Nov 6 2012 10:00am

Don’t Touch That Dial: Mysteries

Looking at the new (and old) mysteries on TV and whether they’re worth your time.

Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a mini-series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, will break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Previously we delved into fantasy/paranormal and horror/comics/general geekery shows, so in this very special episode we’ll tackle mysteries and procedurals, namely Castle, Dexter, and Elementary.

Be warned, where applicable these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact. Any shows in particular you’d like me to cover? Drop me a line in the comments.



The Road So Far: Castle (ABC, Mon 10p) centers around crime thriller author Richard Castle, who insinuates himself into the NYPD to cure a particularly virulent case of writer’s block. Using his skills at creating twisty, turny mysteries he assists Detective Kate Beckett and her cohorts in solving crimes, including the murder of her mother. Finally, after four years of flirty foreplay, Castle and Beckett gave into Tumblr fan blogs everywhere and took each other in holy Caskett. Season 5 deals with the fallout from Kate discovering who killed her mother, her and Castle’s fledgling relationship, and their sputtering attempts to keep it a secret from coworkers Esposito and Ryan.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I have a confession to make. I am a huge Nathan Fillion fan, but up until I decided to review Castle, I’d never seen more than a handful of episodes. I gave it a shot when it first premiered, but it never clicked for me. I took a look at the last half of season 4 and caught up through season 5 for this post, and, honestly, that’s probably the last time I’ll seek it out. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just so...so...meh. Like Elementary, the mysteries are pretty half-hearted—the only way you could not manage to figure out whodunit is if you missed the first 45 minutes of the 1 hour show—and it takes the 3 detectives and 1 mystery author ages to figure out a fairly simply crime.

Unlike Elementary, there isn’t enough character interest in it to help me overlook the lackluster plots. I need something to pull me in, and as wonderfully charming as Fillion is as Castle, the rest are just sorta there bouncing off him. Now that Beckett has hooked up with Castle, his relaxed persona is bleeding into hers and we get to see her stop acting like a discount store version of Det. Olivia Benson and more like the kind of woman a man like Castle would actually date. If Castle was more about his relationships, the show would probably be a lot more interesting, if a lot less mysterious. As it stands, the mysteries are so pathetic they make CBS look good.

Despite my whinging, I can’t hate on the show. It’s never going to be anything more than a mid-level time-killer, and that works for a lot of people, just not for me specifically. If I can’t have intellectual stimulation then I need characters that strike a chord (e.g.: Moonlight was a terrible, terrible show but the characters got their hooks in me so I fell in love with it). For me (and quite a few other critics out there), Castle offers neither in substantial enough quantities to make me excited for new eps.

TL;DR: This will never be a show I set my schedule around, but it’s charming enough that if I channel surfed to it I’d stick around. Everyone not Nathan Fillion does little for me, but Nathan Fillion is god, so....



The Road So Far: Based on a series of thrillers by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter (Showtime, Sun 9p) is a show about the titular character who is a Miami PD blood splatter analyst by day and serial killer by night. His adoptive dad trained him to aim his murderous tendencies at those who slipped the noose of the legal system, but at every turn are people ready and willing to take him down. He’s almost been found out several times now, and at the end of season 6 his sister finally discovered the monster her brother really is. Now, with an Eastern European mafia on his tail, his sister threatening to metaphorically stab him in the back, and a hot former serial killer looking to get in his pants, Dexter’s carefully ordered world is starting to crumble.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I officially stopped watching Dexter after season 4. Every now and again I popped into season 5, but I couldn’t tell you a single plotline of season 6. I’d had enough. The quality dropped precipitously after the first season (as did the quality of the books, which I also gave up on). Dexter was supposed to be the bad guy in all of this, but as the years progressed the writers did everything they could to humanize him. Just as bad, each new season reverted back to the status quo. Dex can’t go to jail for his crimes or get killed or else you stop having a show, and that makes it a lot harder to keep the tension going season after season. I didn’t pay any attention to the start of the current season until all of a sudden my Twitter feed was inundated by critics praising its return to finer forms. When I checked it out myself I was so pleased at how much better it was now. I’m back to being excited that there are new eps of Dexter to watch. It’s never going to be a perfect show, but it’s so, so, sooooo much better than what it was before. It’s undergone a renaissance similar to The Walking Dead except without a reshuffling of the writer’s room or replacement of the showrunner.

This season, the jig is up. Deb knows—not just that he killed Travis, last season’s depressingly pathetic Big Bad—but that he kills frequently and with great enjoyment. Now Dexter has to find a way to keep killing while also not backing his newly-minted lieutenant sister into a corner that forces her to go with her moral compass and turn him in. Frankly, this should’ve happened ages ago, but better late than never, I suppose. Add to that the newest villain in Isaak “the fucking Terminator” Sirko who is sexy Dexy’s most difficult antagonist yet. It isn’t pleasure or ego that drives Isaak but pure, unadulterated sociopathy. He uses vengeance as an excuse to kill certain people, but at the end of the day he doesn’t really need one. And that separates him from Dexter.

