‘Beauty and the Beast’ (Season 1): Laughably straight-faced ’80s fantasy

Did you know there used to be a cult following for this show?  Yes, seriously.  That surely can’t be the case now, can it? 

By Paul Mavis

Please tell me there aren’t thousands of crazy cat ladies still sitting at home, coughing up furballs and putting mercurochrome on their scratched arms and legs, desperately writing Beauty and the Beast fan fiction while emailing Ron Perlman, telling him they understand him better than anyone, and that they just know that CBS will bring back the show next season.  Please tell me that isn’t happening….?



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Back during Beauty and the Beast‘s brief three season run (1987-1990) on CBS, there were numerous letter writing and phone call campaigns by rabid fans who tried desperately to keep the show from getting the axe. Never even close to a ratings winner, its fate on the network schedule was always at risk, and yet, the fans made it known how they felt, and they may have indeed saved the show on more than one occasion.

Thanks a lot.  A clumsy, lumbering fantasy with an inherently dishonest approach to its central romance, Beauty and the Beast was an almost instantaneous source of parodies and jokes for stand-up comedians during and after its run (a Seinfeld take-off with Vincent as a teenaged “art house goon” video clerk was probably the funniest). And it’s easy to see why. There’s not a shred of irony or humor about the concept in the whole season; filmed with a laughably straight face, Beauty and the Beast‘s first season initially made me snicker, and then eventually ground me down and bored me to tears.

Beautiful corporate lawyer Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) chafes at the restrictions imposed on her life (jesus christ…). She works for her father Charles (John McMartin), a highly successful New York City lawyer, but doesn’t feel what she does is necessary or that she’s achieving anything independent of his influence. In a relationship with ambitious, self-centered Tom (Ray Wise), Catherine balks at the insensitive demands of her boyfriend during a dinner party, and leaves to go home.

Outside, a couple of thugs kidnap her in a van, and horribly disfigure her face; we later learn that she was a victim of mistaken identity, and that the criminals thought she was someone else. Left for dead in Central Park, Cathy is rescued by a mysterious, hulking figure who carries her below the streets of New York City to a fabulously appointed underground lair. Her eyes and face bandaged, she can’t see the person who is caring for her, but—rather rapidly and with almost no set-up—she comes to love her caregiver, Vincent (Ron Perlman).

Vincent resides below the city for what he believes is a very good reason: he apparently is half-lion (the series is always—and deliberately—kind of hazy on this score) and doesn’t want to be the object of pity and terror because of the way he looks.  Hiding a beautiful, tortured soul behind his mutation (heehee!), Vincent strides among the many other residents of the “Tunnel World” as their unofficial leader and protector. Naturally, Cathy is taken aback when she sees Vincent for the first time (heehee!), but she longs to stay his friend (or lover, or confidante—again, the series doesn’t want to get pinned down into something uncomfortable here). Vincent, tortured by his impossible love for Cathy (that man/cat doesn’t have one good day…), tells her that he has developed a psychic bond with her: her pain is his pain. Taking her back to the “real” world, he tells her he will always be there for her, if she needs him.

After perfect plastic surgery (which pretentiously, left one scar for Catherine to flash whenever she needs to), Cathy decides that she must do something worthwhile with her life, and takes a job as an assistant D.A. with the city. Tracking down the thugs who assaulted her, she finds out they’re part of a bigger corruption scandal involving prostitution, and decides to go after them. Catherine, hearing Vincent outside on her terrace (apparently, he’s not allowed up on the furniture), goes to him and shares one moment (soon to be many, many stolen moments) of impossible love with him. Cornered in a house with her attackers ready to kill her, Cathy’s psychic pain reaches Vincent, who immediately hops on top of a speeding subway car (I kid you not), and, bursting through the house’s door like either the Incredible Hulk or the Kool-Aid pitcher (“Oh, yeeeeeahhhh!“), literally rips apart her assailants with his razor-sharp claws, and saves her life.

There’s so many things screwy with Beauty and the Beast‘s first season that it’s hard to know where to start (maybe the ASPCA could help…).  Most damning to the show’s credibility is the producers’ insistence on keeping the true nature of Vincent and Cathy’s relationship a shadowy, unfocused—and inherently dishonest—mystery. Now, before you start emailing that I just don’t get the romantic aspects of the story, I do understand and am aware of the basic conventions of fairy tales and “romance novel” plot devices (which is what this series really is: romance novel mixed with fable and fantasy).  And of course, the granddaddy of them all is “unrequited or impossible love.” In those fictions, the obstacles in the way of the lovers are usually social conventions that must be observed, such as someone’s marriage or a class distinction between the two lovers.

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But in Beauty and the Beast, the real distinction, the obstacle that the show never really has the guts to address, is that Vincent is half animal.  A lion’s face, razor sharp talons on his paws/hands, and super-human strength all point to Vincent’s obvious mutation—all that’s missing is a tail (and yes, I know the series’ later “real” explanation of Vincent’s “condition,” but the producers obviously wanted you to think he’s half animal).  And let me assure you, the network was absolutely terrified of ever going too deeply into what viewers might perceive as Vincent’s conception; bestiality, thank god, is the last taboo a commercial TV network will ever want to tackle (although god knows nowadays…).

So what the producers would like to pass off as a mysterious, almost cosmic meeting of the minds between two tortured souls, is really a dishonest attempt to dance around—without ever really coming out and defining it—an impossible, totally improbable concept for a TV show: a half-man/half-lion sharing an intimate physical and emotional relationship with a woman. In the first episode, Cathy asks how “it” happened, and Vincent replies, “I don’t know how. I have ideas….” Yeah, well I have ideas how it happened, too, and let me tell you—it’s illegal in 43 states.

Of course, none of this would have mattered one bit if the show had even the smallest sense of irony or humor about its inane premise. But unfortunately, it doesn’t. Seldom have I ever seen a TV series take itself so seriously before, and come off so pretentious and self-satisfied. There’s no room for the viewer to breathe in this thing. The air of solemnity and doom is as oppressive as the underground world that Vincent inhabits (can someone explain why everyone dresses like the road company for Little Dorritt down there?). Where’s a little laughter, a little humor, to leaven this heavy loaf of pseudo-profundity?

As if the cursed love affair isn’t enough, we’re then hit over the head with story after story of oppressed “little people” that Cathy and Vincent save from the crushing forces of society. Carrying over the 1980s obsession with city life equaling urban hell (they called it, didn’t they?), these easy, trite little morality plays are as facile and cliched as the romance novel conventions that the show’s romance plot apes.  It doesn’t help either that Hamilton looks distinctly uncomfortable in most of her scenes, and that Perlman is constantly made to stage-whisper his whining and kvetching like a cross between Richard Harris and Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion.

Apparently, most viewers felt the same way about this pretentious, ridiculous bore.  Friday nights for families, at least, were for having a few laughs and unwinding, and they did that over on ABC, where the nascent building blocks of that network’s soon-to-be-unbeatable “TGIF” line-up were being put into place.  Who wanted to sit down with their kids at 8pm and try explain why that pretty lady wanted to kiss Mr. Whiskers the way Mommy kissed Daddy?  At 8pm, they wanted to kick off their night with shows like Full House, Perfect Strangers, and Mr. Belvedere, all of which kicked the cat crap out of Beauty and the Beast (no one much wanted to watch one-off I Married Dora).  Beauty and the Beast managed an absolutely pathetic 50th slot in the Nielsen’s and should have been put to sleep right then and there…but CBS, hoping against hope that the female demos would improve (and stinging from the tiny but vocal fan groups contacting the media), kept it on life support.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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