The Female Detective and Middlebrow Crime TV: Writers, Investigation and Authorship in Bones and Castle

by: & Lindsay Steenberg , June 14, 2021

© Screenshot from Castle Finale (ABC, 2016)


Crime television is a generic space that gives particular prominence to female investigators—the focus of this special issue—and which has received significant critical attention in recent years. (See for example, a 2017 issue of Television and New Media) Such work has successfully highlighted a number of important issues to do with gender, spectacle, and investigative fiction. However, it is noteworthy that scholarship has attended in particular to series that broadly sit within either so-called ‘quality’ television or reality/true crime formats which are positioned within a category of popular or ‘tabloid’ television. Relatedly, there is a striking analytical absence of what we term here middlebrow crime television. The space of the middlebrow, we suggest, contains some of the most visible female investigators of recent decades, appearing in lucrative and long-running series that lend themselves to syndication. While the category of quality television has been extensively discussed, the middlebrow is virtually absent from scholarship on television. Here we attempt to delineate that space of middlebrow television and to show its relevance for thinking about the female investigator as a type.

The middlebrow encompasses modes of production (developments in publishing, for instance), textual qualities, and an implied audience. Our examples here are drawn from two series that, we suggest, exemplify middlebrow crime television: Bones (Fox, 2005-17) and Castle (ABC, 2009-16). Because both series had lengthy runs—regularly achieving large audiences—and continue to appear in syndication, we argue that they speak significantly to their cultural and media landscapes. Both also centrally feature a female investigator, and make use of a gentle self-reflexivity that characterises middlebrow crime television and its expected viewing practices. Castle creator Andrew Marlowe testifies to the financial and emotional desirability of his programme ‘Networks would love to have the next Lost, but they’d rather have the next Bones and Castle. They’re cheaper, easier to manage, and inspire the same buzzy interconnectivity that sci-fi does. They also encourage the thing that TV needs more than anything: passionate loyalty over time.’ [1] It is the passionate loyalty of television audiences for the female investigators (and their male partners) that underpins the reassurances and comforts of middlebrow crime television. As the position of networks within the larger television context shifts, we need to be aware of change. Nonetheless, we suggest that the conventions associated with middlebrow crime television are so well established that they will continue to inform new productions. Middlebrow crime television, then, forms an accessible vocabulary that is suited not only to syndication, but also to networked patterns of streaming and binge watching practices.

Before turning our attention to the female detectives in Bones and Castle, we offer an admittedly unfinished, but working definition of the middlebrow and its manifestation in television. We then briefly establish the qualities of the contemporary female investigator, no longer a surprising novelty, but rather an expected convention of the genre. We then turn our attention to the use of authorship and writers in both series, before examining the romantic and self-reflexive tropes that they use; tropes that inspire and encourage nuanced reception practices.

‘Solid, Comfortable Entertainment’: Towards an Understanding of Middlebrow Television

Writing in People magazine, Tom Gliatto observed: ‘[w]hen Castle premiered last March, I faulted it for being Bones with less edge. In its second season the show is more like a hipper Murder, She Wrotewhich is an improvement. This is solid, comfortable entertainment.’[2] While this review may seem to be damning with faint praise, it cuts to the heart of how Castle works as a show and, more significantly, to cultural and critical understandings of ‘middlebrow’ as a concept. 

Whilst the idea of middlebrow culture has been extensively discussed in relation to both film and literature, the term has not been used as a critical framework to analyse television. We argue that this is an oversight, and that in applying such discourses to our crime-based case studies we can demonstrate that scholarship on the middlebrow can illuminate how these types of television shows, and their gendered expressions of expertise and authorship, operate. Nicola Humble introduces her book on the feminine middlebrow novel with a quote from Virginia Woolf in which the presumed safety (another formulation of the comfortable) of the middlebrow is disparaged. The term, Humble writes, ‘has always been a dirty word.’ Indeed, ‘[s]ince it was coined in the late 1920s, it has been applied disparagingly to the sort of cultural products thought to be too easy, too insular, too smug’. (2001: 1) The middlebrow is also firmly linked to femininity, its dismissal both classed and gendered. Humble argues that the critical occlusion of a booming interwar market in middlebrow fiction has much to do with its association with female writers and readers. Female authored crime fiction is a particularly notable aspect of this period within British publishing, with Agatha Christie’s prolific output the most obvious example. As we suggest here, an association with both femininity/women and a reputation for reassurance or comfort are also potential factors in the lack of attention to the middlebrow crime shows we begin to explore here. 

