If A&E kicked off its renewed push into scripted programming with "The Cleaner," which followed the blueprint of a CBS or TNT character procedural, the network raises its game with "The Beast," a softer take on an FX series.
"The Beast" will capitalize on a wave of curiosity and publicity surrounding star Patrick Swayze's battle with cancer and his recent hospitalization. That sort of early audience interest may be the television equivalent of rubbernecking, but the first two episodes of "The Beast" suggest that the series and Swayze's lead performance will be able to stand up to the scrutiny.
[Full review after the bump...]
In theory, the moral center of "The Beast" is Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), a fresh-faced FBI agent partnered with Swayze's Charles Barker, a grizzled veteran of the Bureau's Chicago office. Barker, who specializes in fast-turnaround undercover cases, doesn't play by the rules and there's some sense that in his pursuit of the bad guys, he's become a pretty bad guy himself, or at least a guy with a confused moral compass. For fans of "The Shield," Barker will seem like a less complicated Vic Mackey.
Structurally, "The Beast" is pretty classic and derivative stuff. It's "The Shield." It's "Training Day." It's "Internal Affairs." It's any perversion of the mentor-protegee relationship that either turns allies into potential adversaries or positions the former innocent to go down a path into darkness.
Filmed in Chicago, "The Beast" gets good use out of its location production values. This is a different urban environment for this sort of crime-fighting and it feels distinct from New York or Los Angeles or Washington as a setting. Filming was done in the winter and scattered snow and slate skies only augment the discomfort Swayze's character feels in his environment.
"The Beast" transcends the familiar convention because of Swayze. The '80s heartthrob who embodied a certain reckless daredevil attitude in movies like "Dirty Dancing" and "Roadhouse" and "Point Break" has aged into an icon of wearied renegade spirit.
The pilot for "The Beast" was shot before Swayze was diagnosed with cancer, but his initial appearance is still a little shocking. Scruffy and notably gaunt, he gives the impression of a middle-aged lion in an Animal Planet documentary, no longer the ruler of the pride but still hungry and dangerous.
There's no way to watch "The Beast" without thinking of Swayze's health, so that has forced critics to think of ways of saying "Cancer has been good for Patrick Swayze" without actually saying it, especially since we all wish him only the best, health-wise.
And yet this is a different Swayze than we've seen before, even in recent character roles like "Donnie Darko" or "Green Dragon." How much are we reading into Swayze's Barker? It's impossible to know. Is Barker's gravitas and impending mortality something Swayze brings to the character, or is it something we all bring to our perception of Swayze and then push onto the character? I can't answer that, but it works. Gruff, authoritative and edgy, Barker is a compelling anchor.
The thing that's keeping "The Beast" down is Fimmel, who was in over his head years ago as The WB's Tarzan. Dove is supposed to be unsteady and a bit callow, but this is the sort of pairing in which the young actor in the pairing either steps up -- think Ethan Hawke opposite Denzel Washington in "Training Day" -- or gets lost entirely. Fimmel's greatest concern is with a wavering American accent. Because of the undercover work, the characters get to do plenty of acting themselves and while Swayze embraces the flexibility, Fimmel just may not be prepared to plays a character who plays characters. It's just too meta for the former model.
The cast around Swayze and Fimmel is limited. Lindsay Pulsipher is the token love interest for Fimmel's character, poorly integrated into the earlier episodes. Making move vivid impressions in small roles are Kevin J. O'Connor an apparent FBI superior and "The Wire" veteran Larry Gilliard Jr. as a character who takes an interesting twist in the first two episodes.
If "The Beast" were on FX, perhaps creators William Rotko and Vincent Angell might be able to dedicate more time to the serialized aspects of the story and less time to the undercover-case-of-the-week, a structure that's always annoyed me on shows like this. The show is at its best when it explores the nature of the beast, as it were. Is Barker the beast? Do we all have the beast dwelling within? Does society make the beasts or are the beasts controlling society?
I hope Swayze's health permits him and viewers to answer those questions.
"The Beast" premieres Jan. 15 on A&E.