by Jessica Ritchey
Beauty and the Beast
Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2: “Once Upon a Time in the City of New York” and “Terrible Savior”
Original airdates: Sept. 25, 1987 and Oct. 2,1987
Beauty and the Beast is an odd choice for the remake/reboot/reimagining machine. It’s name recognition is limited to a small but devoted cult of fans aren’t too keen on any changes being made to their baby. And yet it’s also a great candidate for a remake for as memorable as it was, the limits of what a network primetime drama could be in the late eighties is felt keenly in it. Of course, all of this is moot as to why CW picked this property. They wished to squeeze a few more dollars out of the rapidly decaying corpse of Twilight. And as witness to the less than positive word of mouth coming out about the pilot they succeeded all too well.
BatB boasted an impressive number for current and future important creative names behind the scenes, notably showrunner George R.R. Martin who after his creative ambitions clashing frequently with budget overruns would turn primarily to novel writing with the Song of Ice and Fire series. Which have of course become one of the latest crown jewels in the HBO crown.
The pilot, “Once Upon a Time in the City of New York,” sets the tone of for the sumptuous, romantic ambitions of the show, with Cocteau’s version of the tale being the most obvious influence. Starting with Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) turning down an proposal from her oily fiance (played by Ray Wise!) she leaves a well heeled cocktail party and upon being mistaken for someone else, she’s dragged into a van (one of her assailants played by future That 70s Show dad Don Stark) and has her faced slashed to ribbons. Dumped in Central Park to die she is discovered by a mysterious cloaked figure (Ron Perlman) and carried through a drainage culvert emitting a strange golden light and taken to a secret place called Below.
It’s in the tunnel world that the series really differentiates itself from any kind of fantasy or drama that TV was doing at the time. Amazing production design thanks to Disney veteran John B. Mansbridge, Below is a beautiful, brass and wood and leather bound fantasia nestled in the bedrock below New York City. A proto-steampunk place, right down to the eye catching costumes, designed by Judy Evans, layers of rags hand stitched into creations that mimic the courtly dresses of knights, ladies and mages. CBS execs hated Below and were much more interested, in Martin’s words, of having a “furry Incredible Hulk” who would fight the villain of the week then retreat back into the shadows.
The strain between what creator Ron Koslow and Martin wanted to do and what CBS would tolerate would be present though the entire run. But less so in the pilot, directed by Australian exploitation auteur Richard Franklin, with an impressive cinematic look in the compositions and gorgeous lighting. The cool colors of Catherine’s world contrasting with the warm amber tones of Below. All set to a suitably lush score by Lee Holdridge sounding right out of a fifties studio picture. The feeling of watching a favorite old movie carries over to Hamilton and Perlman’s performances too as they hit the ground running with an impressive chemistry.
The pilot also neatly sets up the hook of the series, after being nursed back to health by Vincent, Catherine returns to the city and restarts her life as a grunt for the D.A.’s office. Her work often involves her finding herself cornered in an abandoned warehouse but a bond she shares with Vincent allows him to sense when she’s in trouble and rush to her rescue. It was a promising start, and ended on the tantalizing note that another major plot thread would be the authorities growing ever closer discovering the secret world.
The second aired episode “Terrible Savior” (but fourth produced) both builds on and steps back from the pilot. A vigilante dressed as “beast” is slashing subway criminals and some attempt is made to build suspense on Catherine’s fears the perpetrator might actually be Vincent. It doesn’t work and the series starts its problem of not having memorable villains or antagonists of the week. TV regular Dorian Harewood as the vigilante tries but he doesn’t sell the sense of either a man lead astray by his noble intentions or someone being consumed by the sense of their own legend. Notably weak against Vincent, and not even the best guest actor, as the sorely underused Delroy Lindo is on hand as Catherine’s self defense instructor.
Also gone is any sense of the police having an investigation into the mysterious goings-on. A sign of the struggle between the creators and CBS over the desire to tell serialized stories against network wishes to remain episodic. In the entrenched belief now that serialized is always better, it’s worth sticking up for the benefits of telling episodic stories. There can be a dulling reset button feeling, but if done well it feels like tuning in every week to a new short story set in a familiar, friendly universe. “Terrible Savior” does better on that front focusing on Lindo and Hamilton’s growing trust of each other and opening up the tunnel world with new places like the Whispering Gallery, where flickers of conversation and noise drift down from above.
Stage veteran Roy Dotrice is also given more to do as tunnel patriarch Father. His and Vincent’s relationship is one of the best things the show would do. As both play the intense, playful, prickly bond of father and son, and the buried secrets and unspoken events that have defined them.
And so, the fairy tale begins, next week we take a look at an antagonist done right and a gang that perhaps wasn’t quite ridiculous enough…
- Nice to see Broadway man, and Sondheim favorite, John McMartin as Catherine’s father. Though the theater geek in me always wishes they would find an excuse to have him sing.
- It’s a bit depressing to watch homeless scavengers have much nicer furniture and decor than you.
- You also have to wonder what’s more impossible, that the tunnel community has remained undiscovered for close to forty years, or that with all those candles everything not being covered in wax dribbles.