Beauty and The Beast: not so beastly after all? — the old, the new, reviewer biases, Revolution and The Vampire Diaries, too!

I usually try to write posts about broader pop cultural themes, but sometimes I like to focus on specific productions — and this time it’s the new Beauty and The Beast TV series. However it’s still a bit wide ranging, looking at the new series, the old, a few side series, and musing about the nature and biases inherent in reviews and the reviewing process.

Beauty and The Beast is a new crime-drama/light sci-fi TV series that takes its nod from a 1980s cult TV series of the same name. However, following a recent trend of such series (Battlestar Galactica, V) it’s not so much a re-make as a re-imagining of the premise. A focus of my blog is Canadian productions (though that’s not only the only subject about which I write) and the new series does seem to be an American-Canadian co-production, as opposed to simply an American series filmed in Canada (though the IMDB lists it as simply a USA production). Granted, I’m sure the Canadians are the junior creative partners…though the top billed star, the appropriately cast “beauty”, is Canadian Kristin Kreuk.

And my impression is the new series has been savaged rather ruthlessly in reviews.

So I just wanted to pipe in and borrow a line from Linus Van Pelt when he looked at a much maligned Christmas Tree and say: “It’s not such a bad little tree, Charlie Brown.”

I’ve only seen the pilot episode, and I don’t believe you can really form any kind of definite opinion based on one episode — particularly pilots. Pilots can be worse than the regular episodes (because it’s the shakedown cruise, and they’re busy just trying to establish the characters and the premise) or better (precisely because it’s introducing us to the characters and the general premise). And, honestly, I’m not saying it was even a great episode…but it was an enjoyable enough way to kill an hour.

It seems to me that the series was targeted from the start, that people were primed to hate it months before it even aired and nothing — I mean, nothing — was going to change their minds.

Maybe that’s why I was pleasantly surprised: my expectations were low. The new series is about a New York police detective, Catherine “Cat” (Kristin Kreuk) and a mysterious fellow, Vincent (Jay Ryan), who’s the sole survivor of a government black ops super soldier project. The series (at least as established in the pilot) will be the usual cases of the week she investigates…while threaded through is a sinister on going sub-plot involving her mother’s murder, Vincent’s background, and mysterious government agents who are willing to kill to cover it all up.

Now I’m the first to admit the series can seem a little less imaginative than the original, in which Vincent had been part of a subterranean colony. The idea of an on going conspiracy can seem a bit cliched…however it maybe gives more legitimacy to Vincent living in hiding…rather than the original which, in a sense, was simply that Vincent was a freak so what would the neighbours say?

But more to the point, as simply a way to kill an hour — it was breezily engaging. Kreuk is likeable and brings an appealing intensity to her role, and few actresses have justified such a title designation so well, eh? As a guy, I often find it hard to get too involved in romances told from the female point of view — because the guys are bland and more hunky than interesting (I’m sure women often feel the same about the love interests in romances told from the male hero’s point of view). Yet so far, Ryan isn’t rubbing me the wrong way. Perhaps part of that is that they are wisely soft peddling the romance — I mean, we know that’s going to be the crux of the series, but it’s not like she’s drooling over him from the first time she lays eyes on him. We can believe an emotional foundation for the romance is going to be laid gradually, not just an instant puppy love or “soul mate” connection. And Austin Basis is likeable as Vincent’s best friend.

The case she was investigating was fine in a CSI/Bones/Castle sort of way (at least for the time it was allotted between everything else). The scenes clipped along (without being frenetic) and the dialogue was at times — dare I say it? — witty. There was some cute banter.

I was watching the recent (and apparently successful) series Revolution and wondering why it wasn’t really working for me. And aside from the fact that premise was rather cliched and the characters not that interesting, I found the dialogue just kind of, well, blunt. You could kind of guess what the characters were going to say before they said it, and they tend to state the obvious in case we didn’t get it.

So in contrast to that — I thought the writing in Beauty and The Beast was a little more lively (at times — other times, not so much) and witty. Such as an early exchange about a wrist watch and some other dialogue. Never underestimate the importance of humour even in a drama — especially in a drama!

And there were also some quirky approaches. An action scene in the subway which pauses before exploding back into action I thought was an unexpectedly off-beat moment. Doubtless it was just ripped off from some John Woo movie or something. But in the context of a weekly TV series, it felt like someone — the writer, the director, whoever — took a moment to think about the scene.

Which is maybe the point I’m making. There are a lot of series that I see, that get good reviews and good ratings but, to me, feel like they were put together on auto-pilot, where each line, each camera angle, you could map out ahead of time while sitting on your couch watching it. But with Beauty and The Beast there were a lot of little moments that just felt as though, hey, someone’s making an effort here — actors, writer, director — someone’s trying.

Does that make it a “great” series? Maybe not. There were also cheesy and clumsy bits. But it did hold my interest for an hour.

