Monday, October 28, 2013

Who Did It Better: Historical Urban Legends in NYC Edition...

Over the summer CBS' Unforgettable delivered an "urban explorer" episode that actually dove deeper into the mysterious history of New York City when Carrie (Poppy Montgomery) and Al (Dylan Walsh) investigated the death of one such adventurous young man only to learn he had stumbled onto an underground map to some potentially very real treasure. In the appropriately titled "Maps and Legends," legend had it that centuries earlier, while building the subway system, a large amount of gold coins were hidden in the tunnels, and the dynamic Major Crimes duo were sucked into the hunt as motive for murder. On that show, the truth behind the treasure was revealed to the audience in the final few seconds/frames. Carrie and Al and were much more concerned with the present so they considered it a successful expedition simply to catch the killer. But this episode was just the first of a few to follow the theme of decoding history*, and so now I have to ask: who do you think took on that theme better?

ABC's Castle is obviously the other show in contention after just delivering "Get A Clue," and episode in which Beckett (Stana Katic) and Castle (Nathan Fillion) stumbled onto a city-wide scavenger hunt put together from an old letter and carvings in 18th century buildings. Again a young explorer was murdered for how close she was getting to a supposed fortune, but true to the inquisitive nature of the writer-turned-police-aid Castle, the answers that came at the end of the episode on not only who killed her but why also came with a definition resolution about any supposed hidden treasure-- for the audience as well as the characters.

In both cases it turned out that [Spoiler Alert!] there was actually a historical fortune to be found in New York City. On Unforgettable it was gold coins that were literally poured into the concrete as the subway ceiling was erected, while on Castle it was a bucket of the first minted dimes. But the actual treasure at the end of the rainbow is about where the similarities end.

Unforgettable started its case cryptically but scholarly, with Carrie and Al finding their D.B. slumped in a chair in a public library, an old journal open to a key page, an even more key mural painted on the ceiling above his head. All of these things proved to be clues later toward helping decode the mystery, but none of them had to do with his cause of death so they were details that seemed unconnected at first-- not unnoticed because the point of the show is that Carrie remembers everything-- but certainly kept out of play for the first few acts as they investigated the cause of death, known associates, and more common methods and motives for murder than something that seemed like a plot of a movie.

What was great about "Maps and Legends," though, was that every clue this urban explorer managed to pick up on was something that was deeply ingrained and intimate and for knowledgeable eyes only. No one could just "stumble" onto things and put it together out of thin air. The treasure truly felt shrouded, and the cyphers and coding seemed like they could have legitimately gone undetected for hundreds of years.

On Castle, on the other hand, focused more on misdirection to distract from the fact that once the clues were all laid out in front of the characters, the treasure was really easy to find, almost as if it had been planted there much more recently than the 1700s. All someone would have had to do to find the secret room in the chapel was get curious as to why there's a hole in the stone carvings, for example, and stick their hand in and find the latch. They may not have known what was in that room, but common sense tells you something valuable would be in there if taken the time and energy and care to hide it away at all. I personally expected the twist at the end of the episode to be that the scavenger hunt event planners were the ones to put the bucket of (fake) coins in as a bonus prize for whoever solved their puzzle first just based on the fact that things started to come together so quickly and easily. 

But first the dead woman was found by a chapel with bloody palms like stigmata, posed like she had been crucified. Couple that with the surveillance footage of a monk following her, and they could have fallen down a "Da Vinci's Code" rabbit hole for a little while (they even make that direct reference within the episode). Instead, though, they pushed the plot along fast and furiously to follow the trail of the scavenger hunt.

Both shows played with the idea of whether or not the treasure was real at all throughout their episodes in order to play with the audience's sense of adventure. Even though Castle himself is open to all kinds of larger than life cases (*cough time travel), Castle seemed to go out of the way to try to convince the audience there was no real treasure so that they would be surprised. Unforgettable has relative skeptics in its lead characters but just let the audience go along for the ride with them as they got sucked into the investigation, regardless of rationalization. 

While Castle delivered a much more fun episode, due to the level of intricacy and detail that went into the actual mystery on Unforgettable, I'm going to have to give the CBS drama the edge in the "who did it better" poll. What say you? Leave your thoughts and votes in the comments.

(*Admittedly CBS' Hawaii Five-0 also aired a story of a somewhat more conspiracy theorist researcher who was trying to uncover the truth about a lot of ancient lore and mysteries. He, also, was proven right and actually uncovered seemingly long lost rings that had just been hidden in an iconic island statue. But because that show doesn't have the New York City tie, it is not a part of this friendly competition.)

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