Faye Hammill likewise establishes the middlebrow as a feminised product that is ‘not wholly aligned with either high modernism or popular culture’. (2007: 6) Hardboiled crime writer, Raymond Chandler, describes the middlebrow Agatha Christie-reading audience as flustered old ladies—of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages—who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty.’ His gendering of the middlebrow and association of it with a supposedly safe form of crime writing—exemplified again by Christie—is resonant for our account of the female investigator. Moreover, as Alison Light (1991) persuasively argues, Christie is emphatically modern in her crime fiction. Indeed Light’s figuring of Christie in terms of conservative modernity and as ‘queen of the “middlebrows”’ (1991: 75) is particularly resonant for us, highlighting as it does a sense of unremarked innovation in genre fiction. 

Both Humble and Janice Radway (1997) touch on the perceived ‘mediocrity’ of the middlebrow with respect to the novel. Such discourses and oppositions are meaningful in the context of television, as both the medium and critical discourses about it have developed in recent decades, notably an opposition between quality and popular television. With respect to crime, the comfortable character of the middlebrow is coupled as much to the female author as with the female investigator. For this reason, we have chosen as case studies episodes of Bones and Castle which foreground their central characters’ roles as writers of popular fiction. The viewing pleasures of the televisual middlebrow include predictability (of narrative and character conventions), the guarantee of closure, and a gentle self-reflexivity which rewards audiences’ familiarity with the broader generic terrain. Even while the term is clearly redolent of hierarchies of taste (the designation of its smug and comfortable status), knowingness is central to the middlebrow. 

We can couple this sense of cultural insularity with the perception that middlebrow crime television is blandly reassuring. While it may concern (and showcase) gruesome death and feature the pain of loss, reassurance comes from its formulaic repetition of investigative techniques that consistently uncover the truth; from the comfort of following moral, trustworthy, even at times righteous, investigators, and from the narrative resolution inherent to series formats. It could plausibly be argued, then, that the female investigator is a reassuring figure within a reassuring television genre. 

As a sort of content, crime lends itself to sensationalism—crime scenes, pursuit of criminals, dramatic confession—as much as to intellectual qualities associated with puzzles and deduction. ‘Quality’ crime television is particularly significant within scholarship, with shows such as The Wire (HBO, 2002-8), The Killing (AMC, 2011-14), and Top of the Lake (UKTV, 2013-17) attracting considerable attention. [3] And yet a great deal of crime television, including the most watched shows, tends not to be that which is talked about most. There is a relationship here to the long-running, much watched but critically neglected programming which Brett Mills (2010) characterises as ‘invisible television,’ that is to say long-running shows which are watched by large sections of the population, but are generally ignored by television scholars. While Mills frames such critical emphasis as, in part, a rejection of the mass (mass culture/mass audiences), here we are highlighting a neglected yet commercially significant aspect of crime television, which we characterise as middlebrow. 

Sharing the self-reflexivity and feminist-informed tropes valued in quality programming, middlebrow crime television is oriented around popular science (forensic and psychological) and the formulation of a work family, characteristic of ensemble series more broadly, that allows for relations of friendship, mentoring and romance to develop in a professional setting. Its characteristic form is the long-running, syndicated series; the centrality of crime writing is acknowledged via the incorporation of the crime/mystery writer—Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote (CBS, 1984-1996) stands as an important earlier example of this configuration (one which notably gestures both towards Christie as an author and Jane Marple as an investigator character). In our discussion of Bones and Castle, we focus on episodes that particularly highlight the figure of the writer and the function of authorship; this allows us to follow up connections which the series themselves highlight between television and print crime fictions. 

The Female Investigator: From Novelty to Convention

By the time Bones and Castle premiered in 2005 and 2009 respectively, the female investigator was no longer a startling figure in the television crime genre. Linda Mizejewski opens her book-length study of the female investigator by describing a surprising ‘body switch’ in the crime genre across print, film and television: ‘a savvy woman shows up instead of a man’. (2004: 16) She locates this shift in the ‘early 1990s constellation of The Silence of the Lambs, The X-Files, and [Patricia] Cornwell’. (2004: 16) By contrast, when the characters of forensic anthropologist/crime writer Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and hardboiled New York detective Kate Beckett debuted, they fit into a post-millennial television landscape that already included many female investigators. A sample would include: Dr. Jordan Cavanagh on Crossing Jordan (2001-2007), Teresa Lisbon on The Mentalist (2008-15), Dr. Gillian Foster on Lie to Me (2009-2011), the female criminologists of CSI (2000-15) and NCIS (2003-), and criminal profilers on Criminal Minds (2005-20). This trend continued with Joan Watson on Elementary (2012-19) and the FBI agents on The Blacklist (2013-). Unlike earlier detectives, such as Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey, or Christie Love, the female investigators of the Bones-Castle era are commonplace and relatively unremarkable fixtures of the genre, particularly as experts in the forensic subgenre. As the other articles in this issue attest, the fact that the female investigator has become a staple of the genre does not make her any less nuanced or fascinating to viewers or scholars. Perhaps ‘typical’ might be the most accurate way to describe the postfeminist female investigator, often to the point of interchangeability, as the rotating female profilers on Criminal Minds suggest. This typical female investigator ranges from amateur detective to law enforcement professional to forensic expert and, in all cases, registers ‘postfeminist anxieties around the career woman’. (Steenberg 2013: 59) [4] 


