101 breakdown of Det. Beckett's pathology is predictable and dead-on, but when Castle sees the impact his armchair diagnostic has had, he pulls back, temporarily concerned by his effect on his new partner. It's a nice and small moment of nuance.

Most of Fillion's role isn't about nuance. It's about the sort of raised eyebrow, deadpan sarcasm that he can always be expected to bring, elevating very pedestrian dialogue. Castle may just be a writer, but over his years of research, he's learned something about everything, which makes him qualified to chirp answers even when there are experts in the room. He also has an annoying tendency to complicate everything by unspooling it as a potential fiction, since he is a storyteller, after all. Really, with many many leading men, Castle would be a real twit. With Fillion, he's a twit, but he's a charmingly roguish twit. Sometimes that's enough.

Katic has very hard features and she reads much too transparently on-screen. Her character is supposed to be a difficult-to-grasp detective, but Katic plays every frustrated beat so broadly that her every thought flashes across her face. Mostly that thought revolves around exasperation, since half of the scenes in "Castle" involve our hero coming up some sort of wacky outside-of-the-box strategy and marching off, leaving his partner with her hands on her hips shaking her head. Some effort was put into making Beckett pretty good at her job and giving her at least one advantage over Castle per episode. It isn't much, but it saves viewers from the suspicion that New York City would be a safer place if Mayor Bloomberg fired the NYPD and turned the police department over to James Patterson.

"Castle" is mostly a two-person drama, though Quinn and Sullivan add different notes to fairly stock characters. Giving our male leads daughters to raise (see "Shark," "Lie to Me," etc) has become a lazy way to build sentiment and contrast. Giving them an alcoholic, brash mother has just become another form of short-hand, with Sullivan playing the East Coast equivalent of Jessica Walters' "90210" grand-matron.

None of the other cops in the precinct even vaguely register, unless the sight of Ruben Santiago-Hudson in an undeveloped role makes you go, "Oh good, now he'll be able to afford to do two plays next year!" In addition, none of Beckett's find it odd that a mystery writer is wandering around observing them and also effectively solving crimes. I suspect Castle is screwing up procedure so royally that just about everybody he puts away will be able to use his mere presence as grounds for appeal.

"Castle" is almost a CBS procedural, it's so close-ended. The "copycat killer" plot that makes Castle relevant in the first place is knocked out in 42 minutes, leaving exactly 20 seconds of explanation for the contrivances that will keep Castle and Beckett sharing a squad car for the foreseeable future. At the conclusion of the premiere, viewers aren't left with a single lingering concern other than when the two leads will fall in the sack. That's a dangerous thing upon which to hinge a whole series. That leaves only Fillion (and that "Dancing" lead-in) to keep people coming back.

 

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