Here’s the thing, I know a lot of people are going to really want to like The CW’s Beauty and the Beast, and be furious with me for cutting it down like this. But I have way too much respect for you guys to try and steer you toward a show that has nothing of immediate value to offer. I would love to tell you that this show is the next coming, but this premiere is truly too dire to recommend. However, to discover why, we have to back track a little…
Firstly, I can’t think of a more superficial network than The CW, a network whose brand pretty much boils down to “beautiful people in increasingly outrageous situations with little deviation from that formula.” Of course, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if the show you’re presenting has legitimate appeal with a host of interesting, if occasionally outlandish, plotlines (The Vampire Diaries) or if it’s a zeigest-y commercial hit (Gossip Girl). But Beauty and the Beast, a remake of the 1980s romance/detective thriller starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, isn’t really either of those things. Short answer, the series is pretty appalling on its face. Is it the worst show I’ve ever seen? Absolutely not. And I actually don’t think it’s impossible for this show to dig itself out of the considerable rut it’s made for itself. But I’d be doing you all a disservice if I pretended that this premiere was anything but the hot mess it turned out to be. The show encapsulates most of what’s wrong with the network, and why Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and, to a much lesser extent, America’s Next Top Model, are the only shows The CW can point to as successes (particularly now that One Tree Hill and Smallville are gone).
Catherine Chandler (Kristin Kreuk) is a detective in the NYPD who quit her bartending job nine years earlier to get into law enforcement after her mother was murdered outside the bar while helping jump start her car battery. The killers gave chase through the woods and were about to kill Cat too when a mysterious shadow came out of nowhere and rescued her by slaughtering the would-be killers (well, I guess they aren’t “would-be” killers if they successfully killed her mother, but I digress). Her investigation of the murder of a magazine executive (this show is a procedural, by the way, because I guess the original show technically was too, and also because, whatever, why the hell not?) leads her straight into the lair of our beast, a man named Vincent Keller (Jay Ryan), who’s a hunk even by the highest standards of CW network attractiveness. Right away, the reveal of Vincent kind of throws the entire premise of the show into question, since the central conceit of Beauty and the Beast is that it’s the story of a woman learning to love a man in spite of his outward appearance and rage-filled nature. Here, we just get the rage.
And rage, he does. Turns out it’s less Beauty and the Beast and more Jekyll and Hyde, as Vincent hulks out rather unpredictably. I’ll give them this: his “beast form” actually doesn’t look half bad at all. There’s a sense that the entire bone structure in his face has changed, and the relatively subdued scar on the right side of his face in his human state suddenly grows twisted and gnarly upon his transformation. The problem is that budgetary constraints mean we hardly ever get to see the “Beast” form, and when we do, he’s cloaked in shadow half the time. Normally, I would give a show the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was a creative choice, to illustrate the secretive nature of Vincent and his past, but the episode more or less gives us his entire backstory straight away.
His rage is apparently the result of a military experiment gone terribly awry. When Vincent loses his brother in the World Trade Center attacks (because it’s not enough to offend viewers on a purely aesthetic level, we have to bring 9/11 into it now), he enlists in the military. Upon being deployed, he’s enrolled in a program that seeks to alter the physical chemistry of its subjects. Vincent’s altered state means it’s exceedingly difficult for him to reintegrate into society, and he’s spent the better part of his time back in the loft apartment of his friend and colleague, with whom he’s researching a potential antidote. We also learn that Vincent was a doctor before joining the military, which Catherine deduces when Vincent reveals that he attempted to give the murder victim CPR, in one of the episode’s most ridiculous conceits. Apparently, Vincent has been secretly watching (see also: stalking) Cat. As it happens, he is the one who rescued Cat on the fateful night of her mother’s murder nine years ago. Vincent claims to know nothing about why the men did what they did, but he later confesses that Cat need not feel guilty over causing her mother’s death, since the men were apparently after her mother anyway.
This potential romance is troubling in that it occasionally shows signs of indulging in the worst narrative excesses of the Twilight school of female character development: Catherine can see that Vincent is really a kind, generous soul, even though he’s given to frequent bouts of rage and dammit, you just don’t understand him like I do. And whereas Twilight (well, the movies, at least) undercut its narrative with a heavy layer of camp, this series seems to be playing it straight, and I can’t imagine why that is, when the show could actually be fun if it just gave a sly wink and a nod, and kept an air of ironic enthusiasm about itself. It could help the romance substantially if the show oozed the sex and frills-infused value of a show like True Blood, since Kreuk and Ryan do have something very close to chemistry onscreen together. But instead of a lighter, more knowing tone, we get mock-serious moments like Cat being shadowed by a team of agents who attack her in the subway, leading to a fight that attempts to present an exhilarating, manic fight, but stumbles due to the coupling of shaky-cam filming and abrupt cuts in the editing, which causes the fight to come across as a jumbled, yet still over-choreographed mess. Frankly, an action-heavy genre show like NBC’s Revolution has the same shaky-cam problem, but its action scenes are vastly more compelling, owing to a more visceral, kinetic nature in how they’re edited and choreographed, given the impression of a real fight (in fact, the best moment of the fight in the Beauty and the Beast premiere is when Cat finishes off one of her attackers with a straight right cross to the jaw, which splatters blood onto the camera. It actually felt, in that moment, like something that was realer than presented). Here, the fight is too balletic, and it’s further hampered by the fact that Kristin Kreuk isn’t all that convincing in her role.
Kristin Kreuk and Nina Lisandrello (as Cat’s partner, Tess Vargas) are a weirdly stunted duo onscreen as detectives. The dialogue has them saying relatively competent detective phrases, but neither actress has the gravitas to make it sound convincing. Lisandrello, in particular, lays on the New York accent so thickly you could pour it on a stack of pancakes. She’s possibly the least convincing cop since Paul Blart, and it has absolutely nothing to do with her being a woman, and everything in the world to do with the lack of a substantive performance to elevate the material on the page.
I just can’t recommend Beauty and the Beast, even as trainwreck television. Maybe if dark, mysterious, broody narratives are your thing, but even then, there’s about a thousand other TV shows, books, movies, even video games that do this story better. The story is only Beauty and the Beast in the most superficial sense, yet it could stand to be more compelling if it actually ignored The CW’s “young and gorgeous” casting initiative and went with a less immediately-beautiful lead whose strength was his acting. Ryan isn’t nearly as bad in the role as some critics might tell you, but he doesn’t inspire much confidence in his skills going forward. Again, I could appreciate the show if it had been an interesting failure, at least, but it fails to aspire even to that threadbare measure. Could Beauty and the Beast get better? Sure. I don’t really think any show is beyond fixing, except maybe for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. But the real question is whether the show will even get the chance to improve. The CW is a more ratings-conscious network than most, so Beauty and the Beast is really going to have to rely upon its Vampire Diaries lead-in to pull in big enough numbers that the network decides to keep it around. But trust me, if the show makes a quality turn-around, I’ll be the first person to let you know, because, as much as it seems to be to the contrary, I’m not actually rooting for this show to fail. I’d love for every show I’m tasked with reviewing to be great. But as of right now, I just can’t recommend this. You guys (hell, all of us) deserve better TV than this.