New York Police Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). Screenshot from Castle (ABC, 2009-2016.
New York Police Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). Screenshot from Castle (ABC, 2009-2016.


Forensic Anthropologist Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan (Emily Deschanel). Screenshot from Bones (Fox, 2005-2017)


Brennan and Beckett, the female investigative leads of Bones and Castle have much in common. Each is presented as highly skilled and well regarded within their professional worlds. Each commands the devoted loyalty of their team, demonstrating physical prowess/toughness, as well as extraordinary acuity and reasoning skills. Each has a complex and mysterious family background (missing/murdered mothers and mysterious fathers) that is in some ways presented as an ‘explanation’ for their atypical strength, independence, and self-reliance. The differences between Brennan and Beckett’s worlds—that of forensic anthropology and the New York police department—are in some senses relatively superficial. However, their respective roles within the investigative partnership mirror each other: Beckett is an experienced police officer forced to work with writer Castle, while Brennan brings her scientific knowledge to her partnership with FBI officer Booth. Beckett’s knowledge of people contrasts with Brennan’s social awkwardness. While neither conforms to conventional modes of heterosexual femininity, both are framed by visual codes that glamorise their capability and physicality.

When Brennan and Booth are introduced in the pilot episode of Bones, the latter describes their relationship in popular cultural terms—‘we’re Mulder and Scully’—setting up a long-lasting crime solving partnership while underlining Brennan’s preoccupation with science and lack of conformity to social norms (she does not get the reference). Steenberg argues that this moment also serves as ‘a prompt for how the spectator is supposed to read the sexual dynamics of their relationship, and establishes that theirs is an affectionate professional partnership that will serve as a counterpoint to the violence and conspiracies they uncover’. (2013: 91) But where the Mulder-Scully couple were isolated, the Bones-Booth partnership is framed by a supportive work-family relationship that, like the relationship between Castle and Beckett, evolves into a complex network of actual family relationships. 

The X-Files has become a key reference point exemplifying self-referential television for scholars, such as Jason Mittell who highlights the ‘interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling’. (2015: 19) [5] Like The X-Files, Bones and Castle construct a narrative world in which relationships develop over time and fan knowledge is privileged. Each involves over-arching story arcs to do with unsolved crimes involving the female protagonists (Brennan’s fugitive father; the murder of Beckett’s mother), but most of all the romantic/sexual possibilities of the central investigative partnerships along with the events, misunderstandings and so on which defer their formation as a couple.

However, unlike The X-Files, or later crime programmes such as True Detective, Castle and Bones cannot be described using Mittell’s formulation of narrative ‘complexity.’ Neither do these shows and their near-archetypal characters represent narrative simplicity. Bones, Castle and similar middlebrow crime programming hinge on knowledge of and affection for genre conventions, rather than a deeply nuanced treatment of those conventions. They do this through the constellation of their work-families, which our case studies imagine as central crime-solving couples surrounded by supportive family structures, and framed by an accessible form of referentiality and metatextuality.

In a moment that bookends the series, Bones features another reference to Mulder and Scully. The series finale sees Brennan temporarily unable to remember or practice forensic anthropology. She confesses to Booth that feels that she has lost her sense of identity and self. His supportive response references again recalls The X-Files:

Brennan: If the thing that made me me is gone, who am I?

Booth: You’re the woman I love. You’re the one who kissed me outside of a pool house when it was pouring rain; took me to shoot Tommy guns on Valentine’s day. That’s who you are. You’re the one who proposed to me with a stick of beef jerky in your hand even though you’re a vegetarian. You’re the Roxy to my Tony; you’re the Wanda to my Buck. Who else is going to sing Hot Blooded with me? And besides, we’re way better than Mulder and Scully.

Brennan: I don’t know what that means.

