The big, recurring problem with Castle isn’t that it’s often cute. It’s that it seems to think that its cuteness is such a terrific thing that it makes up for the show’s pretty much consistent inability to tell a halfway decent mystery. I was sort of dreading this week’s show, the inevitable episode that uses a murder case with roots in the 1940s as an excuse to have Nathan Fillion and the other regular cast members impersonate characters in a spoofy, noir-style detective story. This sort of thing has been done so many times that now, when someone does it again, you don’t know whether they intend it as an homage to classic noir or as an homage to Moonlighting’s 1985 black-and-white homage to classic noir. Plus, I didn’t think that having people talk in a way designed to remind the audience of Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart (both of whom were mentioned by name) would strike anyone on the creative end as reason enough to tell a better mystery than usual.
I was right about that. The 1940s story is about a private eye who fell in love with a gangster’s moll; we are told that the two of them had been murdered back in 1947, and their charred remains had been found in a burned-out car. The worst line in the flashbacks to 1947 comes early on, when Fillion, playing the private eye, steps into a nightclub and expresses regret that “my favorite performer, Satchmo,” isn’t “blowing” that night. As soon as I saw the photos of the unidentifiable bodies in the wreckage of the car, I knew that the private eye and the moll were going to turn out to still be alive; I even knew that they were going to be played by Chad Everett and Ellen Geer, because their names are in the opening credits, and they’re in about the right age range. So it wass downright insulting that when Castle and Beckett visit Everett and Geer for the first time, the lovable old codgers are listening to Louis Armstrong. And still Castle and Beckett don’t put two and two together until the show is practically over.
But my biggest concern was that, like the show’s recent trip to Vegas, natural home of the Elvis impersonator, the mock-noir aspect would bring out every winking, smirky, elbow-to-the-ribs instinct the show has in its bones and crank it up to 11. It’s a funny thing, though: Castle really is home to a lot of talented people, and talented people can surprise you at the strangest times. There is a parody aspect to the ’40s scenes, sure, what with Fillion, in his voiceover narration, saying of a woman singing in the club, “that songbird’s got golden pipes,” and adding, as he saunters up to the bar, “I’ll be damned if all that walking didn’t get the shrapnel in my hip buzzing, but I knew where to get my medicine.” But what these scenes mainly have is a degree of conviction about the world in which they were set that’s missing from Castle on the weak nights when it’s giving itself the giggles. It took a minute to register that Fillion isn’t playing Rick Castle’s inane idea of a cliché private eye out of an old movie; even with the overripe dialogue and the Robert Mitchum Halloween costume, he is really playing the private eye. It was easy to imagine that, having figured that this was the closest he’s ever going to get to playing the hero in a movie like that, he’d decided to take his tongue out of his cheek and just run with it.
The other actors play in the same spirit, especially Susan Sullivan and Molly Quinn, whose usual appearances on this show have dwindled down to the deadliest kind of obligatory filler. Liberated from their regular roles—which hit dead ends a long time ago—they look as if they’re having fun for a change. As the detective’s no-nonsense secretary, Sullivan does a neat spin on Lee Patrick’s loyal girl friday in The Maltese Falcon; Quinn—playing a client with a Southern accent and an innocent-miss veneer so transparently phony that only the man agreeing to take her money could fail to see through it—looks as if she couldn’t believe her good fortune at having something to do besides whine about her troubles with her unseen ex-boyfriend. Seamus Dever and Jon Huertas get to serve as hired muscle for the gangster villain—“an Irishman and a Cuban on loan from some Havana crime family,” Fillion calls them. Dever apparently gets such a thrill out of this that, when the action cut back to the present day and he has to be Detective Ryan again, he has one scene where he act pissed off about being distracted from the case he’s working on by Castle’s goofy antics, just as if he’s really playing a cop.
If there is a weak link in this company it is—stop the presses!—Stana Katic. At her most spirited, she comes across as a good sport more than anything else. I have to give her credit, though: Making her entrance wearing Eva Peron’s lips and a thick, white yeti pelt, she has the look of a femme fatale who could justify the line, “She was worth every punch.” It’s a little disappointing that she isn’t really fatale at all, and that we aren’t even teased with the possibility that she might be. She is an unambiguously nice girl who just needs the right man to help her break away from the clutches of “the most ruthless mob boss New York has ever given birth to,” played by—here comes another inevitability—Mark Pellegrino. (After that buildup, Pellegrino has so little to do that, when he turns up again later in the episode as his character’s lookalike grandson—who also has next to nothing to do—it is as if the show is trying to make it worth his while to have bothered to report to the set.)
Katic’s finest moment comes when, as Beckett, she gets to react to Castle’s advancing the story by reading some old report that he’s come across and then stopping when it ends abruptly. She really looks ready to jump out of her skin to know what happened next. The show repeats variations on this gag, and the expression on Fillion’s face—a part blissful, part prankish glow of pride at having gotten someone else involved in a story, albeit one that he couldn’t yet finish—is a thing of beauty. I don’t remember the show ever doing a better job of making Rick Castle really seem like a writer, someone who loves to spin yarns and weave a spell with words, instead of a generic rich celebrity/lovable asshole. It makes up for a lot—though the idea that the show has true respect for the art of storytelling couldn’t survive the conclusion, with the murderer being revealed to be a peripheral noncharacter I couldn’t remember having even seen before, who immediately reels off a speech accounting for his motives and actions, that really should have end with him shouting that he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. The best parts of this episode were Castle at its best. During the not-best parts, you could dream about the detective movie that someone ought to be writing for Nathan Fillion. If anyone wants to take up a collection to raise a budget, I’m good for a sawbuck.