Departing from its usual mix of celebrity reality shows, true crime programs, and watered-down Sopranos reruns, A&E offers up a new drama that’s a curious blend of all three. The Beast stars Patrick Swayze as Clive Barker, an undercover F.B.I. agent who pushes the limits of the law, skirting the line between cop and criminal. Necessarily, he’s teamed up with a protégé partner, Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), who is a chip off the old block but who, of course, doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Barker’s grim style of detective work.
“You can trust your damn case file and you can trust me,” Barker tells his young padawan in the premiere episode. This statement will come to haunt Dove and the audience as we learn about an ongoing F.B.I. investigation intent on proving Barker is bent. The agency asks Dove to be their mole and deliver the evidence they need to gather evidence and take Barker down, which puts Dove in a bit of a moral quandary as he initially sides with his mentor and refuses to assist the F.B.I. as a double agent but soon begins investigating Barker on his own.
What The Beast most clearly has going for it is its main ingredient: Swayze. Doing what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta, the series has breathed new life into the actor’s stalled career. Giving Swayze the lead has proven a wise casting choice as the actor has thrown himself into the role with relish. Though Barker’s antihero antics can be ‘80s-action-movie over-the-top (i.e. firing a rocket launcher through a hotel window), Swayze manages to bring his character down to size and convey an emotional authenticity that’s unmatched elsewhere in the series or in Swayze’s career. Not since playing surfing criminal Bodhi in 1991’s Point Break has he held such a captivating role.
While Fimmel plays the part of the naïve yet capable protégé well, he spends more time smirking his way through scenes than delivering a convincing character who’s being torn in multiple directions—a shame, since the series usually follows Dove’s point of view. But the fault there lies mostly with the show’s writers. Scenes seesaw between explosive jabs of dialogue to expository-laden lines that fall flat. In one episode, Barker tells a man in prison, “I caught you and put you here.” Twenty minutes later, another character refers to the same prisoner and tells Barker, “You sent him downstate yourself.” It’s as though the writers don’t trust their audience to understand what’s going on or they don’t trust their own ability to convey it. In either case, it’s sloppy.
Just where The Beast gets its name is also a little vague. The pilot opens with an obscure quote by English novelist Marie Louise de la Ramee: “Take hope from the heart of man, and you make him a beast of prey.” This idea of man-as-beast, however, is never alluded to, either overtly or subtly, in the opening episodes. Even the actors seem confused: In one interview, Swayze described “the beast” as the evil inside all of us that we must learn to control while another actor in the same promo piece claimed it referred to something much more tangible—the F.B.I. itself. Whatever the beast may be, the series should consider focusing on it and making it an underlying theme, or consider renaming the series.
The limitations of making an HBO-style drama on basic cable become readily apparent when arguments climax with an underwhelming “Screw you!” and scenes set in a strip club are suspiciously devoid of topless women. It’s possible The Beast would work better on a premium network, but it would be a marginal improvement. The series needs to train its eye longer on Barker and less on his aspiring gofer. If the show is about a loss of hope, as the de la Ramee quote suggests, then Barker seems to exemplify the title from his barren, barely lived in apartment to freely bending the law to suit his needs. But so long as the series continues its run as an unconvincing morality play for Dove, it will lose whatever bite it has in favor of a gentle gnaw.