Castle

Select episodes from first season available online at ABC.com (and soon, I hope, on Hulu). Season two debuts Monday, September 21, on ABC.

I recently read an interview with a short story author who said she enjoys writing short works because she feels more freedom there to explore extremely dark, bleak places—places she would be reluctant to visit, as either a writer or a reader, for the length of a novel. The idea rang true to me (partly because I’m presently in the midst of a provocative but depressing, emotionally draining novel that I wish were a bit shorter), and although I think the notion could easily be taken too far (perhaps it would be better to say that that overwhelmingly dark subject matter is more challenging in a novel than in a story), I find it fun to extrapolate from that notion to other media.

For example, musical devices that might be tiresome in a longer work—gimmicky orchestration; the incessant drill of a single rhythmic pattern; light accompaniment of a guileless melody—can be charming in a short piece (see: Sabre Dance). A movie can use simple, archetypal characters that would become flat and tiresome in an ongoing work like a TV show (see: Pan’s Labyrinth). And a TV show with a charismatic lead character often can get away lackluster storytelling because spending time with the character is the whole point of watching the show.

Such an encapsulation would be a little harsh for Castle, ABC’s one-year-old mystery drama, but not by much. The premise is gimmicky, the policework is standard, and the mysteries vary in quality (to be fair, that’s typical of crime shows), but none of that really matters because Nathan Fillion is the star: Castle is fun and compelling to the extent to that Fillion is fun and compelling, which makes it quite fun and compelling indeed.

Fillion became a cult favorite playing the ship’s captain, Mal, on the short-lived but beloved Joss Whedon show Firefly and follow-up movie Serenity. With his strong, square jaw and thick brown locks, he’s a throwback to 1930s-era matinee idols, sort of a parody of conventional handsomeness, which is part of what made him so effective as the heroic but obnoxious Captain Hammer in Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog.

The other part, of course, is Fillion’s superb comic timing and showmanship, well on display in Castle, too. There he plays Rick Castle, a wildly successful crime writer—numerous bestsellers, a devoted fan base—who has just killed off his long-running detective character out of sheer boredom. Fortunately for him, he’s thrown into a police investigation when a killer mimics the elaborate murders in three of Castle’s books, and in the detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), Castle finds a muse. Much to her chagrin, he arranges to shadow her for the forseeable future—and ta dah! We have a premise.

Show creator Andrew Marlowe is clearly going for a classic Moonlighting vibe between the childish, impulsive Castle and the prickly, disciplined Beckett—a tack that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Katic becomes slightly wooden when she has to play the straight man for too long, but when Marlowe allows Beckett to unbend a little—showing off a talent for lying, for example, or accidentally betraying her familiarity with Castle’s oeuvre or even, you know, smiling for a moment—the relationship sparkles. And Fillion, of course, is a delight. Marlowe stacks the deck by giving Castle a wild actress mother (Susan Sullivan) and a cute, responsible teenage daughter (Molly C. Quinn), but even if the two women aren’t strictly necessary, the three actors share a quirky but loving dynamic, piling on the charm.

Castle gets all the best lines—snappy, quippy stuff—as well as the most depth. I can’t say I’m particularly interested in Beckett’s Traumatic Past™ (her mother was murdered, and the killer was never found, and that’s why Beckett became a detective—all pretty rote), but Castle’s awkward foray into investigating real crimes after a career of inventing them for people’s entertainment is surprisingly engaging. Fillion doesn’t allow that issue to become heavy or ponderous, but it’s always there, in the understated beat in which Castle realizes that his giddy excitement over a new murder might not be altogether appropriate. Plus, the meta stuff crackles with knowing wit, like when Castle protests that a solution is too obvious—he would never write it like that. All the crap about Castle’s celebrity is rather stupid (and unbelievable), but the fun metafictional play makes good use of the show’s gimmick.

So Castle is not a great show. It’s definitely coasting on Fillion’s charisma, but in the end, so what? Giving us appealing characters we want to return to again and again is one of the things TV does best. In doing that, the creators of Castle are playing to their medium’s strength, and if, in the meantime, they’re able to hone their craft—flesh out Beckett, figure out what to do with the other cops, and fine-tune the mysteries—well, then, all the better. I’ll probably be watching regardless.