Nathan Fillion has won a measure of notoriety within Joss Whedon’s creative stable (“Firefly,” “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) and did an underutilized stint on “Desperate Housewives.” Enter “Castle,” an ABC dramedy that’s essentially “Murder, He Wrote,” built almost entirely on Fillion’s roguish charm as a bad-boy novelist. The show, which puts a procedural spin on ABC’s whimsical not-quite-comedies, has the misfortune to arrive in the wake of CBS’ “The Mentalist,” with its similar theme — intuitive male outsider’s paired with prickly female cop. Fillion is good company, and “Castle” has a breezy ease but, as a whole, feels a tad underfurnished.
Fillion’s Richard Castle is a mystery novelist with a nagging case of writer’s block (“You can’t rush genius,” he protests), having killed off his main franchise character. His raucous personal life includes a teenage daughter who’s more mature than he is and a boozy live-in mom (a scene-stealing Susan Sullivan) who sizes up an eligible older gent by saying she’s getting “a hit on my graydar.” Castle even plays poker with fellow mystery novelists (cameos by James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell) in one of the show’s more amusing bits.
Inspiration mercifully comes knocking when someone begins killing people in a manner that mirrors Castle’s books, bringing him into contact with a shrewd investigator, Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). She is, of course, both catnip to Castle and a closet fan. So while she yearns to get rid of him, he keeps providing helpful insights and simultaneously irritates her with flirty banter such as “The way your brow furrows when you’re thinking? It’s cute.”
It might all pass as a so-so movie premise (and indeed has), except that Castle calls in a chit with the mayor to let him tag along with Kate as “research” for his next book. “How long?” she asks, having told him that as a civilian, he can only “accompany and observe,” not “participate and annoy.” How long indeed.
Fillion has a bit of James Garner in him, which is high praise. Still, the playful bickering between mismatched crime-solvers seems vulnerable to “Moonlighting” syndrome, especially if Castle’s going to continue probing Kate relentlessly about her moribund social life and blatantly coming on to her.
Sullivan’s theatrics notwithstanding, Castle’s home environment also proves relatively bland (does primetime really need another precocious teenager?), which means the two episodes previewed pivot largely on the strength of the cases, whose twists certainly don’t break new ground (though it is nice to see Keir Dullea in a guest role).
In terms of tone, this series neatly fits with ABC’s other dramas by incorporating humor and sex appeal into its procedural mold, and a demographically compatible “Dancing With the Stars” lead-in certainly won’t hurt. Even so, with so many similarly appointed dramas on the market, “Castle” can’t help but feel like slightly better decorated tract housing.