Who has the most body hair, Vincent or Appellate Judge Mac McEntire? Only one way to find out...
Once upon a time…is now.
Welcome to one of the great oddities of '80s television. Billed as a "modern day fairy tale," Beauty and the Beast mixed and mashed genres from all over. On the one hand, it's a classical romance, with lovers poetically stating their love for one another while in cavernous rooms filled with roses and candlelight. On the other hand, it's a superhero-ish action series, with a dark hero in a cloak bursting from out of the shadows, slicing villains to pieces with his claws. There's a legal drama aspect to the show, with an assistant district attorney fighting for what's right in a sometimes-imperfect legal system, and there's a fantasy element, with a secret underground world filled with strange characters and mysterious passageways.
Such genre-blending usually means a short life for a TV series, but Beauty and the Beast defied expectations and became a surprise hit. Not only did it earn a handful of Emmy nominations in its first year—including Best Drama and Best Actor for star Ron Perlman (Hellboy)—but it also gained status as a "water cooler show" across the country. For a while, Johnny Carson poked fun at it on a nightly basis, making jokes about the show's hero Vincent having a tail and coughing up hairballs. Beauty and the Beast's fan following is still strong today, so a Season One DVD set is a no-brainer. Does this debut season live up to our nostalgic 80s memories, or should it have stayed underground?
Facts of the Case
Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is an up-and-coming lawyer living the high life with the wealthy elite in New York City. But one night, she is attacked, and her face is mutilated by some crooks, who leave her for dead in the streets. She's rescued, though, and nursed to health by an individual named Vincent. Because her face is bandaged, Catherine can't see him, but they instantly connect by speaking to one another. Catherine learns that Vincent is part of a secret society of outcasts living in tunnels far beneath the city. This group is led by a man known only as "Father" (Roy Dotrice, Swimming with Sharks), who raised Vincent since he was abandoned as a baby at the steps of St. Vincent's Hospital—hence his name.
When Catherine gets her sight back, she quickly discovers the truth. Vincent is not human, but a beastly man-lion creature. Although she initially reacts with fear, Vincent's deep, sensitive soul reaches her, and the two of them form a powerful bond. Despite their many differences, Vincent and Catherine's love is rich and eternal.
Upon returning home, Catherine gets a job as an assistant district attorney, newly devoted to helping those in need. She also takes a self defense course, learning the fine art of New York street fightin'. But her connection with Vincent is also a psychic one, so that whenever she's in more danger than she can handle, he senses it and rushes to her rescue, even if it means he risks discovery by the world above.
That banging sound coming from my bathroom pipes turned out to be a Morse code message. I decoded it and found this episode list:
• "Once Upon a Time in New York"
• "Terrible Savoir"
• "No Way Down"
• "The Beast Within"
• "Nor Iron Bars a Cage"
• "Song of Orpheus"
• "Dark Spirit"
• "A Children's Story"
• "An Impossible Silence"
• "Shades of Gray"
• "China Moon"
• "The Alchemist"
• "Promises of Someday"
• "Down to a Sunless Sea"
• "Everything is Everything"
• "To Reign in Hell"
• "A Happy Life"
Almost all of the screen romances that have come out of Hollywood since, oh, I'm guessing the '60s have been romantic comedies, where "cute" is a far more potent ingredient than "emotional longing." But Beauty and the Beast goes the opposite route, so that Catherine and Vincent take their love very seriously. When they are alone together, they're professing their undying feelings of eternal love for one another. You'd think the writers would have the two of them race off to the bedroom for some naked woman-on-beast action; but no. Aside from some hand-holding, a head on a shoulder, and the occasional embrace, there's not a lot of physicality to their relationship. Their lovemaking is with their poetic declarations of love, and their wistful gazes into each others' eyes. This is bound to strike some of today's cynical viewers as stodgy and old-fashioned. But, miraculously, it works. This is due to two reasons. One, it's the creators' intent to be old-fashioned, what with the "modern fairy tale" tone they're going for. Second, it's because of the acting.
Take, for example, this sample of dialogue from the Halloween episode:
Vincent: "I've lived here all my life, and yet it is as though I
have never seen this city…until tonight."
