Castle problems

by Glenn on February 17, 2015

There were a couple of things I didn’t like in last night’s Castle episode (ABC, Season 7, Episode 15: “Reckoning”). I write as a fan and not for purposes of snark.

Visual sleight-of-hand in television is, among other things, annoying. One expects the camera to be neutral. It is the narrator of the story and when that narrator doesn’t tell you everything and you realize you can’t trust what you’re seeing, this becomes problematic.

So at one point in the show last night, Richard Castle (played by Nathan Fillion) says something like, “We’re not going to find her. Not like this.” And we’re led to believe that he is saying this to himself so that all of his actions that follow appear to be done as an individual going out on his own. (Earlier in the episode he has acted on his own—plenty of precedent.)

But later in the show we were informed via flashback that we hadn’t seen everything. In the flashback, our camera/narrator has pulled back from the one-shot of Castle to a group shot, so we now are aware that Castle was not talking to himself but discussing things with Detectives Ryan (Seamus Deaver) and Esposito (Jon Huertas).

Castle wasn’t acting alone. He had support. That, of course, changed everything. In fact, all of the suspense that they built up to that point now felt a little unfair or dishonest. (Not to mention the fact that when Castle acted on hunches rather than evidence earlier in the show, he got in trouble, but now he had police back-up, including a sniper. That didn’t make a lot of sense. What had changed?)

Now, one of the things I like about Castle is that they play with the fourth wall a little bit and sometimes joke with their audience. One episode they more or less played a joke on us by using some visual sleight-of-hand. (Episode unidentified because it would take all the fun out of it.) It was pretty clever, because you could go back and watch the episode now that you were in on it and see everything you missed. And there wasn’t so much sleight-of-hand as we were allowed to make assumptions. Somehow it didn’t feel as dishonest, especially because one of the characters in the show wasn’t aware of all that was going on, either. (A little bit like The Sixth Sense.)

Visual sleight-of-hand was an every-episode feature of the show Leverage. Things would be going along and suddenly look very bad for our stars, but then there would be a flashback that would show something we weren’t allowed to see before. So now we knew that rather than things going badly, it was all part of a bigger plan. This was the fun of that show—although you were in on only part of the operation, you could still trust the narrator, at least to be predictable. There was a con going on and we the audience were also, in a way, being conned. (Seems like the film The Sting, which I haven’t seen in years, was a little bit like this.)

The most extreme example of visual sleight-of-hand I can think of was a show that I watched just once. It was called Perception. I was hooked initially because the lead character, Dr. Daniel Pierce (played by Eric McCormack, producer of the series), a schizophrenic neuroscientist who teaches college and helps the FBI solve crimes, appeared to be a devotee of the music of Gustav Mahler.

The main problem we discovered was that the camera was showing us what the lead character was seeing, not “reality” (whatever that is when we’re talking about television). And so we the viewing audience might see two people there on the screen, but in that world, there was only one person there. So the camera view was a schizophrenic’s view, which was sort of interesting, but mind-numbing if you’re wondering the whole time Can we trust what we are seeing right now? I felt like I was being played.

(Side Note: The other problem with this series I can only identify by acknowledging my inner music snob. Pierce, the lead, is portrayed on two occasions with a Walkman—remember those?—once, listening to the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. I thought, Mahler’s time has come … to television! When have we seen a television character that is such a classical music nerd? In another scene, Pierce is listening to, I think, the final movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But at one point Pierce complains to his assistant—whether he was there or not, later you’re not sure—that he had given him the wrong tape for the Mahler. Pierce had asked for the Solti, not the Karajan version. When the show was over, it occurred to me that I had never heard of a Herbert von Karajan version of Mahler 1. I didn’t see one on Vincent Mouret’s discography—see here—and when I inquired on a Mahler listserv—see here—, no one acknowledged one. Further there is no “the” Solti. I know of at least two performances—well, let’s be honest, I have two performances—one with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and another with the London Symphony Orchestra. There may be others; I don’t recall. But it was a little demoralizing that one of the most highbrow characters ever created for television didn’t actually know his Mahler. But I really do digress.)

The point is: It seems to me that you need to handle visual sleight-of-hand very carefully so that it doesn’t feel like a trick for the viewer.

***

The other problem in last night’s Castle was the product placement of a Buick. At one point Castle is out somewhere where he doesn’t have wireless service for his phone or whatever device he had, but no worries, he just selects his Buick’s wireless hotspot and is connected. Phew. Later Castle says to a villain, “You know what I love about this car? All the trunk space.” (It was roomy enough for said villain to put herself into.)

I remember the first time I was aware of a product placement. It was a Friends episode back in the day when they did a little thing on Pottery Barn. It felt sort of genuine—these characters were going nuts about a Pottery Barn product—and so were we, the viewing audience, back then. It felt authentic.

But product placement is a tricky thing.

For me the problem is where does the product placement come from? Is it an authentic part of the story—does Richard Castle, the wealthy novelist, want to drive a Buick? Is that a choice of the character or is this shameless promotion? (I remember one episode where Castle and his daughter Alexis, played by Molly C. Quinn, are cutting onions and have these special onion—cutting glasses. As I watched, I thought, that is the perfect possession of someone who likes to cook and has money to spare. Was it a product placement? Don’t know. It didn’t feel like it had to be.)

You want to think that storytelling is for the sake of storytelling. This is what is happening to these characters, these are the things these characters are interested in, etc. But when more than one scene shows the Buick emblem,

you begin to understand that this is not a story, this is an advertisement. I get a little queasy.

I remember some years ago when The Chronicles of Narnia came out on film. Pastors were offered free tickets if they would mention (and, possibly, encourage people to attend, I don’t recall) the film in a sermon. It was a brilliant marketing move and one can imagine pastors in good conscience encouraging people to see this film, but somehow it feels different when a pastor, in a sermon, mentions that they saw The Chronicles of Narnia and loved it versus a pastor was paid to mention The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather than mentioning a product in their sermon, now they are figuring out how to work a product placement into a sermon. It’s subtle for the hearer, perhaps, but I feel like a sermon is where intentions matter, too.

So back to an unanswered question, Does Richard Castle, the wealthy novelist, want to drive a Buick? Who can say, although the writers must surely know.

Seven seasons is a long time for a television series. And the Castle team have done a good job trying to manage the challenge of compelling episodes within a larger program of dramatic development over the long haul. But tricks and hints of the inauthentic don’t help.