Put another way, I enjoyed the pilot to Beauty and The Beast more than I enjoyed the pilot to the Canadian series The Lost Girl (also a mix of fantasy and crime built around a star-crossed romance or two). And yet The Lost Girl quickly evolved into a solid, enjoyable series.

Contrasting the beast in the new and in the original series, some have pointed to the odd fact that the new Beast…isn’t much of a physical beast other than having a scar. Well, except that he does seem to transform into something a little more distressing in times of stress and anger (Hulk-like). At the same time, the implication (so far) seems to be that he has trouble controlling his beastliness when unleashed. So that in a sense, while in the original he was a physical beast concealing a sensitive human soul, here, the beast lurks inside and must be controlled and tamed. Which, arguably, is a more dramatic concept — and provides more grist for obstacles in the burgeoning relationship. Indeed, you could make the case that the original series actually lost sight of the theme of the source folk tale. Surely the folk tale was about beauty seeing beneath the ugly beast to the man, which then transformed him into a man so they could live happily ever after. Yet in the 1980s series, she did see the man inside early…and they still weren’t able to get together. In other words, the only obstacle to a multi-layered relationship (ie: living together, family, and — yes — sex!) was that he was uuuuggggly. Kind of the opposite of the folk tale’s intent (though, obviously, there’s always a certain hypocrisy to beauty and the beast stories, as it’s supposed to be about seeing past superficial appearance…yet we notice the beast in such stories never falls for an ugly chick).

Part of the problem facing the new series is, of course, the Beauty and The Beast pedigree. Remaking a series with a fervent, cult fandom might seem like a good idea — you basically have a ready made fan base. But it can backfire, because that same fandom is likely to be out-raged that you are remaking their beloved series. Nor am I immune to such reactionarism myself. While people who didn’t like the old series, or hadn’t even heard of it before, might then equally dismiss the new series because of its association with, to them, some obscure, “failed” series.

That gets into the question of remakes as to whether you’re better off remaking or reimagining an old property. On one hand, the fact that the new series was clearly diverging from the original was, I think, part of what annoyed old time fans…yet, conversely, you could argue maybe it’s an homage more than a literal remake. Sometimes you want to see the old characters and the old relationships brought back. But sometimes the fun is in seeing how they tweak it, in noting the winking nods to the original (recycling old character names) but seeing how they re-conceive it for the modern age (in the new series, a character’s motives are attributed to the fact that he lost family in the 9/11 attacks…the original series was made years before that tragedy).

Now to be honest — I wasn’t really a fan of the original Beauty and The Beast, which no doubt influences my openness to the new one’s re-inventing of the wheel. Rather, I liked the idea of the original — I thought it had the potential to be really cool and unlike anything else on TV. The series was initially about Catherine, a New York district attorney (Linda Hamilton) and her relationship with Vincent, a beast-man (Ron Perlman) — and may well have inspired the visual design of the Disney cartoon. He lived with an underground colony of street people. The series was sort of a crime-action series — being a DA she’d usually be investigating crimes, and he’d usually rescue her at the last minute from assorted hoodlums. But it was mainly a chaste romance, the beast poetic and eloquent, given to watching over her from her balcony and reading her poetry and, um, yeah, it was actually kind of creepy. Vincent one part stalker and one part slave.

It was basically, I guess, a female fantasy. As I recall, Catherine actually had “normal” boyfriends and love interests, but she also had Vincent hanging around, slavishly devoted to her, satisfying all her aesthetic wants and expecting nothing in return (there was no will they/won’t they undercurrent…he did, after all, look like a big shaggy dog and this was, after all, primetime). It’s not surprising that I read at the time that the series had a large contingent of fans…who were nuns.

And, of course, Vincent was her physical protector — this being before Xena and Buffy started to redefine our vision of what a heroine should be in an action series.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a romance, or a don’t have a soft, mushy heart — I just had trouble seeing this relationship as well rounded or healthy for either of them! Or, at least, it was fine for a few episodes…but seemed kind of thin and insubstantial over time.

(Okay, obviously — my mockery is tongue-in-cheek and I’m being a bit facetious with all this heavy analysis of what, after all, was just escapist fantasy. Still, reverse genders and imagine a series about a guy, with girlfriends, who nonetheless has this other woman who seems to exist for no other purpose than to dote on him and bathe his feet — okay, I’m not sure Vincent ever bathed Catherine’s feet, but I bet he would’ve if asked. I think we’d find that relationship a bit disturbing, don’t you?)

I also just don’t recall the episodes themselves being that well done or well written — in terms of dialogue, character development, the crime plots, or what have you. And an interesting point is that I did watch a few episodes: I didn’t just form a snap opinion after watching the pilot — or commercial teasers! (Though, equally, it has been years since I saw it, so maybe my opinion would soften now that I’m older) The “Vincent tears apart the villains in the climax” seemed a bit of an easy crutch — and back when I was more idealistic and less jaded, I had a bit of trouble with a series which dispatched villains so ruthlessly. Or, at least, for a series whose fans bragged about it being more gentle and romantic than most crass TV series…when the hero tended to maul people!

