Revisiting the 1987 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST TV series (spoilers)
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revisiting the original 1987 Beauty and the Beast, the Linda Hamilton/Ron Perlman fantasy series that was the very loose basis for the current CW Network series of the same name. I gave up on the CW remake partway through the second season, but I remembered liking the original, so I wanted to rewatch it before Netflix pulled it from streaming at the end of the month. Oddly, though, Netflix’s stream is missing two episodes (and one of the final episodes is shown out of order), and I eventually ended up borrowing much of the series on DVD from the public library. The series is badly in need of an HD remastering, and I’m afraid it actually looks better on my old, standard-definition TV set — the format it was made for — than it does on streaming video, where there are often serious scan-line artifacts.
Beauty and the Beast was created and showrun by Ron Koslow, and its writing staff featured novelist George R.R. Martin, best known today for A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones. Other writing staffers included Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, David Peckinpah (season 1 only), and P.K. Simonds, with Paul Junger Witt & Tony Thomas (best known for various sitcoms) as the executive producers along with Koslow. The series had only the loosest connection to the fairy tale of the same name. Linda Hamilton played Catherine Chandler, a pampered corporate lawyer who was subjected to a brutal, random attack (a case of mistaken identity, since ’80s TV didn’t demand that every plot point be part of some vast conspiracy directed at the main characters) and was nursed back to health by Vincent (Ron Perlman), a powerful but gentle lion-man who lived in the tunnels underneath New York City, part of a secret utopian community led by Father (Roy Dotrice), a stern but kindly older man who adopted Vincent when he was found abandoned as a baby. (The series never explained Vincent’s origins or nature.) Catherine is initially shocked by Vincent’s appearance once her bandages come off and she can see him, but she’s had time to discover his caring, educated nature, and the two form a powerful bond that enables Vincent to sense her emotions empathically and feel when she’s in danger. And that comes in handy later, since she leaves her cushy law firm and gets a job at the district attorney’s office, which often leads her into danger on the gritty streets of a New York City that was portrayed (at least in the first season) as a rather hellish, squalid place. Though Vincent was a soft-spoken, compassionate being with the mind of a scholar and the soul of a poet, he had a ferocious animal side that came out with lethal effect whenever Catherine was endangered.
Vincent’s leonine makeup was created by FX legend Rick Baker, and it’s one of his finest creations. It works so well with the planes of Ron Perlman’s face while also transforming it utterly and making it beautiful. Perlman also uses a very different voice than he usually does, a soft, contemplative, highly articulate growl that probably had female viewers swooning. (Jay Ryan on the CW remake attempts to do the same kind of rumbly voice, but in his case it just comes off as mushmouthed, lazy mumbling. Even though he doesn’t have Perlman’s impediment of a mouth full of fake fangs to talk through.)
I have a theory that TV series with unusual premises are often obligated to start out in a formulaic mode to appease network executives and more conservative viewers, and only later are free to begin exploring the ideas that make them distinctive. B&tB is a classic example of this. The show was always literate, with characters constantly reading books and quoting poetry and literature and listening to classical music, and the production values were excellent, particularly the lush musical score (initially by Lee Holdridge, but mostly by future The Matrix composer Don Davis and occasionally William Ross), one of the last great, lyrical orchestral TV scores before the age of minimalist atmospherics and electronic scores took hold in the ’90s. But the first ten episodes were quite formulaic and rather boring after a while. The stories were mainly focused on the surface world (“The World Above”), with the underground “World Below” given very little exploration, even though it was the most interesting part of the premise. The World Below was based on the real-life phenomenon of homeless people living in the extensive abandoned tunnels beneath New York City, but it was a fantasy extrapolation beyond that, a warm and inviting cavern world filled with books and artwork and ornate hand-me-downs from the World Above, and with gorgeous underground settings represented by elaborate matte paintings. But for nearly half a season, the inhabitants of the World Below seemed to consist entirely of Vincent, Father, and occasionally a few orphan children. It was a secondary element tacked onto an otherwise fairly conventional crime drama, with Vincent as your formulaic superhero who was constantly running through tunnels and riding on top of a subway train to race to Catherine’s rescue. Those episodes that didn’t involve Vincent saving Catherine usually involved Vincent getting captured or trapped up above and needing Catherine to rescue him. The main exception was an episode where Father had to venture above when summoned by an old love, but immediately stumbled upon a murder and got arrested for it.
