The odd couple is one of television’s go-to moves — and so is the idea that no two people are as mismatched as a man and a woman, especially a man and a woman with sexual chemistry. The whole Mars/Venus crap gets name-checked when a man and woman share the lead in a show: it’s heteronormative and reductive and can be excruciating to watch — but it’s also pretty revealing about mainstream cultural attitudes toward gender roles.
Especially when the couple teams up to solve crime. The result then is a pair of narratives in search of the Truth-with-a-capital-T: one short truth story, that starts with a body and ends with a killer and is solved over the course of a single episode, and one long one, that plays out as the couple learn more about each other and their mutual sexypants feelings.
Let’s start with the ultimate mystery romance show: Remington Steele.
There is a definite feminist angle to the premise: a female PI invents an imaginary male superior to defuse sexism in potential clients. This says: the world can be difficult when you’re a woman living in it. It says: other people’s perception of you shouldn’t matter, but sometimes it does. It says: despite popular stereotypes of this 1980s culture, women are smart and capable and get frustrated when they are undervalued. Laura Holt’s voiceover in the credits after season two foregrounds her perspective and her story.
Laura, masterfully played by Stephanie Zimbalist, carves out a safe space in a hostile world. And then Pierce Brosnan, loaded with charm as a nameless thief and con man extraordinaire, uncovers the secret and assumes the Remington Steele identity. Laura can’t call him out or else the jig is up, and it makes it worse that he romanced her a little before he took the name of Steele. So there’s a bit of exploitation to this romance at the outset, a power dynamic that favors Mr. Steele over Laura the same way that the real world does. This imbalance is something they gradually overcome, helped by respect and empathy and perhaps the greatest onscreen chemistry the television world has ever seen.
Remington himself remains a mystery. We meet Laura’s overbearing mother and chocoholic sister, we know her past and her motives, but our leading man has no connections and no background. He is appealing, but he is unreliable, both ethically and romantically. For a long time this causes Laura to explicitly refuse a sexual relationship, because to sleep with Mr. Steele is to make herself emotionally and socially vulnerable. He would not be similarly undermined by their romance, so much of the long narrative is Mr. Steele proving he deserves her trust and affection, and Laura gradually giving in.
To some extent, then, the romantic element of the show (represented by Remington Steele) undermines the autonomy Laura worked so hard to achieve. It’s hard to say whether this is presented as a necessary correction or an unfortunate compromise on Laura’s part. It’s much easier to point out that this is one of the great cultural narratives from the time when the show was produced: how much will a woman sacrifice for her career, and how much will she sacrifice for her love life? It was impossible at the time to imagine she could have both without some cost.
Fast forward a couple decades to Remington Steele‘s heir apparent: Castle, starring Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. The couple’s dynamic is very similar: rich, handsome, charming mystery author Richard Castle attaches himself to sharp-tongued, no-nonsense NYPD detective Kate Beckett, ostensibly for book research but mostly because of the strong attraction between the pair. Beckett finds him annoying and frustrating much of the time, but slowly they grow closer to one another and more emotionally involved.
There are a few key changes, however. For one thing, our central character (and, like Laura, the voiceover narrator of the credits) is Richard Castle. Our female protagonist has given way to a male protagonist. This could be a regressive move — a straight cis white dude being the default Everyman — except that the show also surrounds Rick Castle with women (and people of color) who are more than simply token characters. He is mischievous, wealthy, and entitled — and the show takes great delight in cutting him verbally down to size, putting him on the same level as the others around him.
Whereas Remington Steele was a mystery, we know quite a bit about Castle’s life, and in particular we see a great deal of his mother and his daughter. Often an episode’s main plot will have echoes in Castle’s personal life, and this is nearly always presented as a learning opportunity for him. His mother tends toward the wild side, but with the wisdom of lived experience; his daughter has more steadiness and sense of responsibility than either her father or her grandmother, and is on the verge of entering young womanhood with all its pitfalls and complications.
In short, it is the man’s responsibility to adapt here, rather than the woman’s. Castle’s mother once asks him: “How is it for a man who is surrounded by women that you know so little about us?”
Appropriately, it is Kate Beckett who is the mysterious one of the pair. We rarely see her at home, and her backstory is given to us piece by piece, little by little. She does not have Laura’s reticence about sexual relationships — at this point in the series we have seen her in two of them — rather, it is that the experience of her mother’s murder and failed attempts to solve it have altered the course of her life. Violence, rather than sex, is the source of trauma.
Side note: it’s interesting to see the extent that both Mr. Steele and Rick Castle are made into sexual objects — more than the female leads are — which seems to suggest that both shows were written with women as a target demographic.
If Remington Steele was about Laura Holt trying to keep up with the men, it seems equally clear that Castle is about Rick Castle trying to keep up with the women.
Ultimately, I like romance. I like sexual tension, and saucy banter, and the eventual emotional payoff. I like mysteries, and trying to guess who’s the culprit, and waiting for the inevitable twist. And hopefully someday we will see a really solid mystery-romance show with a kickass lesbian couple, or someone who isn’t rich, white and bored — though it’s hard to work two jobs to feed your kids and still solve crimes on the side, but wouldn’t you totally watch that show?