A typical day in the NYPD…
Castle is a guilty pleasure for me. I once watched four episodes of the show in a night because it’s well-written, witty, and fun—and has some “strong” female characters front and center—so I want to be able to say, just go and watch it right now, don’t even bother reading the rest of the post. Particularly after yesterday’s confirmation that Penny Johnson Jerald will be playing the new head of the 12th precinct in the next season of the show, which starts in September. Her presence will add another woman of color to the main cast, in a position of leadership no less.
But my inner feminist critic has some issues with the show.
It’s on the schlocky end of the detective genre. Castle is about a wealthy writer of bestselling detective fiction, Rick Castle, who gets himself seconded to the New York Police Department. He partners up with detective Kate Beckett, after her wounded depths inspire him to create a new character, “Nikki Heat.”
In the beginning, Castle is shocked by the experience of an actual crime scene, but with the fourth season about to start in September, the show has started to resemble the ludicrous set ups you might expect in one of Rick Castle’s bestsellers.
In one episode, a woman was found stuffed into her own safe. In “A Slice of Death,” the victim is found stuffed into a pizza oven. Then there is the magician found dead in a water tank. And this is where the problems start: obviously it’s “just” a TV show, but at the same time when your story turns on scenes like a woman who has been killed and stuffed into a laundry dryer, it’s creepy if you think about it too much.
Like most mainstream TV, it makes the occasional problematic misstep, such as a season one episode, “Ghosts,” which uses a trans woman character as a gag-line about how “weird” a motel is.
The intention of the show isn’t to focus on the crime, so much as the soap opera in the incident room. It’s somewhere between a buddy cop comedy and a romance between Beckett and Castle, that just happens to be set in the NYPD. So we get lots of the standard “will they/won’t they” tension building up, which is really the main arc of the show.
The show is named after Rick Castle, and the character is played by geek-bait Nathan Fillion, but detective Kate Beckett is as central a character, if not the protagonist. And, unlike many shows, they’re surrounded by a reasonable number of (semi)realistic female supporting characters.
All the characters in Castle seem to start off from a standard archetype, only to be enjoyably filled in later as the writers and actors breathe a bit of life into these boilerplates. The men are no exception to this, by the way: Rick Castle comes from the “rich playboy” character type and almost each episode involves walk-on roles for conventionally sexy women for him to flirt with (one of the first shots in the first episode involves Castle signing the breast of an eager fan).
I’ve already mentioned Beckett’s rescue-me dark past, but her unhealthy obsession with her mother’s murder isn’t the only thing that’s a bit hackneyed. As Erin Gibson pointed out in this episode of Modern Lady, the character is cut from familiar cloth (sexist language warning: Gibson also uses the term slut and not in a reclaimed way).
But much of Beckett’s character seems to have been determined by the need to sustain the tension of Beckett and Castle’s relationship: her boyfriend exists to provide a reason the two leads can’t be together. Even her tragic back story appears to exist just to lob impediments in the way of Beckett finally getting into a relationship… with Castle.
The show is ultimately rescued because the writers get self-aware: Beckett’s character is always set up against Nikki Heat, an even more exaggerated version of herself as Castle fantasizes about her. Beckett gets improbable scenes where she dresses up sexy as part of the investigation; Nikki Heat—well, just consider the name and extrapolate from there. By contrast, we see Beckett rolling her eyes at the ludicrousness of the Heat fantasy, and most convincingly wielding some relatively deadpan humor.
Then we have medical examiner Lanie Parish (Tamala Jones). She might veer perilously close to the Black Best Friend archetype, as some of these clips show (by the way, do we really need to have another “trying on dresses” scene to establish two adult women’s friendship?) but Jones actually took the role partly because it wasn’t written for a black actor. In an interview with Movie Mikes, say said:
I was definitely looking for a change in the type of roles I was taking and my manager and agent agreed with me. We decided I should start stepping outside of the box and start auditioning for characters that maybe aren’t necessarily African American written. We met with the casting director of Castle and they agreed for me to come and audition for Lanie. I was literally was the only African American actress there.
The Lanie character gets some of the funniest lines in the show. She is given a bit more depth, as we at least get the clear indication that she’s got other things on her mind beyond the morgue and Beckett’s love life.
While Beckett is obsessively pursuing who dunnits, Parish turns up at crime scenes dressed to the nines on a regular basis, her prior plans interrupted. In a show where every other female character is defined primarily in relation to the male lead (partner, love interest, ex-wives and girlfriends, mother, daughter), this is a welcome break.
Castle also has a bohemian retired actor mother, played by Susan Sullivan, who we get to see actually having a sex life. Again, this could be played a bit too close to stereotype of the artsy older thespain, desperate to recapture her youth. And, yeah, the show goes there, but again manages to produce a character that transcends the raw material. Castle’s daughter, Alexis, evolves from an exaggerated good girl type in a similar fashion.
Some of the shows I’m talking about in this series take things seriously; and because violence is a feminist issue, and the way the police and state institutions operate have feminist and social justice implications, I tend to prefer it when shows opt for a serious treatment. But, given that Castle is purposefully striding away from that territory, we can enjoy a silly, fun mainstream show that gives us a bunch of well-written, entertaining, funny female characters. Can’t we?