By Jessica Ritchey
Beauty and the Beast
Season 1, Episode 9 and 10: “Dark Spirit” and “A Children’s Story”
Original airdates: Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, 1987
Earlier this year, critic (and This Was Television contributor) Jaime Weinman wrote a typically interesting post on plots you don’t see much of anymore on TV, focusing on the once-stock sitcom episode where a character is forced by the plot to fight in a boxing ring. On the more serious side (or supposedly so), you don’t see the “Voodoo” episode much anymore in shows attempting to market themselves as dramas. And it’s understandable: while actually using Voodoo/Vodoun respectfully would be a fascinating way to use American and indigenous folklore to tell stories, most attempts to do so have not graduated beyond shock value or the racially-charged sensationalism of the ’30s. And while doing poorly by an actual belief system might be a tad more forgivable 75 years ago, it’s rather unfortunate that a TV show in 1987 offered a creaky, embarrassingly offensive episode that managed to cram in an amazingly appalling number of cliches in under an hour.
At a dinner party in a sparkling penthouse the host suddenly takes ill; imagining himself covered in insects, he flings himself out the window in terror. Called in to investigate his death, Catherine’s suspicion first falls on the man’s stone-faced butler, who stood to inherit a great deal of money. Only things are not what they seem, and when the butler appears to die of fright in custody, she is left with the growing suspicion that dark arts of some kind are involved. She turns for help to the oh-so-obvious Villain of the Week, a professor specializing in folk magic. It’s obvious Beauty and the Beast attempted to avoid some of the problematic racial overtones which can plague Voodoo stories by casting a white man as the villain, but as such things go this only winds up a bit worse. (It doesn’t help that as Prof. Ross, Cliff De Young is a terrible actor.) The whole thing underlines how much this plot device needed to be put to rest permanently.
Things don’t go much better Below, where Vincent turns to the tunnel sorceress Narcissa, played by the wonderful character actress Beah Richards, for aid. Yet it’s a shame watching Richards sidelined to doling out dire, deliberately vague warnings about evil and magic instead of actually being a interesting foil to Father’s constant, stubborn belief in reason. The show could use a sense of the supernatural, but not like this. Richards is much better than the part deserves.
Vincent’s final confrontation with the professor gives the episode a boost. Now fully mad, the professor initially sees Vincent as a Loa—a kind of Voodoo spirit—which he’s been desperate to conjure, and he reacts as much in awed delight as in horror. Their fight, as flames burn around them, has an apocalyptic edge often missing in Beauty and the Beast‘s battle scenes. But it’s too little too late, and this episode limps off to be remembered with derision by even the series’ most devoted fans.
“A Children’s Story” was actually the second episode the series produced, and airing so late in the season it has the odd feeling of resetting a lot of business we’ve already seen—Catherine and Vincent are back to being tentative around each other. Still, it’s a good, solid episode. It centers on Catherine discovering that a seemingly model orphanage is instead selling the kids off piecemeal to a pickpocket gang, led by a figure who’s Fagin by way of Newark.
The episode lucks out in finding an appealing pair of child actors to play the brother and sister who will eventually find a new home Below. Not cloying or mugging, Kamie Harper and Joshua Rudoy believably sell the fear of children navigating an unenviable situation, their fierce bond that has helped them survive, and their gentle wonder at the new world they end up in. Returning to the idea of stock plots: sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just tell a simple story well.
Next week bears witness and finds the Mouse that roared.
- Really, the most evil thing in “Dark Spirit” was the professor’s late-’80s man-perm.
- Also, rather thoughtful of Catherine—while under a hallucinogen-induced trance state—to take the time to put on tarty eye makeup and a slinky red dress, so her attempted human sacrifice would have some oomph.
- It’s clear a lot of the children we see Below are orphans. It would’ve been interesting to dive into the complicated relationships they face—do they fully integrate into the community, or do they always have one foot in the world they came from?
- The Romney/Ryan jokes are too easy with the orphanage superintendent selling kids so I’ll abstain, no need to thank me.