Here Booth articulates the show’s knowing recall of other crime programming, highlighting a key variation—the romance at the core of its criminal investigations and long-running narrative structure. In the finale of Castle, using a plot device as firmly established as the knock-on-the-head amnesia in Bones, Rick Castle has been kidnapped and drugged with truth serum. A henchman proceeds to quiz him about his love for his family and his deep respect for Beckett as an extraordinary woman and detective. Both Kate Beckett and Temperance Brennan are introduced to audiences in their pilot episodes as capable and experienced investigators, well respected in their fields. Across their series’ long tenures on American network television, Beckett and Brennan are drawn into storylines and relationships that serve to negotiate and reflect on their performances of femininity and professionalism, maintaining their expert status but carefully adding the roles of friend, mentor, daughter and, most significantly, wife and mother. [6]

Limiting considerations of the crime genre to ‘quality’ TV such as The Fall, or Nordic noir programming such as The Killing, might mistakenly lead to the impression that the female detective is a rare and unusual variation. Long running and syndicated middlebrow broadcast programming such as Castle and Bones confirm that she is a fixture rather than a rarity. In order to foreground the way these couple-led work-families depend upon middlebrow formulations of television, we would insist that the female detectives of these shows are significantly framed by notions of authorship and literary adaptation. 

Authorship and Writerliness

Authorship is prominent in both Bones and Castle, as both shows centre on connections between investigators and crime writers. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who is also a best-selling crime writer. Rick Castle is likewise a best-selling crime writer, who initially attaches himself to the police department to undertake research for a new book series. Crime writing clichés and fandoms are repeatedly foregrounded in both shows, often generating self-referential humour and rewarding the audience for their familiarity with the genre and its tropes. Crime/mystery writing is represented as a lucrative profession for both Brennan and Castle, enabling a luxurious lifestyle. Brennan’s publisher provides her with a high-end sports car, while Castle lives in a lavish loft apartment. Although mystery writing brings financial rewards, it is investigation rather than writing that is framed as a vocation in these shows. Castle applies his crime writer’s understanding to actual cases, while Brennan exploits her experience of crime (and the characteristics of her co-workers) in her fiction. 

In a season 2 episode, ‘The Body in the Book,’ Brennan’s publicist, visiting her laboratory at the Jeffersonian, is horrified by the environment and observes to Brennan that as a best-selling author she no longer needs to work here. This failure to understand the allure of science and investigation marks the character as firmly outside the bonds that these enthusiasms generate (she duly becomes the third murder victim of the episode). A season 4 episode, ‘The Passenger in the Oven,’ consistently foregrounds Brennan’s status as a writer/scientist. At the outset a brief image of a plane in flight gives way to Brennan sleeping in a fully reclined first class seat. Booth, by contrast, is shown seated in economy, wedged uncomfortably between two older women, Charlotte and Nadine, the latter sleeping somewhat noisily. The humour here turns on Booth’s position cramped in coach class—while they are travelling together on FBI business, Brennan has bought her own ticket, taking for granted the ‘necessary amenities’ offered in first class. Brennan’s status as a successful writer brings celebrity as well as wealth; when a clue requires the inspection of passengers’ hands, Booth exploits her popular literary celebrity, offering everyone a signed copy of Brennan’s book so that they will raise hands.

 The airplane setting of this episode functions to limit the pool of suspects, and frames the action as a race against time, since the plane itself only serves as US territory until it lands in China. The episode incorporates a grotesque crime scene (the victim has been crammed in an oven and slowly baked), mystery puzzle, and improvised lab, which is connected online to the rest of the team in DC. The hierarchies of the country house tradition are in play, since both the victim and her killer are, like Brennan, first class passengers. Booth’s interactions with the women he has been wedged between in coach serve as playful reminders of the mystery format; as they are introduced straight away as mystery fans (Charlotte tells Booth that her companion has been ‘planning the perfect murder’ for years), Booth borrows a series of items from Charlotte who enthusiastically guesses their uses, even offering an additional item that she anticipates Brennan will need. Later, the whole plane is asked for everyday products which Brennan can use in her investigations of the body: denture cream, baby powder and so on. 

Both Bones and Castle feature episodes in which the team investigate crimes that mimic their published fiction. The seeming premise of ‘The Body in the Book’ for example, is that a copycat killer is reproducing the crimes/crime scenes in Brennan’s latest book ‘Red Tape, White Bones.’ Spotting anomalies in the evidence, Brennan and Booth deduce that in fact there are three killers, each covering for the others (a plot line familiar to crime fiction readers from Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel Strangers on a Train). The same trope kickstarts the Castle pilot, and is used to explain his involvement with the police department and his partnership with Beckett. Later episodes use Castle’s writing career, and contacts in the crime fiction publishing industry, as premises for episodes, inspiration for solving murder puzzles, and in the recurring use of James Pattison, Stephen J Cannell, Dennis Lehane and other authors as Castle’s poker buddies. Castle uses the profits from his writing to purchase a bulletproof vest with the word ‘Writer’ written in place of ‘Police,’ visually reinforcing his role and its involvement in police procedures. In a season 3 episode entitled ‘Nikki Heat,’ Castle’s latest book is being adapted into a film and a Hollywood actress visits the precinct to study Beckett for her role. The episode plays with adaptation and the ways in which these types of plot lines facilitate a play with doubles and foreground authorship as a route. Bones too features an episode in which one of Brennan’s books is being adapted into a film; she and Booth investigate when an actual corpse is found on the Hollywood version of the Jeffersonian laboratory. 

