In the ABC series Castle, the titular character-Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion), a writer of mystery novels-uses his close connections with the mayor to tag along with the NYPD on murder cases. He is assigned to Detective Kate Beckett (Stan Katic), and their ribbing and banter while solving cases is at the heart of the series.
Castle is like many series on television now where at-odds investigators follow the clues from a murder to nab the suspect. But while Castle is perhaps the funniest and freshest of these shows currently on the air, the entertainment business is quite often a by-the-numbers approach. Even if the writing is better than average, genre cliches and tropes crop up in Castle, as well as past and present shows such as CSI, Law & Order, Numb3rs, and The Mentalist. These shows have very simple problems, and if they want to improve, the solutions are remarkably simple. Using Castle as a guide, these are the three simple rules to making a better police they need to follow three simple rules.
Stop Trying to Be Smart
If you ever want to see a television show fall apart, look for big words. In the case of Castle and pretty much any other modern cop show, one need look no further than the local crime scene investigators. In Castle‘s case that’s Lanie Parish (Tamala Jones), who can use lividity to determine time of death and figure out what caliber firearm was used to dispatch some joe in the park just by looking.
In reality, lividity is never used to determine time of death, you couldn’t tell what type of slug shot up a person by visual assessment alone, and most of the lab work and actual analysis is done, you know, after they’ve had time to analyze the body. In a lab. But this isn’t the most egregious type of mumbo-jumbo cop shows throw at us. In pretending to be “hip with it”, especially in regards to technology, we get phrases like “create a GUI using VisualBasic to track an IP address” and “IRC is how l337 hackers communicate when they don’t want to be overheard”. As soon as they attempt to use lingo and fail badly at it, suspension of disbelief is gone and viewers become keenly aware that it’s just a television show with bad writers who try and put one over on them.
Make The Regular Joes Competent
Castle succeeds for the most part in making its side characters, the detectives Javier Esposito and Kevin Ryan (Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever, respectively) feel like actual people instead of cardboard cutouts. Were it only that other shows did the same thing. The problem usually stems from the desire to give the main characters more importance, and that means more lines, even if they are actually quite inane. Castle is occasionally guilty of this as well; Esposito and Ryan sometimes seem like they just sit at their desk until the plot, I mean, Beckett comes along to tell them to get cracking at some task.
Real police detectives don’t need to be told by their superiors to do common-sense background and alibi checks on suspects. Furthermore, rather than the glamorous and effortless manner of some television cops, real work is required to close a case. In the Castle episode “3XK”, Beckett (for once) heads to a prison to conduct an interview (as prison officials aren’t likely to jump up and devote resources to carting prisoners out of jail just to answer some city cop’s questions), while Ryan and Esposito work other angles of the case while Beckett is busy chasing her own clues. The episode actually functions like a real investigation, where the people offscreen are actually making real contributions. Cop shows, learn from this example: you don’t need to make your main characters the only one with a brain for us to find it enjoyable.
Inject Some Reality
Like the first rule, “Stop Trying to Be Smart”, writers occasionally back themselves into corners and create unrealistic scenarios to put their heroes in peril; the only way to get out of them is equally unrealistic means. In “Tick, Tick, Tick” (S2E17) Beckett receives a phone call from a frantic Castle, who has figured out that the bomber they thought they nabbed is actually still running free, and he’s probably put a bomb in Beckett’s apartment. Beckett thinks quickly and dives back into the bathroom before her apartment is blown apart. And in the following episode, “Boom!”… she’s entirely fine. No, really. She survives the heat shockwave, and debris that wrecked the rest of her house by diving into the bathtub. Not a scrape or singe on her, really, and she’s ready to go hunt down the killer in mere moments. Improbabilities likewise escalate in another third season episode, where Castle and Beckett shoot and disarm each other’s pursuers-Castle, of course, having been seen previously to be comically bad at aiming the weapons.
All these problems seem to be based on the fact that television showrunners thing that if something is “exciting” enough, even to the point of bending the laws of space, time and common sense, people will watch; conversely, unless you’re pushing the show, no one will watch “real” stuff. But dramas are far more about characters-Castle‘s great writing and subtle blend of comedy into the procedural is to me the hook for watching, not how some gizmo solves a crime or how our comely female detective can outrun perps in high heels. Believe it or not, but viewers respond positively to quality entertainment, and if you try to throw fancy stuff past viewers, they will call you out on it. So lets hope that not only does Castle gets smarter, but other shows take its lead and make more watchable and enjoying primetime entertainment.