But about halfway through the season, that suddenly changed, as if the producers were finally given the freedom to explore the side of the show that the network was uneasy with. In the course of just a few episodes, the World Below was fleshed out into a whole community of recurring characters including: Pascal (Armin Shimerman), the master of the tunnelers’ communication system based in tapping code on underground pipes; Mouse (David Greenlee), an eccentric, semi-feral tinkerer and troublemaker with an idiosyncratic speech pattern (“Okay good, okay fine”); Jamie (Irina Irvine), a plucky teenage girl; Mary (Ellen Geer), the matronly midwife of the community; Winslow (James Avery), who started out being just the big angry guy who was wrong about everything but who got to be on more or less the right side in later appearances; and the main recurring bad guy, Paracelsus (Tony Jay) — a co-founder of the underground world with Father, but long since exiled due to his supervillainous ambitions. For the rest of the season, although we still got a few more conventional Above plots, most of the stories were about events Below or about the impact that people and events from one world had upon the other. There was also a decreasing emphasis on action and a shift more toward more character-driven, dramatic stories.
These trends become even stronger in the first half of season 2, which focuses primarily on the World Below, or on aboveground plots driven by characters and situations from Below. The tunnel world and its culture are fleshed out more fully, and the show becomes less about the romance between Catherine and Vincent and more about Catherine’s relationship with the entire underground community, her role as the bridge between worlds. Personally, I liked the show far better in this vein. There’s only so much you can do with “a love that can never be,” especially when it’s defined as vaguely as it was here. The relationship between the two remained totally chaste; they never even kissed, for reasons that were left vague. I suppose the implicit reason was that Vincent’s fangs and claws and superstrength made it too dangerous for her, and that the “beast” within him would go out of control in the heat of passion. But when they finally did an episode that gingerly addressed this, fully halfway into season 2, it was clearly the first time Vincent and Catherine had even spoken about it, which was deeply implausible. It’s startling from a modern perspective how utterly chaste the show was, never talking about sex overtly. But then, it was an 8 PM show back when 8 PM was considered a child-friendly viewing hour. And maybe the show was designed to appeal to female viewers who were drawn to a fantasy of a heroic, perfect male companion with the thrill of danger but no need to worry about the complications of sex. I have to wonder what it says about Catherine that she was okay to have that with Vincent for over a year without even wondering why.
Season 2 also toned down the action and violence in the first half, mercifully avoiding the Catherine-in-danger formula and the recycled footage of Vincent racing to her rescue. On those few occasions that Vincent did give in to his rage, we finally saw how it troubled him, how he feared and hated that side of him, something we’d never really seen in season 1 when it was a handy device to kill off the bad guys of the week. For a show that was so prudish about sex, it was surprisingly cavalier about killing, and I was glad to see it get away from that. Plus I found the exploration of the World Below more engaging than the action and romance elements. The problem with romance series is the need to keep the characters constantly apart or in turmoil through one contrivance or another, and that was something that really got tedious to me when I watched the show in its first run. I was happiest at the point when Vincent and Catherine’s relationship was just this stable background element in a show that was about fleshing out this charming fantasy world beneath the city. The World Below was the kind of fantasy that drew me, a safe haven free from violence or cruelty, a place where outcasts and the vulnerable could be taken in and nurtured. Of course, the more we explored the World Below, the more crises had to befall it for the sake of drama, and I remember getting tired of how maudlin the second season got, with one disastrous thing after another seeming to befall the leads. Yet on my revisit, that didn’t seem to be quite as constant a thread as I remembered.
Unfortunately, the pattern of season 2 was the reverse of season 1, in that the half-season devoted to gentler, dramatic stories driven by the tunnel community was followed by a half-season devoted to action/danger plots in the World Above. My recollection is that there was network meddling to fight sagging ratings, and that meant a return to the formulaic and familiar, with the tunnel characters all but disappearing in the back half of the season. Even in the episode where Catherine’s father dies and she retreats below to grieve, that sense of the larger community is absent and it’s solely about her and Vincent. Even a scene between her and Father would’ve been welcome. And then there’s a whole run of episodes set topside and dealing with various crime/danger or courtroom-drama plots. It’s only in the last two episodes, as the Paracelsus arc comes to a climax, that the World Below is featured again.
All in all, the first two seasons are a study in overcorrections. The show swings between extremes, half a season spending too little time in one world followed by half a season spending too little time in the other. I preferred the roughly year-long stretch in the middle that focused on the World Below, but I would’ve appreciated more of a balance throughout.
