'Take Two': TV Review

The only mystery here involves a lack of creativity.

A game Rachel Bilson gets very little support from Eddie Cibrian or her writers in ABC's new gender-reversed attempt to recapture the magic of 'Castle.'

Mad Libs only comes up in cultural conversation in reference to groups of eclectic, wildly disparate elements brought together seemingly for no reason. What people forget is that each Mad Lib puzzle comes with a clear theme, and while Mad Libs is most entertaining if you're lewd and obscene and random, the option always exists to stick literally to that theme, yielding a story that's logical, familiar and uninspired as heck.

For an example of that sort of formulaic Mad Libs construction, check out Take Two, which marks ABC's latest attempt to Xerox what they imagine the success of Castle to have been. Although it hails from Castle creator Andrew W. Marlowe and executive producer Terri Edda Miller, Take Two lacks the attention-grabbing silliness of the spring's Deception (a.k.a. "Magic Castle") and the attention-grabbing Nathan Fillion of this fall's The Rookie (a.k.a. "Ancient Castle"). Take Two is Castle in a blender, but not a very efficient blender, so it's just big, gloppy, easily recognizable chunks of Castle, genders reversed.

Rachel Bilson plays Sam Swift, star of the recently cancelled hit police procedural Hot Suspect. After a humiliating and apparently illegal scandal involving her ex-fiance, inebriation and lack of underwear, Sam is released from rehab and finds her career in ruins. When an opportunity comes her way to play a P.I. in a movie, Sam leverages some connections to tag along with private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian, dangerously close to a destiny of playing somebody's hunky dad on Riverdale) on cases for research and inspiration. Eddie has a good-natured assistant named Berto (Xavier de Guzman) and a spacious high-ceilinged office, but after an incident a few years in the past, he has let himself go to seed, or at least as far to seed as one can go when one is played by Eddie Cibrian and therefore will inevitably be seen shirtless within the first hour. When Sam exhibits potential as an investigator and a refusal to follow by the rules, bickering and crime-solving ensue, all accompanied by a Robert Duncan score that pays homage to Duncan's Castle score.

Take Two isn't always ripping Castle off wholesale, though a pilot reveal that Eddie is a closeted fan of Sam's acting work would be more surprising if the exact same plotpoint delivered in the exact same way hadn't been used in the pilots for both Castle and Deception previously. It's more the general Mad Libs homage where the first draft of scripts must have read "Sam offers a solution by [Skill Associated With Actors]." In the first episode, those applicable "skills associated with actors" include intense scrutiny of body language and playing absurd dress-up. In the second episode, those applicable "skills associated with actors" include intense scrutiny of body language and playing absurd dress-up. I already have a hunch what Sam will do in the third episode.

The cliches come fast and furious, and Take Two has very literal interest in subverting any of them, playing straight-faced versions of such chestnuts as "I thought I told you to stay in the car!" and "She's right behind me, isn't she?" and "I can tell you're happy to see me"/"That's my gun." I was incredulous at how derivative Take Two was until I heard ABC has actually been proudly using the gun/boner gag — with the characters unjustifiably trapped in a closet, no less — in trailers, and then I just felt embarrassed for everybody. A show like this is supposed to play off of genre conventions and take some creative pleasure in twisting its juxtaposition of real life and genre TV, but the clip from the show-within-a-show is no more or less corny than the show, leading me to expect a St. Elsewhere-esque finale in which it turns out that Take Two is also a show-within-a-show on what I can only hope would be a smarter show. (I keep making the Castle comparison because, while damning, it's still more generous to Take Two than observing that it's ultimately a less amusing take on YouTube Red's Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television.)

There are some differences between the two episodes sent to critics that are generally positive in a negligible way. Neither episode's procedural case is all that entertaining, though at least the second episode's mystery is distractingly confusing. There's a large leap in production values from the first to second episode, or at least the cinematographer figured out how to light Bilson and Cibrian properly. Neither episode, both shot primarily in Vancouver, is even slightly convincing as having been set in Los Angeles. The second episode also introduces a new assistant for Sam's character, Alice Lee's Monica, in a gesture toward cast diversity that wants us to ignore that Sam only got her shadowing gig in the first place because of a former assistant they either will or won't ever mention again.

My disappointment at Take Two, speaking as somebody who watched every episode of Castle (though sometimes with disdain), is that there's absolutely no reason why this couldn't be a perfect vehicle for Bilson. I also watched every episode of Hart of Dixie (and very rarely did so with disdain). Bilson delivers mediocre dialogue with impeccable timing, and she's a font of high energy. There's an instinct to worry, though, that she's playing the comic beats overly broadly and that she isn't in quite the same show tonally as the rest of the cast, except that Cibrian is most of the rest of the cast and he's coasting on dimples and the idea that a few gray hairs equal gravitas, so the show he's in barely counts. They have neither chemistry nor an interesting back-and-forth dynamic, though ABC is playing off that embarrassing pistol/penis joke as a sign of the show's sexiness, which is actually a very good representation of its lack of sexiness.

Bilson's performance could totally work opposite either a committedly dramatic performance — Stana Katic's Castle turn led with drama and became sneakily funny — or a correspondingly funny performance. That's why the only Take Two scenes that really worked for me featured Bilson opposite Jordan Gavaris, recycling his Orphan Black British accent — the Canadian actor is destined to a David Anders-esque career of only seeming convincing with an exaggerated British accent — as a star-struck medical examiner. Those scenes feature no feigned romantic tension or strained repartee. They're just two actors being silly in a show I'd watch.

For reasons mostly behind-the-scenes, the end of Castle probably came a season or two earlier than ABC might have hoped, so it isn't surprising that the network is eager to recapture a thing that Castle itself hadn't captured for several years. Deception had goofiness, but lacked magic. Take Two has Rachel Bilson, but also falls short. I'll let you know soon on The Rookie.

Cast: Rachel Bilson, Eddie Cibrian, Xavier de Guzman, Aliyah O'Brien, Alice Lee, Jordan Gavaris
Creators: Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)