The fact that Brennan and Castle are writers underlines their imagination/creativity, and their use of friends and co-workers as the basis for characters in the fiction generates humour and tension. The sensationalist qualities of these investigators’ novels are frequently alluded to. As with the reading of characters as versions of the fictional, the use of writers and writing relates to the self-reflexivity of both series. For example, the conflation of Booth and Agent Andy, Beckett and Nikki Heat and, most significantly, Brennan naming her fictional heroine Kathy Reichs after the crime writer/forensic anthropologist who wrote the books on which the television series was based. While firmly middlebrow in the ways we have outlined, Bones and Castle nonetheless feature elements of the sort of narrative complexity that Jason Mittell identifies within ‘quality’ television since the 1990s. 

This kind of self-referentiality is embedded in middlebrow television, demonstrating a canny and playful knowledge of generic and literary antecedents. On Bones, and particularly on Castle, this is largely accomplished through the figure and qualities of the crime writer. In middlebrow media, self-referentiality works by emphasising genre conventions through exaggeration, pastiche, and metatextual references—rewarding knowledgeable viewers and dedicated fans for their recognition of how the genre works and how it can be playfully reworked. Not as sharp as satire, but with some gentle satiric elements and self-reflexive possibilities, middlebrow genre television (such as Castle and Bones) draws attention to its own middlebrow provenance and mode of address, recalling the ways that authors such as Christie were able to innovate in unremarked-upon ways that remain difficult to pigeonhole into hierarchical taste categories. As we underline throughout this piece, gendered codes of professionalism are subject to such self-reflexive treatment within middlebrow crime television.

Breaking the Moonlighting Curse? Referentiality and the Romance Procedural

The potential for romantic/sexual connection pervades crime shows such as Bones and Castle. Such developments are part of the larger work-family context that the shows draw on, and which are common to other workplace dramas in investigative and medical settings. [7] Both involve central investigative partnerships that are flirtatious and eventually evolve into romantic relations. The airplane episode of Bones discussed above is bookended by flirtatious scenes between Brennan and Booth, coupled with a disavowal of any romantic interpretation of their partnership by other characters. Exchanges of looks between characters, shot configurations that clearly figure one of the pair dejectedly observing the other speak to a knowing audience. All this is very much in line with the conventions of the romance genre which Radway and Tania Modleski both characterise in terms of simultaneous immersion and knowingness. Radway writes that ‘romance reading is a profoundly conflicted activity centred upon a profoundly conflicted form’ (1991: 14), while scholars such as Modleski flag up a kind of doubled subjectivity that relies on the readers’ knowledge of conventions. [8]

The focus on courtship and coupledom has re-oriented shows like Castle and Bones, suggesting that generic lines are being renegotiated, often during the course of a programme’s run. They are both crime shows and romance procedurals. We argue that these self-referential romances should be read as fixtures of a televisual middlebrow sensibility. Building on Humble’s assertion that the middlebrow extends beyond and through generic lines, the long-running nature of both shows (and the sheer volume of episodes) facilitates a combination of romance, crime procedural, soap opera and lighter comedy that fits safely under the umbrella of Humble’s middlebrow and its entanglement/associations with femininity. 