The show went through more radical changes in the third season, as Linda Hamilton’s pregnancy forced the producers to write her out. Also, Ron Koslow left the series after co-writing the season premiere to set off the new course, although the rest of the staff remained intact. Most of the season revolved around a new archvillain named Gabriel (Stephen McHattie), a nebulously all-powerful crime boss who secretly rules the city, and who’s prone to rambling monologues about his evil philosophy (I’m not sure whether the writers intended them to be as incoherent as they were). Although he’s played with effective menace by McHattie, and given a memorable leitmotif by Davis (like a cross between Lalo Schifrin’s “The Plot” and Gerald Fried’s “Pon Farr”), it’s never really all that clear just who he is, what he does, or how he got so powerful.
Anyway, the second season ended with a cliffhanger where Vincent was lost in his rage and Catherine went in to try to help him, and in the third season premiere, that “help” evidently consists of the physical intimacy the show aggressively avoided until now. Although the avoidance is still intact, because their “love scene” is in the form of a hilariously cheesy video montage of blooming roses and explosions and hands clasping, with the song version of the main title theme playing over it. This cheesy montage has two effects: One, it gets Catherine pregnant, and two, it breaks their empathic bond so that Vincent can’t find her and save her when Gabriel abducts her (before she can tell Vincent about the child). But Gabriel learns of Vincent and wants to possess his child, keeping Catherine alive until she delivers and then killing her, with Vincent just too late to save her. The show remains intensely euphemistic about sex even in her dying words to Vincent: “We loved. There is a child.”
The show then introduces a new female lead, Jo Anderson, as Diana Bennett, an NYPD profiler/analyst who gets assigned to Catherine’s case in the second episode and eventually finds her way to Vincent about halfway through the 11-episode season. Now, when this cast change happened, most of the show’s fans were outraged. Vincent and Catherine are eternal lovers! How can you kill off our beloved Catherine and expect us to accept this interloper in her place? But I never felt that way, because… well, I’m sorry, but I’ve never actually liked Linda Hamilton much. She’s okay as Sarah Connor, but I found her performance as Catherine rather unappealing, particularly in the first half-season, when she tended to deliver her lines in a high-pitched lilt that I found weak and insipid. Her delivery got better over time, perhaps as Catherine outgrew her pampered-heiress origins and became tougher, but I still never liked her delivery much, the weakest voice in a cast filled with gorgeous voices like Ron Perlman, Roy Dotrice, Tony Jay, and James Avery. I also never found her to be as beautiful as advertised. So her departure didn’t trouble me at all. And while Jo Anderson didn’t seem all that striking to me at first glance, she had the kind of face that gets more compellingly beautiful the more you look at it. She was a redhead with enormous, soulful blue eyes and luminous skin, like a Titian painting brought to life. And she had an earthier, subtler appeal than Hamilton had; Diana was more of a middle-class character with a New Jersey accent (the actress’s own) that I found rather charming. I didn’t think of it until just this moment, but she reminds me of Elisa Maza from Gargoyles. (She’s also very reminiscent of Gillian Anderson of The X-Files, but apparently they aren’t related.)
(Edited to add) Season 3 also makes a regular out of the late Edward Laurence Albert, who’d had a recurring role in the first two seasons as Elliot Burch, a morally ambiguous industrialist who was a rival for Catherine’s affections, and whom Vincent approached for help in investigating her death. (If Diana reminds me of Elisa from Gargoyles, Elliot is basically a nicer David Xanatos, even to the point of resembling Jonathan Frakes.) Albert was the son of comic actor Eddie Albert, but he did terrific dramatic work as Burch, so it’s no wonder they made him a regular. Although it was odd in story terms that Vincent went to him instead of the other male regular, Catherine’s boss Joe Maxwell (Jay Acovone), who’d been a stalwart friend to her throughout (and secretly in love with her, though it was never made explicit until season 3). As it was, Joe became a somewhat adversarial figure as he latched onto Vincent as a possible suspect in Catherine’s murder (albeit without knowing more than his name). He was the one who brought Diana into the story, though.
Which is not to say that I liked everything about the third season. It’s far more plot- and action-driven than the previous two, a lot less thoughtful and rarefied and a lot more violent. It’s striking how heavily serialized it is, with almost every episode ending on a cliffhanger. I tend to think of that level of serialization as something that didn’t develop in SF/fantasy TV until Babylon 5, but B&tB had it beat by several years. Oddly, though, the Gabriel arc wraps up after 9 episodes, with the series concluding with an unconnected 2-parter. I’d guess that 2-parter was a “pilot” for the new status quo just in case the series got renewed, as it served to bring Diana fully into the tunnel community at last.
But season 3 is the only one that manages to find a good balance between the Worlds Above and Below, though somewhat at the expense of Below’s isolation and otherness, with more characters crossing from one world to the other. I would’ve liked to see that balance achieved while the series was still more driven by character drama.
