This review contains spoilers.
6.21 Law And Boarder
One of the things that dramas, particularly procedurals, regularly do is to use a subculture as the background of an episode’s story. In general, they pick something that some part of their audience is really familiar with, while the rest of the audience tends to be only vaguely aware of said culture. They then weave whatever their primary plot is into that subculture.
When this is done well, what we often get is a combination of a fish-out-of-water story as the main characters try to understand how this community works and an exploration of that culture as the main characters learn what they need to about it in order to be able to complete whatever their task is in that world. And by the time the store ends, we – as a result of our tendency to identify with the main characters in a story and the thoughtful depiction of that culture -have also learned about these people and feel as though we now “get” that group on some level.
Law & Order is a prime example of a show that does this fairly often and fairly well. Law & Boarder, however, is wide of the mark.
On Law & Order (and other shows), this formula regularly plays out by having one of the regular characters fall into one of two categories. In the first, the character is a former or secret member of that culture (think Pam from Archer, whose hobby as a drift car racer is revealed when Archer believes that the Yakuza – against whom Pam races – has stolen his spycar) and acts as our tour guide into that world. In the second, one of the characters has either a misperception or dislike of the group, usually one which is also held by a decent portion of the viewers as well, and part of the character’s development (and thus our own) is learning that his/our current understanding of the subculture is misinformed or otherwise biased. L&O:SVU frequently uses the somewhat primitive Detective Eliot Stabler in this capacity.
It’s not a difficult formula. And the chemistry of the show’s actors aside, Castle is a show that moves from one screenwriter’s formula to the next. So where did they go wrong this week?
The first break with the formula is that none of our regulars has either an attachment to, nor a problem with, the extreme sports competition culture we are theoretically exploring. Beckett does admire the tailflip of one of the competitors, but when Castle asks if she has a background in extreme sports, Beckett dismisses the idea by saying that she think catching killers is pretty extreme, as is marrying him. This then leads Castle to point out that he’s extreme…extremely handsome, anyway, while she agrees, adding “with a high degree of difficulty.” So not only do they vary from the formula but pass up the opportunity in favour of what should be a bit of witty sparring but instead comes off as artificial and clumsy writing.
The second, of course, is that we essentially learn nothing either about the subculture nor the sports that brings them together. Aside from what would look like B-roll were Beckett and Castle not in frame, we get no real insight into extreme sports nor really the kind of people who participate in them. There is a bit of discussion about the rough childhoods of some of the participants (delivered by Babyon 5’s Claudia Christian in yet another of Castle’s ongoing geek-savvy guest slots), but there’s little indication that such childhoods are any more common amongst X-athletes than anyone other group.
Now, trust me, I am not saying that a show must follow the formula that has solidified around such episodes any more than I am saying that shows should do such episodes in the first place. The best writing, in television and elsewhere, is so often done when formulas are either abandoned or turned on their heads. However, formulas tend to be safe and, because they are tested, can often turn out quite good in many cases.
Unfortunately, as writers are told in classes: you have to master the rules because it’s only when you have mastered them that you really know when and how to break them. And the writers on Castle just aren’t at that level. In fact, this week’s mystery was even more weak than usual, especially with the inclusion of the clue involving the camera. When we heard that the victim had gone out of his way to buy an obsolete camera, the reason was obvious, and Caskett’s weak attempt at positing an alternate explanation completely failed to misdirect. Of course there was an old Hi-8 tape. When you pair this with the fact that we really aren’t at all encouraged to sympathize or empathize or even give the smallest damn about any of the characters involved in the mystery, and the whole case was a wash this week. I just didn’t care who killed the guy.
Still, as we all know, the real reason we tune in is for the relationships on the show, and it is often those which save specific episodes. Again, however, Law & Boarder came up short. The ending of the Ryan/Esposito conflict was obvious almost before it began (if you’d asked most fans, I’m betting they would have rightly guessed who Castle would want to stand with him), the attempt to include Lanie was juvenile of the boys (and not in a playful way), and the Caskett frame around the episode just felt wrong. After all, while Castle is competitive, it’s been made really clear that, if anything, being metaphorically beaten by Beckett at something is far more likely to inspire an amorous response than a petulant one in him. The fact that she could defeat him at Scrabble specifically should have had him ripping her clothes off with a lot more enthusiasm than the old cliché of strip poker we had to watch.
Honestly, the best thing I can say about Law & Boarder is that it ended with a preview of next week’s episode in which we see the return of the nefarious Senator Bracken and the “who killed Beckett’s mother” storyline in tonight’s episode. Castle is always at its best when dealing with this arc, and I’m grateful. I need reminding why I usually so enjoy this show.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, That 70s Show, here.
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