Hamilton herself left the series part way through — so her character was killed off and a new love interest introduced (played by Jo Anderson). Yeah…awkward, eh?

Still, the series had and continues to enjoy a strong cult fandom. And although I might cheekily say it was unrealistic and the relationship not entirely healthy, fans would counter that, um, that’s the point, it’s a fantasy, a Platonic ideal. It was a series about a relationship built entirely on flowers and poetry readings, and not worrying about in-laws and mortgages and who was going to wash the dishes. I actually liked the idea of the original series, the attempt to try and capture an almost fairy tale ambience (with the hidden colony) in a prime time, urban-set series — I seem to recall I was really hyped to see it when it first premiered. And it arguably saved Ron Perlman’s career — at the time an actor generally type cast as monsters in heavy make-up, it gave him a role that allowed him to show off his true range and helped reposition him in the minds of casting directors as a “real” actor. Still, I just didn’t think the series itself lived up to its potential. And though it ran three years, I’m also pretty sure it was one of those show’s with borderline ratings, barely hanging on from season to season.

My point is not to say fans of the original are “wrong”, or that I’m “right”…but merely to point out that the original had its flaws, too.

I do think the new series kind of hit the airwaves already with a bullseye pinned to its back. Fans of the original were already determined to hate it (given “beauty and the beast” is a public domain fairy tale, one wonders if the new series had simply presented itself as a new property, using different character names, would fans of the original be more forgiving…or would they still lay proprietary claim to the title?)

And critics? Well, in this day of Twilight movies and teen chick lit fantasies, I can imagine most critics sharpening their barbed metaphors just as a matter of pride, worried they’d be kicked out of the critics union if they dared to say anything nice about it! Not that the characters in the series are teens — though Kreuk still carries that association because of Smallville — but still, I can imagine critics rolling their eyes at yet another series about a beautiful girl and her relationship with a dark, tormented hunk.

In the U.S. Beauty and The Beast is scheduled after the popular Vampire Diaries. Now I’ve tried the Vampire Diaries…and never really got into it. It’s not badly done, the acting is fine, it just doesn’t hold my attention. Part of the problem is it just feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer…watered down. And it’s largely without wit (remember my earlier point about the importance of humour?). But also I think it’s because almost every conversation seems to be about vampires and witches and other supernatural goings on. Now that’s a strange complaint — I’d equally dislike a fantasy series that seemed to give short shrift to the fantasy element. But the fantasy becomes more interesting if the environment seems real. In Buffy the characters fought demons and warded off apocalypses…they also studied for exams, worried about bills, dealt with family issues, and had romances. In the Vampire Diaries (at least the episodes I’ve seen) the “real” world rarely intrudes.

But where the contrast between it and Beauty and The Beast becomes interesting is that, of course, the Vampire Diaries is about teen characters, and aimed at a mainly teen audience. I’m sure there are adult fans, who maybe see a return to their teenage years as much a fun escapism as the vampires, but it’s arguably more aimed specifically at teens than Buffy which, though about teens, was aiming for a broader demographic. Likewise, last year’s The Secret Circle (which I think had B&TB’s slot) was clearly in the Vampire Diaries idiom. But Beauty and The Beast is, technically, an older series — I’m not saying it’s “older” in a Six Feet Under way. I just mean it’s about adult professionals. So it may suffer from some misdirected marketing. Sort of being sold to teens…even as its real audience might be older viewers who like, say, The Lost Girl…or even crime-mysteries like The Mentalist or Bones. As well, the new series (based on the pilot) seems a little more action oriented, the crimes, and conspiracy, sharing equal time with the dewy-eyed heavy breathing. Again, maybe suggesting a misdirected marketing — sold to romantics when it’s equally aimed at crime-action fans.

And my coming to the “defense” of Beauty and The Beast, as though it’s an underdog — may be misdirected. Though others have acknowledged its almost universal critical drubbing…its premiere ratings weren’t, apparently, that bad, and the viewer response may be a bit less one-sided.

Ultimately, I’m not saying Beauty and The Beast is a great series. But the pilot had enough good things about it that I’m happy to tune in again for another couple of episodes and then, well, we’ll see after that. I’m not even saying, based on the one episode, that it would be some great crime if it was cancelled after one season. But I do think there are some things where it just becomes “hip” to diss them, which is kind of a betrayal of the reviewing process, and the critics’s “job” — which is to thoughtfully analyze the pros and cons of a work and see which out weighs the other. I do think it’s too bad if it’s not even given a chance, if too many people have decided ahead of time, and with knee jerk enthusiasm, that it will be the sacrifice critics make this season to the gods of good taste, to prove they can be “discerning”.

It may not be high art…but there’s as much beauty as beastliness in it.

In Canada it’s currently airing Thursdays on Showcase (and missed episodes can be watched from the Showcase website).

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