'Castle'

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The urge to refer to this slick new lighthearted drama as "Murder, He Wrote" is overwhelming given the premise of a famous mystery novelist involving himself in crimes similar to those he writes about. The twist in "Castle," however, is the element of mismatched partners with rancor and sparks flying between them.

And gee, we haven't seen that before, have we? Except maybe a couple hundred times.

What this show has going for it is a hugely charming lead in Nathan Fillion ("Firefly," "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") as loosey-goosey novelist Richard Castle and Stana Katic as NYPD Detective Kate Beckett, a comely but no-nonsense professional who exhibits a modicum of charisma as well. The problem with this show is its derivative nature, in tandem with a finger-snapping cool that conveys an inflated sense of its own cleverness. The pilot and second installment are fun but utterly implausible, and the chemistry between the leads is passable but mostly forced.

The opening hour, penned by creator Andrew W. Marlowe, introduces us to Castle via a plot in which a copycat killer is staging murders based on passages in his books. He involves himself way too much from the start, thinking less like a cop than an author but somehow helping the investigation through his ability to find patterns in otherwise meaningless minutiae. He's also wisecracking and flirty, which doesn't escape the eye of the poker-faced detective.

The best scene of the pilot comes when Castle is playing cards with real-life novelists Stephen J. Cannell and James Patterson, who give their two cents about the current investigation and chide Castle for his technique. It's a little piece of life-and-art merging and dovetails well with a show that doesn't take itself too seriously. But "Moonlighting" it surely is not.

What stifles "Castle" is its separation from the way real people speak and behave, its rat-a-tat dialogue more cartoon-y than enchanting. It's tough to build much of an affinity for characters who are so madly in love with the sound of their own voice as Castle or as self-consciously controlled as Detective Beckett. The primary selling point for the series is the magnetism of Fillion, who knows how to carry off the masculine allure thing big time.

But again, you feel the sense while watching the show that you're being conned rather than entertained, and that's hardly the stuff of which appointment viewing is made. (partialdiff)
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