Saturday, November 14, 2009

Updating the hard-boiled detective drama in Castle and Bones; the modern Nancy Drew; urbanite grit & much, much more

It’s widely accepted that Moonlighting broke fairly new ground with its combination of mystery-solving, witty dialogue, and sexual tension between Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shephard) and David Addison (Bruce Willis). It’s also widely understood that Moonlighting’s ratings dived during the fourth season, leading to its cancellation.

Why? Commonly, it’s thought that it’s because it fulfilled the tension between the characters in the third season. Its’ contemporary Remington Steele didn’t fare that much better, dragging into a fifth and final season. But that’s not the only reason these series let their viewers down – it’s because both series relied too heavily on romantic tension as a foundational plot device.

Neither show was terribly kind to the women: Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) was forced to take on nameless, man-without-a-past, bad-boy Remington Steele (Pierce Brosnan) for the need to have a male partner in her detective business and Hayes was an ex-model, embezzled by her ex-accountant, and with debts to pay. Hayes needed Addison to resurrect one of her failing investments, Blue Moon Detective Agency, as well as to have a purpose in life post-modeling career. Needed. That’s the key word.

Navigating the “will they or won’t they” dynamic is tricky territory. I don’t think detective/crime-drama television series have come back this way since the 1980s. That is, until now: Castle (Andrew Marlowe) and Bones (Hart Hanson). Both series are finding very clever ways to sustain the dynamic, but more importantly to give it real progression.

Why are these two series succeeding where the predecessors failed? The story-telling is far better – with Castle often moving deftly like a Dashiell Hammett mystery and Bones ooing us and awing us with the details of forensic science and technology. It’s almost sci-fi, Stargate geeky. Each episode is equal parts National Geographic and psychological thriller.

However, ultimately, the success comes down to strong, in-depth lead characters as the core, engaging sub-plots, and fleshed out secondary characters . . . who can be foils, but not caricatures. Bones should be commended, next to Battlestar Galactica, for having one of the most racially diverse (and stunning) set of female characters.

Bones and Castle have as leads – strong, beautiful, intelligent, capable, women who do not need their male partners. The interdisciplinary partnership, however, enhances the overall ability to more effectively solve cases. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a brilliant forensic anthropologist teamed up with confident, intuitive FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) is a hard-boiled, tough, probably Ivy League-educated, NYPD homicide detective in league with insightful writer Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion).

I’m reminded of the best elements of the great noirs of the 1940s with Humphrey Boghart and Lauren Bacall (who were as equal to each other as one could be then). Castle and Bones succeed in part because yes – they are sustaining our curiosity on whether or not the two leads will get together. But only in part.

The dynamic is tricky because if it happens too soon, the viewers lose interest. If the producers wait too long, there is the danger the show will get canceled, or that the viewers will become frustrated and lose interest. My friend Stina asks the question – why have co-worker romantic tension at all? Yes, why have it indeed?

Well, because the dialogue, when executed well, is just marvelous. In Bones and Castle, not only is it intelligent in and of itself, the topic at hand is also intellectual. But a series that relies heavily on sexual tension between two characters, no matter the genre or content of the dialogue, will always fail. (A series that relies only on sexual tension between several pairs of characters is a soap opera - *cough* Grey’s Anatomy.) It may be fun, but it lacks substance.

Whatever happens in Bones, I will be satisfied knowing that Brennan and Booth have came this far – they have transformed each others’ lives. This is not just about witty dialogue and tension – it’s about a genuine friendship and a partnership – a true emotional bond with serious ramifications. Like relationships in my favorite novels, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. Like a Miyazaki film, it sends shivers up your spine. Television rarely enters this territory.

As for Castle, the relationship between Castle and Beckett is so far, more playful. It’s always fun to see her cut him down in her Lauren Bacall/Katherine Hepburn sort of way and to see him catch her off guard. That said, the comic relief is mixed in with some very dark tones of murder cases as well as a sub-plot involving Beckett’s past. I think Castle explores the personal dynamics between those involved around the victim with excellent skill.

Castle is also a fantastic and clever example of life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating… – and I’ve totally lost track. Moonlighting may have been a spoof of detective series. But Castle takes the best elements – breaking the fourth wall, extremely witty dialogue, and maintains the edge and grit of a real mystery.

Castle is a boyish, playboy, popular mystery writer, who is brought in by the NYPD to help solve a string of murders that mirror those in his novels. In the process, he meets his new inspiration (Beckett) and works out an arrangement (much to her chagrin) to shadow her as research for his new book. That book is actually on our bookshelves. Additionally, the show takes us outside of the homicide lounge and into Castle’s life, which includes his eccentric mother and charming teenage daughter. Castle brings the best elements of comedy sitcoms into a drama . . .which even a lot of non-detective dramas do badly.

It’s Beckett who remains the mystery – to Castle, and to the viewers. Not to mention she’s totally gorgeous with her dark brown hair and enormous green, heavy-lashed eyes, and legs to die for. And jackets to die for – I haven’t seen such great outerwear since Audrey Hepburn’s coats in Charade.

Once you develop great characters, not to say that the story writes itself; but, the viewers are far less likely to be disappointed by what or what does not happen between the leads. One tends to accept it and respects it as the choice of the characters. That my friends, makes a great detective yarn, a great romance, and simply, a great story that keeps me watching week after week. I haven’t had this much fun since reading Nancy Drew novels as a younger girl. And both Castle and Bones make me want to believe that an epic partnership could in fact potentially be real.