It's hard indeed to talk about "The Beast" without talking about Patrick Swayze's illness. For months now, promotion for the new A&E cop drama has been inextricably bound up with news articles about Swayze's pancreatic cancer and his energy level on the set. The show has become a gateway for fan sympathy and for morbid curiosity, as we scan Swayze's face for sunken cheeks and a protruding jaw line.
I tried to watch "The Beast" as a thing-in-itself, to keep the onscreen and backstage separate. And it was next to impossible. Turns out the Swayze narrative is as much a part of the value of "The Beast" as Mickey Rourke's personal redemption tale is in his movie "The Wrestler." The show, which premieres tonight at 10, gives us an actor in a life-threatening situation playing a weary but driven FBI agent who flirts with death every day. The resonance is inescapable.
As the cool Charles Barker, Swayze seems to bring a new aura of authenticity to his screen persona. For the first time, I could imagine him eventually following the veteran career path of a Clint Eastwood or a Tommy Lee Jones, all haggard dignity and earned wisdom. Barker is written as the stereotypical rogue cop who crosses the line into illegality, but Swayze's presence is complex enough to add mystery and weight that aren't in the script. He's a lot more compelling than he should be, given the show's profusion of stock, crime-time lines about making choices and getting the job done.
Really, take Swayze and his gravitas out of the picture, and "The Beast" is a mediocre series that would probably lurk on the cable TV lineup without much notice. It's a sidewalk knock-off of "The Shield," lousy with genre cliches and sometimes baffling plot logic. The show's parade of drug dealers, mobsters, and humorless cops is straight out of central casting. To distract us from the uninspired storytelling, producer-creator William Rotko leans heavily on grim Chicago atmosphere, which only serves to push the wannabe gritty realism into oppressive unrealism.
"The Beast" is also undermined by an uneven costarring performance by Travis Fimmel, who plays Ellis Dove, a rookie agent teamed with Barker. Fimmel, a former model who starred in the short-lived WB series "Tarzan," has potential as a dramatic actor, but he doesn't seem quite ready to navigate the character's ambivalences. As the victim of Barker's hazing, forced to get his partner coffee and bring the car around, he captures the humor of the situation. But in the more dramatic scenes, when his cover is challenged by a bad guy or when his loyalty to Barker is tested, he just seems to be randomly emoting, without much specificity.
There are hints in the first two episodes of "The Beast" that a serial plot involving Barker will gain momentum as the season progresses. Let's hope the writers veer in that direction, which is more promising than the villain-of-the-week material. Swayze has shown up, and this time he has come to act.