Overall, Beauty and the Beast never found the perfect balance of its elements. It was at the mercy of constant executive meddling, frequent retools and overcorrections that never let it find and keep a consistent identity. The saving grace is that the writing staff remained mostly consistent, with the only major changes being the departures of David Peckinpah after season 1 (probably for the best, considering how he later screwed up Sliders) and Koslow after the season 3 premiere. Koslow aside, George R.R. Martin and the Gansa/Gordon duo remained the primary guiding voices throughout, so it did manage to maintain a degree of consistency despite its changes. (Including, I think, a change of venue. The first season seemed to be shot in New York for real, but the last two were made in LA. It gave it a less authentic feel.)
One thing that surprised me is how old this show felt. I don’t think of the ’80s as being that long ago, but it was nearly three decades, and the world was very different. There are no mobile phones and hardly any computers in the show. The DA’s office has some computer consoles off to the side, but no desktops, and Catherine writes her legal briefs in pencil on a yellow pad. They even have old-style phones with mechanical ringers, although they get upgraded later in the series. Many of the special effects are really dated as well. There’s gorgeous matte work by Illusion Arts and Effects Unlimited representing the tunnel world, but there are occasional some really bad-looking video chromakey mattes, and I mentioned the terrible-looking “lovemaking” montage. (But there is one cool video effect. In the second-season finale, when Vincent was losing control of himself, some of his point-of-view shots were distorted with the same kind of “howlround” effect used to create the original Doctor Who titles, resulting from the time-delayed feedback you get by pointing a video camera at its own monitor.) The rich orchestral music is also a vestige of an earlier era, albeit a far more welcome one.
But that’s not the most dated aspect. Unfortunately, the show’s treatment of race is rather poor. The cast is overwhelmingly white, unrealistically so for New York City — especially since so many in the World Below are outcasts, orphans, and homeless people who came seeking refuge. The show starts out with several prominent black characters who systematically disappear. Initially, Ren Woods is a regular as Edie, the computer researcher who’s Catherine’s best friend in the office, but she disappears after the first half-season (though, oddly, her name remains in the main titles clear through the third-season premiere). Delroy Lindo has a recurring role as Catherine’s self-defense instructor Isaac, but he also disappears after three early episodes. And James Avery’s Winslow is stuck not only with the stereotype of Angry Black Man, but with the stereotype of First One to Die, late in season 1. He’s replaced for the rest of the series with the nearly identical character William, played by a white actor, Ritch Brinkley. There are occasional guest roles for nonwhite actors, including a significant turn by Richard Roundtree in late season 2 and early season 3, but not often.
And in the first season, there are a few episodes painting other cultures in a rather stereotyped light. There’s a “voodoo cult” episode, the lowest point of season 1, that’s so racist it’s actually called “Dark Spirit.” It tries to be non-racist by having the black suspect be innocent and the handsome white voodoo-expert professor be the real villain, but it’s still horrendous in its portrayal of Haitian religion, with Father dismissing vodou as “primitive superstition.” The episode also introduces the other major black character in the World Below, Narcissa (Beah Richards), a blind mystic constantly spouting cryptic warnings about de world of de spirits. There’s also a Chinatown episode and a “Gypsy” episode that both portray the cultures in question as insular, exotic communities with their own harsh, intractable traditions, needing the show’s enlightened white heroine to convince them that there’s a more humane way. (Although the Chinatown episode, “China Moon,” features fully eight cast members from Big Trouble in Little China, even pitting James Hong as the bad guy against Dennis Dun and Victor Wong as good guys, which is kind of awesome.) It’s such a striking contrast from the modern remake on The CW. That’s a much weaker show in most respects, but it does a terrific job of inclusion, with a Chinese-American Catherine Chandler and a regular cast that’s always been at least 50% nonwhite. I’m sure the original show wasn’t trying to be discriminatory, but it unthinkingly fell into so many of the default racial attitudes of its era.
Overall, Beauty and the Beast was a flawed show, but an intriguing one. In many ways, it was the classiest, most literate and cultured show of its era, though it had to contend with constant network pressures to be more conventional and lowbrow. It had a mostly really good cast (Linda Hamilton being the exception for me), and it was my introduction to multiple actors who went on to become SF or animation stalwarts, including Perlman, Jay, Avery, and Shimerman. (I’d heard Avery’s voice before, but never seen him in live action before this.) And it had mostly terrific production values, making it perhaps the most beautiful show of its day (which is why it really needs an HD upgrade). All in all, it was worth a revisit, even though it was a more flawed show than I remembered.