TL;DR: It only took 6 seasons, but there are now high stakes on the show (largely due to the writers finally working toward an end game). Which means that the writers can no longer hit the reset button at the end of the season. And this is a Very Good Thing.



The Road So Far: Elementary (CBS, Thurs 10p) is a modern-day procedural loosely inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous novels. After ruining his career in Scotland Yard with a drug addiction, Sherlock Holmes relocates to New York City where he’s forced to take in a roommate, sober live-in companion Dr. Joan Watson. Watson has her own murky past to contend with, and Sherlock has a way of needling himself into her personal life. He thrusts himself upon the NYPD—ostensibly as a means to “treat” his addiction, but really to occupy his under-stimulated intellect—and in the process discovers that he may be the only genius in the room, but there are plenty of people who can bring their own skills to the crime-solving table.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: As much as I hate to do this, it’s impossible to talk about Elementary without bringing up Sherlock, Doyle, House, or any of the other myriad remakes/reboots/retcons/adaptations/inspired bys/etc. And in that vein, Elementary isn’t really a modern take on Doyle’s work (like, say, Sherlock), but really a one hour drama where an anti-social genius solves perplexing mysteries with the help of a coterie of hangers-on and associates (like, say, House). When put on the Sherlock Holmes scale of awesomness, Elementary sits solidly in the middle, but in and of itself it’s pretty decent.

The mysteries aren’t much better than what you’d get on CSI or Criminal Minds, but there’s a lot to chew on with the little details. Sherlock picks locks while conversing, an off-handed, casual act but one that makes his ability to extricate himself from tight situations later on all the more believable. Capt. Gregson is willing to trust Sherlock rather than continually opposing his “unorthodox” behavior. This Sherlock is less a Mensa-level genius and more a man who is exceptionally great at observing things; he doesn’t solve impossible mysteries so much as he unpuzzles difficult crimes with determined efficiency. The cops would solve the crime eventually—Sherlock just does it faster and without the red tape.

Lucy Liu’s Watson has been a point of contention for a lot of reasons, the biggest not being that they genderswapped the character but that a lot of people think she’s playing the character as a blank wall. Thing is, she isn’t playing Watson emotionless, but small. There’s a lot more happening with the character than meets the eye, and with each episode she gets more confident with the role and more of Watson’s personality ticks come out.

Where Sherlock is less about Sherlock and Watson’s relationship with each other and the secondary characters (the mythology comes from things happening to and around Sherlock, not because of some deep personal history between Sherlock and Irene/Watson/Moriarty), in Elementary it’s all about the people. Elementary!Sherlock makes his case-busting deductions from behaviors, attitudes, and reactions rather than twisty-turny circumstances. Elementary!Sherlock talks about his past—albeit sometimes half-falsely and frequently not entirely willingly—where Moffat!Sherlock doesn’t seem to exist in the world beyond what we see on camera. Yes, BBC’s Sherlock is a better show than CBS’s Elementary, but Elementary!Sherlock is more believable as a person than Moffat!Sherlock. The former could easily live in the real world where the latter could only exist in a world ruled by Moffat. It’s also a huge part why Elementary!Sherlock HAS to have a female Watson. The relationship dynamic between this version of Holmes and this version of Watson couldn’t happen with a man (or, for that matter, with an American man). It especially can only work with a woman he is not sexually active with or desirous of. I adore that Sherlock and Watson aren’t romantically interested in each other but are still starting to fall into a deep platonic love. It’s something rarely seen on TV.

My absolute favorite thing about this show? No montages of forensics redshirts processing evidence.

TL;DR: Season 1 will probably never be anything more than decent TV, but season 2 will hopefully have enough under its belt to be very good. More than anything, I like hanging out with these characters and figuring out the circumstances from their pasts that brought them together.

Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

Keith DeCandido
1. krad
The best analogue for Elementary isn't House, it's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which was an infinitely superior show, even at its weakest.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
2. parabola
I've gotta say, I don't watch Castle for the mystery. I do connect with the characters and I really enjoy the writing. It's simply and purely entertaining, and one of the few shows I watch regularly.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
Good to hear that there is some tension back in Dexter--I'll have to catch up on that.

So far, I'm enjoying Elementary quite a bit. We're finding out bits as the series goes and I'm liking the bits so far. Seems pretty solid with good potential.
Theresa DeLucci
4. theresa_delucci
Dexter is excellent this season. I wouldn't say it's declined in quality from the first year at all. Instead, it goes up and down. I loved season 2 (Doakes and Lila, "Miss English titty vampire.") Season 3 was awful. Jimmy Smits was the guest star and it's like he's a harbinger of doom. He's currently stinking up an already bad Sons of Anarchy.