At the conclusion of Castle’s fifth season, its central couple consummated their ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship. Nathan Fillion reported to Rolling Stone: ‘everybody was worried about the Moonlighting curse … But you can’t look at it that way. Being a couple isn’t the end of something—it’s the beginning of something.’ [9] The so-called ‘moonlighting curse’ refers to the way shows with a central sexual tension are thought to fall apart once their couple find romantic stability. One Entertainment Weekly critic describes Bones post-coupledom as a ‘black hole of procedural domestic inanity.’ [10] The same critic praises Castle (faintly, of course, because this is middlebrow TV) for avoiding the same pitfalls by keeping its verbal volleys sharp. Central to this volley is the framing of Kate Beckett and Richard Castle’s relationship through a vocabulary of popular cultural references. The same is true for the relationship between Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth, as we saw with the X-Files reference above. For example, Rick Castle’s surprise and erotic delight that Beckett shares his media consumption patterns: she buys comics like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, she’s a costume-sporting fan of a cult sci-fi show called Nebula 9, and she understands his Turner and Hooch references. This use of pop culture as a nostalgia-attuned vocabulary for romance actively invites audiences to participate, and rewards them for their ability to recognise references by more intimately connecting them with the relationship between Beckett and Castle—they become privy to their secret romantic language. In using referentiality as a romantic language, both Castle and Bones blunt the sharp edges of any satire that might critique the very nature of heteronormativity as a constituent element of crime programming and its ‘will they/won’t they’ couples. This speaks very astutely to Humble’s proposition that the middlebrow can offer ‘narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort.’ (Humble 2001: 11) On Castle and Bones, this formulation is used to frame and express the central romance of the series.

Romance in Castle is directly addressed to fans through a web of intertextuality and nostalgia for other (often invisible or cult) media forms. Robert Koehler in Cineaste is eviscerating in his description of a middlebrow film culture ‘in which audiences were sufficiently dumbed-down to accept the fake rather than the real thing, and in a new middlebrow haze, weren’t able to perceive the difference’. (Koehler 2009: 77) However, Castle uses this haze as a medium of communion with its invested audience: audiences, characters and, it seems likely, savvy showrunners, invest in the ‘Caskett’ romance because it is shored up by the nostalgic architecture of earlier screen couples. We believe in, and understand, Beckett and Castle not because theirs is an authentic love that speaks to our experiences, but because we remember Mulder and Scully; Maddie and David; Scarecrow and Mrs. King; Hart to Hart; Remington Steele to name but a few. 

Bones likewise keeps to a playful referential tone, underlined by the music which cues us to read interactions between characters as humorous—most notably Brennan’s failure to understand popular cultural references or basic courtesies. Brennan’s recurrent expression ‘I don’t know what that means’ contrasts her extensive knowledge of cultures and customs, as well as her field of scientific inquiry, with ignorance about everyday US popular culture. Crucially, the audience’s knowledge of such popular cultural references is key to the humour, rewarding our recognition. Where Castle is delighted at Beckett’s surprisingly comprehensive knowledge of pop culture, Booth is equally delighted at Brennan’s absolute ignorance.

Building on this, we would argue that Castle and Bones’ attempts to break the moonlighting curse at the heart of the romance procedural hinges on an engagement with, and acknowledgement of, fan practices, particularly ‘shipping.’ Prior to these shows, the relationships between central characters on crime procedurals tended to happen in the ellipses of otherwise murder-based, plot-heavy stories. Thus, the romance of the television procedural has been largely invisible—the subject of fan speculation and close analysis. With shows like Castle and Bones, this is no longer the case, as the work-family convention of earlier shows is fundamentally re-aligned to orbit around a central couple and their family. Parenthood in particular becomes a heavy postfeminist anchor here, as the central female investigator (Brennan and Beckett) moves from single woman to married mother in the spotlight of the show’s main plotlines. 

The fan practice of shipping, that is generating stories or art based on celebrity couples, is something that showrunners are taking into account. Castle creator Andrew Marlowe is positive about fans and the attention they pay to the Caskett relationship. ‘Shippers are the people who are the most engaged with a show, so they don’t represent the biggest statistical sample … [b]ut they really are your core audience, and you can gauge the level of investment of your entire fan base by their interactions with you.’ [11] Marlowe uses shippers as barometers for gauging the success of the romance plot on his show; and often there are elements of the show that cater directly to this mode of consumption/viewership. One such example appears in a season 2 episode (‘Fool Me Once’) subplot revolving around a sex scene in one of Castle’s recent crime novels (found on page 105). The plot sees Castle’s humorous discovery of Beckett sneaking into the bathroom to read the sexually explicit sequence. Fan products (such as phone cases reading ‘I skipped to Page 105’) testify to the way authorship and fandom have been incorporated into the plot of the show. [12]


Detective Beckett is discovered reading the love scene on page 105 of Richard Castle’s new book.


