Anyone who’s seen Nathan Fillion before, particularly in one of his collaborations with Joss Whedon, knows he’s a major star waiting to happen. Fillion has off-the-scale charisma and the matinee idol looks to back them up. But his real appeal comes from his ability to keep things light without winking at the audience. Fillion plays characters with dangerous levels of charm, but they’re characters first of all. Even Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has his vulnerable side. (Though, it bears repeating, the hammer is his penis.)
Castle may not have begun as a Fillion project, but it surely turned into one along the way, so perfect a vehicle is it for the actor’s talent. Here Fillion plays Richard Castle, a bestselling mystery author whose existence looks complicated even before the show’s premise kicks into gear. Bored with the predictability of his own writing as the series begins, Fillion’s killed off the hero of his most popular mystery series, much to the frustration of his publisher (who’s also his ex-wife). Meanwhile, his home life has taken a turn with the arrival of his mother, an aging Broadway star with an outsized libido (Susan Sullivan, playing what should probably be called a “Lucille Bluth type”). And both mother and son serve as stark contrasts to Fillion’s studious 15-year-old daughter (Molly C. Quinn).
That almost sounds like enough for a show there, and it bodes well for Castle that Fillion and his home life could take center stage, since the mystery in this pilot feels a bit rote. The dialogue’s clever enough, but the plot—in which Fillion helps track down a murderer borrowing inspiration from his bestselling books—is both familiar and something of a cheat, since it hinges on some information kept from the audience until late in the game.
But there’s another element at play as well: Fillion’s paired with a tough-but-glamorous cop (Stana Katic) with whom he develops and an instant, tempestuous chemistry. It’s an old, familiar dynamic but one Fillion and Katic play well. While their mystery borders on the witless, their scenes together come charged with sexual tension. It helps that both actors recognize they have to stretch outside of their character’s types. Fillion’s introduced signing a woman’s chest and saying, “Call me when you’re ready to wash that,” but he still conveys masked gravity. Katic’s cop is as tough as the tough cliché of your choice, but the actress suggests unspoken vulnerability and need.
If the show can develop better mysteries to serve its characters and ways to play with the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that don’t seem tedious, it should be worth watching. This first outing gives it plenty of room for improvement, but also plenty of space in which to grow.
• A pair of famous mystery writers cameo as Fillion’s poker buddies. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I’ll note it would be fun if the show found ways to explore the real world of publishing.
• Castle creator Andrew Marlowe also wrote Air Force One, End Of Days, and Hollow Man.