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THE BEAST (A&E)
(Thursdays at 10:00/9:00c beginning tonight)
The network's description: "A&E Network will premiere the original scripted drama series, "The Beast" on January 15th at 10PM ET/PT. "The Beast," starring Patrick Swayze and Travis Fimmel, centers on an unorthodox but effective FBI veteran, Charles Barker (Swayze), who takes on a rookie partner, Ellis Dove (Fimmel), to train in his hard-edged and psychologically clever style of agenting. In the premiere episode of "The Beast," the mischievous Barker hazes Dove as they go undercover on their first case to infiltrate a weapons smuggling ring. Barker brilliantly manipulates situations, constantly tests his new partner's abilities and pushes him to delve deeper into the roles of the undercover characters he creates. Although Dove takes a liking to Barker, the new job takes its toll on him. The stress and danger of being an agent quickly makes him realize that he can no longer maintain normal relationships outside of work. Yet that's not the worst of it..."
What did they leave out? There's actually three other regulars besides Swayze and Fimmel: Kevin J. O'Connor as Conrad, their supervisor at the FBI; Lindsay Pulsipher as Rose, Ellis's next door neighbor/love interest; and Larry Gilliard, Jr. as, well, you'll just have to wait and see.
The plot in a nutshell: Meet legendary FBI undercover agent Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze) and his handpicked successor, Ellis Dove (Aussie Travis Fimmel). Actually, watch as Barker puts a few bullets into Ellis's vest when their latest operation goes bad. It seems Ellis has a lot to learn - from how not to rely on his badge to get him out of jams to why Quantico book smarts don't translate into street smarts - and Barker is there to teach him as they cruise the streets of Chicago in his Cadillac CTS. Their latest task - pose as redneck brothers looking to sell RPGs to a local "shopaholic for heavy artillery." One small problem - they don't have any RPGs to use as bait. And so Ellis's education into the rule bending world of Charles Barker begins. Between breaking into evidence lockers and paying off junkies, Ellis finds that Barker will literally do anything to close a case. Intermixed into the action are brief glimpses into the pair's personal lives - Barker deals with a crisis involving sister while Ellis befriends his neighbor (Lindsay Pulsipher), a law associate. Ultimately by the end of the first hour, Ellis will learn just how good Barker is and - in a game changing twist I won't spoil here (although ironically A&E isn't being too shy about it) - how he'll eventually have to make a choice about where his loyalties lie. The following week, Ellis deals with the fallout of said reveal as he and Barker try to scoop up a major drug shipment.
What works: First and foremost, as a Chicago boy myself, nothing fills my heart more than seeing Chicago on the small screen again (and not just as a stand-in city, a la "ER"). Director Michael Dinner and company make the most of the city, filming scenes at everything from Millennium Park to Emmit's Pub. Aesthetics aside though, there's the makings of a potentially solid procedural here. The show's two guys, a car and the city paradigm turns out to be surprisingly freeing. Barker and Ellis don't look under microscopes or even work at an office (their supervisor, Conrad, simply hand drops each case file), they simply mine human intelligence and try to hustle their way to their goal. It helps that the Barker/Ellis dynamic has some legs: Barker treats Ellis as his errand boy (Ellis is almost always seen picking up Barker's car or being left in its dust) and endlessly drills him on his abilities as an undercover agent, while Ellis hates/respects him for it. Sure it's not exactly reinventing the wheel but it's enough to make it stand out in the crowded procedural marketplace.
What doesn't: On the flip side, there's not much heart to the show. Barker and Ellis play their cards so close to their respective vests you never really get a sense of their true motivations. Even worse is that the series' big hook - that this job eats away at you like, you guessed it, a beast - never quite connects. Barker sings the tired tune that you can't have anything in your life you can't walk away from in a heartbeat, but yet Ellis - when he wants to at least - seems more than capable of handling the job and a relationship with Rose. To its credit though, the show wisely reframes questions about Barker's true motivations and philosophies via the aforementioned twist. Nevertheless one can't help but feel it's missing that "something" that could make the show special. In terms of its procedural elements, neither the bad guys nor the situations ever feel like much of a threat. They're all paper tigers waiting to be cut down by Swayze's stubble or Fimmel's shaky accent as "The Beast" hasn't quite mastered the art of painting our heroes into a corner only to Vic Mackey themselves a solution. At the end of the day, we've all seen a grim and gritty cop show like this before...
The bottom line: ...let's just hope "The Beast" can eventually give us a little more.