It is through novelty episodes that this reaches its apex in both Bones and Castle. Season 4 of Bones sees Booth in a coma hallucinating a neo-noir vision of the show’s characters solving a crime at a nightclub called The Lab, and celebrates its 200th episode with an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock films. Castle features an unsolved crime from the 1940s imagined as a film noir starring the work family in the central roles, and uses Hitchcock’s Rear Window as the plot of a later episode. These gimmick or fantasy episodes include direct references to mid-century Hollywood crime or noir films, as Moonlighting—a show which Sue Turnbull describes as an instance of ‘baroque experimentation’ (2014: 170)—did before them. [13] While scholarly interest in Nordic noir crime programming suggests the quality associations of such referentiality, in series such as the ones we consider here, references to noir are above all playful, typically functioning as a fantasy space in which relationships between characters in the show can be tested out, and where acknowledgement of fan activities can become part of the show’s narrative. Outré narrative frameworks justify such episodes with dreams and illness as favoured techniques. Castle’s Rear Window themed episode reveals the entire murder plot is an elaborate ruse planned by Beckett as a birthday present. Referentiality is then intimately connected to, and indeed serves to heighten, the procedural romance exemplified by Bones and Castle

Sue Turnbull, following Linda Mizejewski, links such strategies to cinematic traditions of screwball comedy. Her characterisation of the series Remington Steele in terms of a ‘blend of romance, Unresolved Sexual Tension (URST), screwball comedy, allusions to film noir, and the private eye genre of crime drama’ (2014: 169-170) has obvious resonance for a consideration of Bones and Castle as instances of middlebrow crime television. In her chapter on women and crime, Turnbull gives only a paragraph to Bones, characterising it as a throwback to the ‘comedy crime ‘mixed doubles’ of the 1980s’—shows she regards as offering only a ‘complicitous critique’ (173)—moving on to focus on The Killing and The Bridge as the most significant series in the wake of the BBC’s Prime Suspect. Such an emphasis is indicative of the focus of wider crime television scholarship, with far more attention given to serial programming than long-running series, and more interest in darker rather than comedic or romantically inflected crime.

The novelty episodes of both programmes reveal such patterns. They function as what Jason Mittell describes as ‘narrative pyrotechnics’ or special effects, in which audiences require a certain amount of skill and knowledge to decode its meaning. We argue that these episodes make this decoding process accessible, requiring superficial genre knowledge, and rewarding the recognition of well-worn patterns/conventions such as amnesia, dream sequences, sickbed hallucinations, film noir aesthetics, and plots from other films (e.g. Bones’ use of Strangers on a Train and To Catch a Thief and Castle’s use of Rear Window). None of these episodes upset or redirect the narrative arcs of their series, as they exist in fantasy or dream worlds and permit romance, death or betrayal that can be appreciated but remain safely insulated from the overall trajectory of the season. These episodes are illustrative of middlebrow reading and textual strategies that extend beyond the crime genre, in line with Humble’s suggestion that ‘the middlebrow is a hybrid form, comprising a number of genres, from the romance and country-house novel, through domestic and family narratives to detective and children’s literature and the adolescent Bildungsroman’. (2001: 4) We argue that middlebrow television finds a particularly lucrative expression through the crime genre and its female investigators. 

Concluding Points

Through this article, we aim to bring to the attention of scholars who study the crime genre and the female investigator a kind of programming that has been largely ignored by the scholarly community. Particularly prescient for this special issue, this type of programming has been an ideal environment in which the female investigator (from amateur sleuth to forensic expert) has become commonplace. These are middlebrow crime programmes produced by network television and now firmly entrenched in syndicated viewing; programmes like Bones and Castle are built on the tradition of Diagnosis: Murder (CBS, 1993-2001), Murder, She Wrote and continuing with NCIS, Hawaii Five-O (CBS 2010-2020), and Elementary. As with Light’s discussion of middlebrow feminised crime literature, we are arguing that something nuanced, overlooked and complex is going on here. However, unlike Mittell’s complex poetics, we are arguing that it is something that is taking from modernism’s principles of radically re-making forms, but using a gentle reflexivity that is much more comfortable and reassuring. 

As with Light and Humble’s studies of middlebrow crime fiction, we argue that paying attention to the gender politics of these reassuring programmes is part of a wider feminist project of taking popular media forms seriously as spaces where such politics are embedded, expressed, and worried over. The very invisibility of this type of television programming, and the professional female experts at their core, demands analysis. To ignore these fictions as generic, or to dismiss them as merely conservative, is also to ignore the ways in which popular media manifests its anxieties around, and its admiration for, women as expert professionals, authors, and audiences. 

At the beginning of this piece we cited Castle creator Andrew Marlowe’s assertion that networks are most keen to have the middlebrow programming that we have been analysing because they are long running, syndication-friendly and encourage a loyal fan base. We have argued the female investigator has been a key part of this, in part since she is a resonant figure for crucial female audiences. We must take account of the fact that both network and television landscapes are changing. [14] Nonetheless, we would assert that these types of programmes have made an indelible mark on conventions of the crime genre and the character of the postfeminist female investigator, particularly as remediated iconography. 



