Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Castles and Kings

I don't think it's any secret that comics and Sci-Fi (Or is that SyFy now?) fans love Nathan Fillion. He bought us flowers and candy in Buffy and Firefly, made dinner for us in Slither, and closed the deal in Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog. Mainstream America has tasted his wares as well, on Desperate Housewives and a truly wonderful little film called Waitress. Indeed, they had him first on Two Guys, a Girl and a Progressively Shorter Title To Keep the Idiots who Watch TV from Getting Confused. But they decided he wasn't their type, and he walked into genre fandom's bedroom and set up housekeeping.

In short, there's a general sense that Nathan should be a much bigger star than he is, and only the Right Vehicle is needed. ABC's new show Castle is the latest attempt to bring Nathan to a larger audience.

Far from the humble and self-effacing characters he usually plays, Fillion plays richard Castle, the hottest crime/suspense writer in the industry, and man with a boatload of talent and an ego to match. Siezed with writers block after killing off his tentpole character, he's contacted by the Police because someone is using his books' murders as fodder for a series of copycat crimes. He offers to help the police in their investigation, using his connections ("the mayor's a big fan") to get "assigned" to the case, much to the chagrin of Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). The case gets solved in the requisite 44 minutes plus commercials, and Castle finds his writers block broken, inspired by tough, plucky Detective Beckett. He arranges to continue working with her (after signing a sheaf of waivers and disclaimers so he can't sue if he gets hurt or killed) and they proceed their tenuous partnership. He's ever amazed at the things real policemen can and can't do (like they don't actually crack jokes and eat ham sandwiches during autopsies), and he applies the rules of fiction to their investigations (he suggests that a murder was done by someone in the apartment house because it "makes a better story").

Fillion plays it perfectly - a rakish charmer with a 2.2-gigawatt smirk and a heart of gold. He's not the insufferable prick Captain Hammer was, he's a guy who's used to having things go his way, and treats the investigations as a new adventure. Though it's clear he has realizes it's all "for real", it doesn't stop him from having a ball, try as the police might to rein him in. The supporting cast all do a journeyman job; Fillion and Katic have good screen chemistry, and Castle's "old soul" teen daughter and "young at heart" live-in Mother provide nice family color and show he's actually a nice guy. But the show rises and sets around Nathan, and will win or lose based solely on his ability to make America fall in love with him as gener fen have. To steal a term from Big Tobacco, the show is a Nathan delivery device, the only question is will America watch to get their Fillion?

Over on NBC, the much publicised Kings began to lackluster numbers, and I think that's a shame, as I found it quite impressive. Loosely based on the Biblical story of King David, it was created by Michael Green, former writer for Heroes, current occasional writer for DC Comics and the current helmer of the green lantern film script. Set in the nonexistent but real-sounding country of Gilboa, the film starts with King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane, in an emotional and non curse-laden performance) dedicating the new Capital, Shiloh. David Shepherd (Michael Patrick Crane) lives in what appears to be the country's farm belt/dust bowl, and fixes cars for a living. Fate and a well-crafted script will bring these two together faster than a professional wrestler and a turnbuckle.

The scene jumps a year ahead, and David and his brother Eli are enlisted in the military, on an offensive (also known as "war") against Gilboa's northern neighbor, Gath. Pinned down by the massive "Goliath" tanks of Gath (get it?), David sneaks across enemy lines to save two of his countrymen, only finding out afterwards that one of the is Prince Jack, scion of the King. Army photographers snap pictures of him standing up against the Goliath, and in half a twinkling he's ushered off to Shiloh as a national hero. He's uncomfotable in these surroundings, and longs to return to the front (and his brother), but the King sees him as an important propaganda tool, and gives him the position of military liason to the Press, and the rank of Captain.

The cameras love him, and by the end of the second episode he has single-handedly brought the war with Gath to an end, twice. As a result of his actions, it's made clear that Silas has lost the favor of the Lord, and that He has chosen another, one who fate and a well-written script has placed right at Silas' side.

At its core, it's a drama in the style of Dallas and Falcon Crest, with an intrigue-filled family fighting for control of the family business. It's just that here the business in question is ruling a country. The style of the acting is a bit grander as well. Not quite Shakepere-level pompous or anything, but there's some nice little scenes, including one where David faces down a tank column holding a bloody (from his brother) sheet, and gives a great speech about if they want blood, they should take this "And have it be enough".

McShane is tremendous as a character who has gone through a lot to bring this country together, and has had to make many deals and promises, some that come due too soon. The politics and government country is played very subtly - there's a free press, but it's clear that they still present questionable items to the royal family first. A gentleman following the King around chronicling his moves is occasionally guided by Silas as to how they "actually" happened. A massive tirade by Willaim Cross (Dylan Baker in a wonderfully bastardish role), CEO of the company that funded most of the construction of Shiloh (and brother to the queen, a marriage of convenience) is corrected to "and the King's Brother-in-Law came by and congratulated him on his actions".

Location scenes of Shiloh and its skyline are clearly New York City, with seamless new skyscrapers added in to give it a sense of difference. It's not "supposed to be" New York, but basing it on the city makes the show easier to identify with. So far no real countries have been mentioned, nor has a time frame. It could be modern day, and it could be anywhere on the globe, and that helps keep the show safe from finger pointing that it's preaching.

As good as the reviews have been, the ratings for its premiere were inversely poor. I fear it may be as a result of the connection to the Bible - some might fear it's some sort of religious propaganda. I saw none of that here - God plays a role in the narrative, but the show is much more about the frailties of Man than anything else. It's got the opportunity to discuss the politics of war, the way media can be controlled, and how dangerous it is to let business too close to running the country. But in simplicity it's a well-done piece of drama that can easily be enjoyed for its surface level alone. WELL worth a look.

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