Marrying traditional Christmas characters with a police procedural, the body of someone in a Santa Claus costume falls from the sky. Castle and the team investigate.
Some background on the show: Castle is part of the growing number of police procedurals in which a police crew have some sort of assistant with no investigative experience, but who uses their other skills to solve crimes (see also The Mentalist, Numbers or Monk). In the case of Castle, our consultant (the eponymous Richard Castle) is a crime author who reverse-engineers stories to make sense of the clues.
Castle's real strength is its ability to merge fantasy elements into serious crime plots. There have been episodes about zombie outbreaks, vampires hunting the streets, spaceships, westerns, and just about every other genre you can think of. "Secret Santa", our chosen episode today, starts with the body of a large, white-haired man dressed as Santa falling into the middle of Central Park.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The primary plot of this - the investigation into the mysterious Santa body - has some wonderful Christmas moments. The victim turns out to have committed his life to portraying Santa and bringing joy to those around him, helping out his neighbours and friends.
As part of the trail, there's a trip to Santa School, where we get to see a room full of Santas-in-waiting as they pratice their ho-ho-hos and belly laughs.
The secondary story also elicits much festive spirit, with Castle being a huge fan of the season and trying to encourage his family and friends to enjoy spending time together and celebrating their closeness. His decorations are lavish, his childlike-joy palpable, and it's very hard to not be inspired by that.
Castle's detective partner Beckett is not so keen on Christmas. Effectively playing the role of Scrooge, she knocks back down all hints that the body might be that of actual Santa, and rebuffs Castle's offers of spending Christmas Eve with his family. But all is not lost as the Christmas Carol parallels go full circle and Beckett eventually decides to skip work and spend Christmas with her friends rather than behind a desk.
The spirit is lost though once they identify their Santa-a-like and start the real detective work. Suddenly we fall into the well of clues, leads, witness interviews and very un-Christmassy like behaviour. I don't think it can be helped, but it does take the edge of the relaxed festive feel.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
"Secret Santa" plays a strong festive music game. Reminiscent of Die Hard, a plethora of traditional carols and songs are subtly woven into the soundtrack. I caught Let It Snow, I Saw Three Ships, Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslas and The Holly and the Ivy all in the background of the show.
None of the music is particularly in your face though, which is why I compare it to Die Hard. It helps add to the atmosphere of it being Christmas without ramming it down your throat, which I've always thought particularly important.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
I think Castle is a great show through-and-through. It's got serious crime plots, but a wonderful childlike atmosphere through its title character and an uninhibited ability to explore wild plot devices. I reckon that makes it suitable for a really wide audience from teenagers to pensioners.
But that doesn't mean it's particularly family friendly. I mean, it's about serious crimes. Murders and the like. And this episode is no exception.
Further, "Secret Santa" is very clear that Father Christmas isn't real, and that attitude always knocks some points off in this category.
Ho-ho-who's in it?
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Castle has a solid core cast, fronted by Nathan Fillion, and they all get proper screen time in "Secret Santa". But with no special guests, there's nothing special about the cast in this episode. Disappointing for a show that's featured an impressive field of guest stars over its eight seasons.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Whilst full of Christmas joy on a personal level, "Secret Santa" doesn't quite put in enough effort to make this a true Christmas special. It's got some of the heart, but it wouldn't have you gathering the family around the television. A lot of thought has been made to make this fit into the series, so you wouldn't feel out of place binge-watching it in August. That's fine, and quite skilled, but it doesn't give it the special festive flavour that I want to see.