[1] Mandi Bierly EW 3/25/2011 pp.38-45reportedly said by a ‘another showrunner’.

[2]  3/1/2010, Vol 73, No. 8, p 36.

[3] See, for example, Tanya Horeck, (2018) ‘Screening Affect: Rape Culture & the Digital Interface in Top of the Lake and The Fall’ Television & New Media, Vol. 19, No. 6, pp. 569-58.

[4] This typicality is informed by the media culture of postfeminism that sees professional women as embodying a tension between femininity and feminism and whose success is framed as a feature of the ‘choices’ of the neoliberal marketplace, as both authors have argued elsewhere. (Tasker 1998; Tasker & Negra 2007 & 2014; Steenberg 2013) The postfeminist female investigator is framed by such opportunities, more readily available to white middle class heterosexual women (like Beckett and Brennan) than those who are coded as ‘other.’ ‘Succeeding in the male-dominated field of science and law enforcement is an ambivalent state, as the expert female investigator often fails at many of the benchmarks of postfeminist success: female friendship, romance, family and participation in consumer culture. In both her successes and her failures … [she] represents a focal point for postfeminist anxieties around the career woman’. (Steenberg 2013: 59)

[5] Scholars such as Martha Nichols, Sue Turnbull, and Linda Mizejewski have discussed the importance of The X-Files to patterns of television genre, characteristics, and storytelling.

[6] Booth and Brennan consummate their relationship off-screen in the penultimate episode of season 6. In the season finale Brennan reveals she is pregnant. From this point on they constitute a couple, marrying in season 9 (episode 6, ‘The Woman in White’) and having two children by the end of the series’ 10 season run. Beckett and Castle marry in 7×06 (The Time of our Lives) after a long courtship that begins in 4×23 (Always). Beckett becomes a surrogate mother for Castle’s precocious daughter Alexis, and the finale episode sees an epilogue with the couple sitting around the table with three younger children. This somewhat surreal sequence, following a near death experience in which both protagonists are shot, could be interpreted as a kind of fantasy sequence as well as a projection of their future as a family.

[7] See Amanda Lotz (2006), Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era, Chicago: Illinois University Press.

[8] Martha Nochimson (2002) has studied iconic screen couples, including the crime solving couple of Mulder and Scully.

[9] Rob Sheffield Rolling Stone. 9/27/2012, No. 1166, p. 54.

[10] Kyle Anderson Entertainment Weekly, 10/19/2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] While Marlowe and his production team are positive in their responses to shippers (similar to the teams behind Supernatural and Sherlock), Hart Hanson, the creator of Bones, labels shippers ‘dim nasties’ who are pathologically over-invested in the relationship they follow onscreen.  While ‘shippers arguably contribute to Castle’s ability to break the Moonlighting curse, they are often derided as an excessive section of the female audience who cannot identify the line between real and televisual romance. They remain largely a marginal—and invisible—audience, trotted out by the popular press as subcultural curiosities.

[13] Examples include Castle’s ‘The Blue Butterfly’ and the 100th episode entitled ‘The Lives of Others’ and Bones’ ‘The End in the Beginning’ (04×26) and ‘The 200th in the 10th’ (10×10). It is interesting to note that both series chose to celebrate milestone episodes by recalling Alfred Hitchcock films

[14] It is too early to determine whether the finales of Bones and Castle might witness a process of passing—a squeezing out of the middlebrow as a phenomenon of production; leaving such programming as nostalgic or obsolete cultural products existing only in syndication.


Hamill, Faye (2007), Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture between the wars, Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Humble, Nicola (2001), The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Light, Alison (1991), Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars, London: Routledge.

Mittell, Jason (2015), Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Dtorytelling, New York University Press.

Mills, Brett (2010), ‘Invisible Television: The Programmes No-One Talks About Even Though Lots of People Watch Them’, Critical Studies in Television, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 1-16.

Mizejewski, Linda (2004), Hardboiled & High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture, New York & London: Routledge.

Nochimson, Martha P. (2002), Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2, Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Radway, Janice (1997), A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire, University of North Carolina Press.

Radway, Janice (1991), Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 

Steenberg, Lindsay (2013), Forensic Science in Contemporary American Popular Culture: Gender, Crime, and Science, New York: Routledge.

Tasker, Yvonne (1998), Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Culture, London: Routledge. 

Tasker, Yvonne & Diane Negra (eds) (2007), Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and The Politics of Popular Culture, Durham: Duke University Press.

Tasker, Yvonne & Diane Negra (eds) (2014), Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity, Durham: Duke University Press. 

Turnbull, Sue (2014), The TV Crime Drama, Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press.

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