I lost track of Castle last season. I was never a huge fan of the show, but I like Nathan Fillion enough to have watched most of the first season, and I still have my DVR set to record episodes when they air. But somewhere early in season 2, I stopped watching, because that's the kind of series this is: the kind that you can just stop watching, not because it gets bad or because it upsets you, but simply because your life is not appreciably different if you catch the crime-solving adventures of Richard Castle and Kate Beckett or if you don't. This is non-appointment television. It's pleasant, breezy, and tends to break apart in the mind thirty seconds after the end credits.
That's not news, what I'm saying here. There are countless white noise shows on television, and nobody needs me to tell them that Castle is never going to turn into The Wire. This is a cute piece of work that coasts largely on the charms of its cast (namely Fillion, although there aren't any serious weak spots) and a colorful, cinematic visual style. There's also the nostalgia factor—Castle's jokes, shallow-clever mysteries, and broad character types mean it wouldn't be entirely out of place on line-up that started with Night Court and ended with MacGyver. At first I thought the homage was intentional, but while I'm sure the show's creators and writers were influenced by Moonlighting and similar series, I don't think Castle is interested in being self-aware to comment on what it's copying. This isn't Community, which gets a lot of mileage out of acknowledging tropes and then deconstructing them. Nobody ever stops to comment much on just how weird it is that a writer with no official position in the police department gets to hang out at crime scenes and take part in interrogations. And really, that's one of the things that makes the series fun, so long as you don't mind it—that sweetly naive dedication to pretending this absolutely ridiculous premise makes sense. Some shows only work if you turn your brain off; with Castle, it would be mean-spirited to do otherwise.
To get caught up before watching tonight's season three premiere, I watched the finale of last season, "A Deadly Game." Another plus for the show: it's very, very easy to slip back into. Nothing really changes. The first season finale had Castle poking into the murder of Beckett's mother, which gave us at least a possibility of an ongoing plotline, but apparently that's all either been wrapped up or put on the back burner, because this finale was more about the Corpse Of The Week and Castle and Beckett's will-they/won't-they relationship. The CotW led to a pretty good mystery, as for once, the show's complete lack of verisimilitude worked into the plot, a mix-up involving a bunch of nutty thrill-seekers playing fake spies. (Too bad somebody… was playing for keeps. YEEEAAAHH!) Castle pulls off a good twist every now and again, although it's greatest success is in keeping its procedural elements as painless as possible—the dead bodies are supposed to give you the shivers, not haunt or horrify you. (I'm always struck at how weirdly laid-back everyone is at the deaths. Occasionally you'll get a murder that pushes one of Beckett or Castle's buttons, but most times, Beckett is all business, and Castle acts like a kid at a very special kind of Christmas. Obviously we couldn't get too heavy or anything—I'll get to it in a second, but this is not a show that does "heavy" well—but sometimes the chipper approach to the macabre hits at notes that another, possibly better show might've hit harder.)
The will-they/won't-they stuff, though, is less successful. That's is always a problem with this kind of set-up. For some reason, writers are convinced that the romantic spark between two attractive people can only exist if those two people aren't having sex, and because that spark is supposedly one of the big pulls of the series, Castle and Beckett are forever trapped in a purgatory of missing opportunities and one-sided glances. It's frustrating, and it draws attention to itself in a way the series can't support. At the end of "Game," Beckett has decided she's going to tell Castle how she feels. She's breaks up with her boyfriend, takes Castle aside to express herself, and, just at the last possible second, Castle's ex-wife shows up—the ex-wife that Castle has invited with him to his beach house for the summer (an invitation Castle had earlier extended to Beckett), to help him finish his book and re-kindle their romance. Beckett does a quick about face, everyone says goodbye, and we're left with another chance for two people who surely belong together ruined.
If it sounds silly in writing, it plays even sillier on the screen. For Castle to succeed in entertaining us, it needs to appear effortless, and it's now hitting the point in its run where keeping its leads, who at the very least are obviously attracted to each other and in a position to act on that attraction, from taking the plunge is going to require more and more convoluted efforts. We're already seeing the sweat here—I mean, the timing on this? And the fact that Castle calls his ex-wife, whom he's spent most of the episode avoiding? It's unrealistic, which is bad, and clunky, which is worse. I said earlier that this isn't a show that can handle heavy emotions very well, and while it's cheesy and melodramatic, this kind of just-missed love affair has to be sincere on some level to work. Sincerity means a certain degree of heaviosity, so to speak. Beckett's pained looks, Castle's confusion, the last minute complication, are all forced and unnecessary. There's a weariness in seeing it play out. These are familiar beats, and knowing they aren't going to go away any time soon kills a lot of the fun.
"A Deadly Affair," tonight's episode, makes an attempt to deal with the affect of Castle's departure on Beckett and on her co-workers, and it's uneven, but sweet at times. (The episode gets a lot of laughs out of glares and hurt feelings.) The CotW is pretty good—contrived as hell, but just weird enough to hook you in. "Affair" goes to a surprising amount of effort to restore a status quo that no one was asking it to break in the first place. It's not terrible, but it does require a little more suspension of disbelief than usual, which hurts that whole "effortless" vibe, and by the end, the relationships are all back where they used to be, which makes all of this seem more than a little like wheel-spinning. But that's not the worst thing in the world, especially not for a show like this. Castle could be better than it is, and at the very least, Fillion deserves more challenging work; nice as it is to have him on a regular series, he's really just coasting here. (Stana Katic is fine as Beckett, but the first few scenes of "Affair" are Castle-free, and it's telling how less engaging the show is when Fillion isn't around.) There's no plans for on-going coverage of the series here in TV Club land, because there's not enough going on either good or bad to really talk about week after week, but as season premiere's go, this one was decent. If I could ask anything of Castle in its third season, I would ask that they finally take the plunge and end the will-they/won't-they dithering. The chemistry between the leads here won't suffer from an actual romance together. If anything, they act like they've been together for years. Nobody expects the show to go from decent to amazing at this point, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to try something a little new.