Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bones, Castle, and the Problem of Procedural Relationships

Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion in "Castle"

There is a pernicious myth that has infected the minds of television writers, especially procedural drama writers, almost since the inception of television itself.  This myth is the idea that a happy couple is a boring couple.  So for decades, television writers have been doing everything in their power to keep their couples unhappy, whether it’s playing years of “will they or won’t they” games or throwing unnecessary obstacles in their way once they do get together. 

It’s an easy trap to fall into because it can be far simpler to manufacture drama for a happy couple rather than to draw natural drama out of a solid relationship.  Yet two of the better procedurals, ABC’s Castle and Fox’s Bones had both managed to avoid this trap after getting their main characters together.  Castle spent four years dancing around the mutual attraction between lead characters Kate Beckett and Rick Castle.  Last season saw them finally become a couple and it largely went off without a hitch.  They had to hide their relationship from Beckett’s new captain, but for the most part the show treated the whole situation with humor, as it became increasingly obvious throughout the season that none of the other characters were buying their “just friends” routine. 

Bones, likewise, managed to effectively maneuver the new relationship over the last two seasons, even incorporating Emily Deschanel’s real-life pregnancy into the storyline.  In fact, it was the anticipation and arrival of their new baby girl that provided the most drama for Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth.  The writers were able to draw a lot of drama out of the parenting process, especially in the natural differences between Brennan’s and Booth’s personalities, such as her need for control and his stubbornness regarding their finances and his desire to be an equal contributor. 

Both shows managed to handle the coupling of their lead characters naturally, leading to a pair of season-ending marriage proposals.  And that’s where everything went off the rails.  On Bones, the serial killer Booth and Brennan had been chasing for a year called Seeley and threatened that he would kill five random people if he didn’t call off the wedding without giving Temperance a reason.  On Castle, Kate was offered a dream job opportunity with the FBI, but away from New York City in Washington DC.

Let’s deal with Castle’s problem first, because it’s by far the more egregious of the two.  I get that the long-distance relationship is a tried and true trope, but this has to be the absolute laziest presentation of the form, at least in terms of staying true to the characters.  You see, Rick Castle is rich…very rich.  He may not have James Patterson money (though they play poker together), but he certainly has enough to move to Washington or even keep homes in both cities.  He’s also a writer, which doesn’t exactly tie him down to one location.  And did I mention that Castle isn’t working with the NYPD anymore?  Or that Alexis is out of the country?  The only thing possibly keeping him in New York City is his mother, who is pretty well living her own life at this point.

That Castle would stay in New York for more than a few minutes seems exceedingly out of character.  But the writers needed to wring out three episodes worth of dramatic tension from keeping their two leads separated and to make us think that their permanent separation was at least possible.  It was drama for drama’s sake, generated by the writers’ pens and not the characters themselves.

The manufactured drama on Bones didn’t fare much better.  The engagement drama is dealt with entirely in the season premiere in an extremely clich├ęd “Bones must learn to trust Booth” fashion.  Ultimately, after four episodes, the writers had apparently had enough of this storytelling, chalking up the serial killer’s obsession with Brennan to simple infatuation and having him die by Booth’s hand – though it had to be a completely justified killing (saving Brennan’s life), rather than a murder.

The greatest sin that both Castle and Bones committed was manufacturing obstacles for their couples rather than having problems naturally arise out of their relationship.  Compare a serial killer’s insane demands with the natural obstacles faced by Eric and Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights.  For example, they too faced the question of a long-term relationship when Coach Taylor took a job at TMU.  But in that case, Tami had several reasons to stay behind, with a job as a guidance counselor and their daughter Julie still at Dillon High School. 

There are several other times when the Taylors face obstacles in their relationship, most notably in the final season when Tami is finally offered her dream job.  What differentiates FNL from Castle and Bones is that these obstacles come naturally from the characters’ relationship.  While Tami is never portrayed as a particularly career-minded woman, she is almost always working and moving forward in her career.  We might quibble about the realism of her offer to become Dean of Admissions at a private college, but the resulting struggle over whose dream to follow next is a very real, very natural obstacle for the Taylors to have to overcome.

Ultimately, Bones and Castle failed their characters by fabricating personal drama out of whole cloth, rather than allowing the drama to evolve naturally from the characters, their personalities, and their actions.  Thankfully, both storylines ended within the first few episodes of the season, so we can only hope that the writers have figured out how to make their couples interesting without having to resort to fake, manufactured drama again.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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