When Nathan Fillion appeared on the most recent BBC America The Nerdist TV special, the panelists got to talking about which kind of freaky sci-fi babe they'd most like to get busy with. Sounding like a nine-year-old who claims special expertise in this area because he's sneaked a look at his dad's porno magazines, Wil Wheaton splashed cold water on this debate by pointing out that "when Wesley Crusher fell in love with a beautiful alien woman, she turned into a hideous, seven-foot-tall monster." Seizing his opportunity, Jonah Ray said, "That's what I call marriage." In a context like The Nerdist, a joke like that has air quotes around it; you're meant to understand that the joker is making self-aware fun of the idea that show business used to be about grinding out that sort of dumb, knuckle-dragging one-liner, though if also happens to make you laugh, so much the better. (Fillion did his part to help out by making an oh-that-hurts-so-good face that was the visual equivalent of the sound that the studio audience made, a good-natured groan that had some chuckles embedded in it.)
Except for the magnetic force field of ironic self-awareness that Fillion carries around himself at all times, Castle isn't generally that sophisticated a show in its attitude towards itself, which is only a problem when its humor. The show's sense of humor is often the most sophisticated thing about it, but it can get pretty dumb on occasion. The most striking thing about tonight's episode was how consistently dumb it was, even as it refused to take anything that was going on very seriously. That applied to the murder case that Castle and company were working on, and it also applied to the workplace-family story line about wrapping the case up in time for Kevin Ryan's wedding. What was strange about it was the form this not taking things seriously took. The whole episode had the feel of a dirty joke—a bad, unsexy dirty joke, as if the idea of marriage made the show uncomfortable, as if all it could think about was the wedding night, so that it got all sniggery and couldn't shake it. I'm probably making it sound pretty bad, and it was, but it wasn't as hard to take as it should have been. It was actually kind of endearing. Give Castle credit for being that rare show that's sometimes bad in a way that can make you feel protective towards it.
The tone was set right in the opening seconds. (Actually, if you tuned in a little early, the tone was set by what preceded it—the closing moments of The Bachelor, where you got to see a dinner-table flirtation between two people who acted as if they'd learned everything they know about courtship by making out with their stuffed animals.) On the mean streets of Castle's Manhattan, a couple of cute kids are comparing the fare at an outdoor fruit market. He tells her not to buy the pineapple she's looking at, and hands her a different one: "Here's the one, sweet and firm." She smiles at him as if this was the wittiest thing she'd ever heard in her life, and, holding the pineapple close to her face, says, "Well, I like sweet, and I like firm." Just when you're waiting to see if there's going to be an "Additional Dialogue" credit to Little Annie Fanny, a naked man plunges from on high into the fruit. By the time Castle and the detectives have arrived and the director has called for an overhead shot, we can see that a bunch of cherries have managed to discreetly arrange themselves over his private parts.
It turns out that the dead man was, in the words of two of his buddies, a "pick-up artist." It becomes clear just how successful he was at this—in spite of a photography, which is much in evidence throughout the show, where he looks as if he could have instructed Ed Helms in facial douceyness—when the precinct house fills up with fetching and aggrieved women. It's like the story about Richard Pryor, that when he was in the burn ward, the doctor stepped into a crowded waiting room and said, "Mrs. Pryor?", and every woman in the room stood up, except here, every woman who stands up is a suspect. The buddies explain that, as part of their shared mission in life to become the world's greatest wingmen, they had pulled him out of a hotel room to help him get clear of a woman who had gotten too hung up on him. They refer to this operation as an "exstalktion", a nightmarish turn of phrase that they manage to repeat just enough to make me worry that the writers were actually rather pleased with it and were hoping that it would catch fire after a few people repeated it on Twitter. Then it turns out that the murdered man was using his invitations into women's homes to act as a corporate spy; Castle terms that activity "sexpionage", which cannot possibly be an original.
The heroes kick the case around for most of the hour, and in the end, there's a surprise: the show contrives to avoid completely insulting anyone watching by having the murderer be someone besides the character who, from the first sight of her, seems to be wildly signaling that she did it. The more serious issues on the table are whether Ryan will get to the altar with his blushing bride, and whether his partner, Esposito, will be able to snag what he persists in calling a "plus one", so that he won't have to suffer the indignity of going stag and looking like a loser, in comparison with the hot medical examiner he broke up with. There's some good-natured ribbing directed towards Ryan, who has agreed to join his fiancee in a purging ritual that requires him to spend the week before the wedding subsisting on a drink that looks like someone ran Kermit through a blender; it's shorthand for all the ways that guys fear marriage will cramp their style, and it's revealing that, even in an episode with so much smirking sexual humor, the show boils those fears down to Ryan wondering if he'll ever be allowed to pig out on Chinese food again. By contrast, the news that his fiancee once had a run-in with the dead player is brushed aside as a non-issue, despite his friends' concerns that maybe he shouldn't be told about it. And though both Esposito and Dr. Parish show up at the wedding with hotties on their arms, it doesn't take much prodding before he's confessing that his date is his cousin, and she's admitting that hers is gay. Chances are that these two will find their way back into each other's arms somehow; God forbid they have any fun with anyone else before then.
The one emotion that's treated with tender respect here is Castle's fatherly pain when Alexis, who's still in the process of crawling out from under her own romantic breakup, blows off accompanying him to the wedding to take a boy to see Lady Gaga. It's not presented as a traumatic heartbreak moment or anything, but it's understood that seeing her grow up and away from him is killing him a little, and he reaffirms his stature as the hero by taking it like a mensch and not letting her know how disappointed he is. Thankfully, when Beckett is touched by this, and offers to hang out with him and keep him company, it just seems like two friends being there for each other, without any of the sexual tension booga-booga that the show so rarely gets right. About to join the ranks of the walking dead, Ryan says that he's "just glad I'm finally out of the game." "Ths games are only beginning," the twice-divorced Castle tells him, and Fillion manages to make that sound like a toast offered on the eve of a grand adventure. (The best line of the night comes after Castle has asked his daughter and mother how they'd handle it if a guy cheated on them; after they've told him, he mutters, speaking of women in general, "Even their hypothetical fury is unnerving.")
A mediocre episode of Castle may do more than a really good one to make you reflect on what's likable about this show. On more than one occasion, I've called it "The Nathan Fillion Show", and it is, but much of its appeal comes from the sense you get that Fillion himself would reject that idea in a heartbeat. He carries the show, but he does it without any show of star ego, and he comports himself as he were lucky to be part of such a crack ensemble. The show is incredibly lucky to have him, but Fillion really seems to think that it's the other way around. (Reminiscing with Chris Hardwick about the days when it seemed as if he'd never get a shot at a leading role, he sounded as if his head is still stuck back in the days of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, and he spoke of the thrill of finally having "a fourth season of anything.") The world is full of stars (and former stars, and near-stars) who'd be the first to tell you that they're better than their biggest hit vehicle. Castle isn't always the best showcase that Fillion has had for his talents, but is it sometimes a showcase that's unworthy of him? To even suggest such a thing out loud, where he might hear you, would be like telling a new mother that it's sweet of her to be so attentive to such an ugly baby.