Season 4 and John Lithgow's chilling turn as the Trinity Killer was impossible to top. Personally, it was my favorite season. It was so well-written and well-performed, any season after that was going to suck. Season 5 felt bad when you were watching it live, but looking back on Dexter and his tenuous relationship with a very broken woman was quietly compelling. Season 6 was a huge letdown, possibly the worst season yet. What a waste of Edward James Olmos.

But that finale... like you said, it was a game changer. There's no reset button on this one and as far as I know, Dexter plans to end it's run after eight seasons. Seems a bit long to stretch this out, but I'm definitely starting to get nervous about a couple of characters' fates. This is definitely the show I get most excited to watch each week.
Melissa Shumake
5. cherie_2137
this season has been the first time i've missed episodes of castle (i did watch last night's, and loved it) and while i would really like to catch up, i'm not terribly upset that the internet where i'm at is too slow to make hulu/abc.com cooperate. and i think that is partially because the beginning episodes of the season are usually not that exciting. seems like the best episodes each season have come along towards the second half, where they start to ramp up the drama (usually revolving around beckett's mom's case). also, while i'm happy that castle and beckett are finally together, it does sorta seem like that was the point of the whole show, and now there's nothing new left to do. so i do enjoy it greatly, and i love nathan fillion to pieces (he's why i first started watching, and honestly why i continue to watch) but i'm more upset that i'm behind on once upon a time.
Matthew Abel
6. MatthewAbel
We are enjoying Elementary around here. Sherlock is certainly the better version of Holmes, but it's also trying to be an update of Holmes. Elementary is really just trying to bank on the Holmes name and be creative in a world of police procedurals. It's the same as a dozen other shows - Numbers, Mentalist - on the same network.

The Holmes angle works for me, and I think its a pretty good show. I definitely think it can stick around and then we can get some beefier mysteries. I think it will work better as well if they can get some more natural humor into it, ala Castle. Right now, much of it is too serious for my taste. But its still capable and fun to watch.
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
Can't speak to Elementary or Dexter, which I don't watch, but Castle is one of my favorite shows. The mystery plots range from solid to slightly preposterous, but as parabola says, it is the characters and writing that makes it sparkle (and the acting performances, I might add).
Alex Brown
8. AlexBrown
@krad: Don't know that I'd go so far as to say CI is "infinitely superior." I'd put them both on the same playing field, at least the eps with Vincent D'Onofrio anyway.

@parabola: That's the same reason I started watching Castle when it first aired, but everyone else outside Nathan Fillion bores the pants off me.

@steven & teresa: Loved the first season of Dexter, and the current one is up there in quality. I liked season 2, but felt the rest were just crap on top of crap on top of crap. I think having an end in sight is what is forcing the writers to go for broke this season. At this point, I have no clue if sexy Dexy will make it out alive, or die trying.
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
@cherie: I'll put Castle onto my summer catch-up cycle, but I'm not going out of my way for it. I also have little patience for "will they-won't they" set ups. As cute as Caskett is, I don't think it's in anyway necessary, nor do I think those characters are a good fit together personality-wise. And if the show keeps going, you either have a season revolving their nuptuals or a season in which they break up. Neither sounds appealing.

@Matthew: I agree whole-heartedly.

@Alan: I can't hate on Castle too much. As you and others have said, there's a lot to love about it character-wise. Characters are why I put up with Supernatural's more lackluster seasons. I could watch Sam be scared of clowns or Dean be grumpy that his brother has a puppy for hours on end (hell, I've just started rewatching the entire series...and I only watched the entire series for the first time this past Aug/Sept) because I absolutely love each and every character. I think that's why Castle got bumped off the rotation - I had too many shows that weren't ever going to be anything more than "good" but that all had fascinating characters. Castle's characters were simply less interesting to me than the others. But going back and catching up for this post has inspired me to pop the last season in my Netflix queue.
nicole rich
10. nrich
I gotta say, I watch Castle for the same reason I am still watching Bones after all these years. Sometimes I just need some nice, mindless tv where I don't have to worry about one of my favorite characters getting killed off or raped. It's up there with rerun episodes of Magnum PI and Murder She Wrote: funny, low stake, but ultimately enjoyable.

I have also loyaly hung on to watching Dexter all these seasons because once I drop a show; it is always for good. I never go back (Sorry Chuck). I wasn't ready to let go of Dexter and now I'm reaping the payoff. Go team!
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
@nrich: I long ago gave up on Bones. But I do watch Hawaii Five-O (both), Magnum PI, Criminal Minds and Law and Order for the same reason - low effort on my part, enjoyable cast, attractive people, etc.

I hate skipping seasons or episodes, and only go back if there are drastic changes, such as with Dexter and Fringe (it's on my list...I'll get to it eventually...).

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