Comes across as a little ludicrous when you read it on screen, doesn't it? After all, no one actually talks like this. But I'll be damned if Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton don't sell it. Consider for a moment Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Yeah, I know, these writers can't hold a candle to good ol' Shake, but just bear with me. The balcony scene from R&J is so famous that it reads like an all-time greatest hits list of romantic clichés. Any actors who take on that scene are risking looking like fools in front of an audience. But when you get two actors and a director who really know what they're doing, they can make the most overused dialogue ever written sound natural and heartfelt. Trust me, I've seen it happen. Perlman and Hamilton have a similar effect here. As cornball as their lines might be, these actors deliver them in such a way that we the audience believe they genuinely mean what they're saying. In the hands of any other two actors, this show would have been a failed joke. Perlman and Hamilton deserve all the credit for how the show struck a chord with so many viewers.
At the start of every episode, Vincent describes the qualities in Catherine that he finds so appealing—her caring and her courage. Vincent is right, as usual. Although it's not discussed often after the first episode, it's clear how much of a transformative effect the violent attack had on Catherine. She gives up the swanky life (but not her super-posh high rise apartment) for a less-than-highbrow job, but it's one in which she strives to help others in any way she can. Obviously, she wishes to protect others from the same type of attack that happened to her. This is why she so fearlessly puts herself in danger. She'll take whatever risk she has to if it means helping someone. Also, although she gets rescued by Vincent on a regular basis, that doesn't mean she can't take care of herself. One of my favorite aspects of the character is her self defense training. In the early episodes, she gets to beat up on the criminal thugs with just as much ferocity as Vincent does. This "any object can be a deadly weapon when in her hands" element fades away into the background as episodes progress, but it helps to know that Catherine is a lot more than just a fragile, wilting flower waiting for her clawed, snarling boyfriend to run to her aide.
Ron Perlman gets to have the fun part, portraying the brooding, wise-beyond-his-years hero. When Vincent enters a room, it's not just an actor hitting his mark, it's an event. There are a lot of shots of Vincent in a doorway, his face covered by his tattered black cloak, with golden light spilling in from behind him. Perlman's face is covered by tons of makeup and long, mane-like hair, so he does a lot of acting with his eyes, just like good actors know how to do. Vincent speaks in a breathy, almost whispery voice. The intent of this is no doubt to make female viewers swoon, but Vincent's voice also reveals how much of a gentle, compassionate soul he is under his animal-like exterior. I can only imagine how lonely and empty he must have been before Catherine entered his life. Sure, he is an admired protector of his underground community, but thanks to Catherine, he is able to have new experiences and adventures instead of just lurking around the sewer acting all gloomy. And even though he likes to stand around making speech after speech about his undying love, Vincent is still pretty cool. He might be part man and part lion, but he's also part Batman. Seeing Vincent go into action hero mode is a glorious thing. Any Bat-fan will no doubt enjoy seeing Vincent skulking around the city shadows, emerging only to beat the living carrot cake out of evil-doers. He's a sensitive romantic and a butt-kicker for justice rolled into one.
It's more or less a given that in any story set in New York, the city becomes a character. That's the case here as well, with an interesting twist. As depicted in Beauty and the Beast, the geography of the city is divided into three layers. The top layer is high society, where Catherine is a "princess," to continue the "fairy tale" metaphor. Here, the creators like to get Catherine dressed up in classy evening gowns and have her attend highbrow functions. It all looks very nice, but there's another side to this, hidden from view. There's almost always corruption brewing under the surface, and it's usually in this setting that we're introduced to the villain of the week. The middle layer of the city is street-level New York, which is, sadly, depicted as a crime- and poverty-ridden hellhole. The set designers have crammed the city streets with all manner of filth and debris in every background, suggesting it to be a chaotic, nightmarish place. Even the subway cars are riddled with trash and graffiti. Hiding here, though, are down on their luck folks just barely struggling to get by. These are the ones that Catherine strives so hard to help, and she's always there to remind us that there are good, hard-working people at this level, and she'll do everything in power to protect them. The final layer of the city exists far below the ground, where Father leads a utopia of sorts. As we gradually learn more and more about the world below, we learn that it too has laws of its own, especially with regards as to who is and isn't invited to belong. A lot of effort is made to make this world look like home. Scenes here are almost always bathed in a golden light, to provide a feeling of warmth. Although it's never explained why the people who live down there dress like renaissance fair rejects, it's shown that they are a community that cares for one another, and that each one has a reason and a purpose there. It's the opposite of the superficial world at the top of the city, in which no one can be trusted and corruption is rampant. Down below is a place where anyone can be themselves—even a beast.
There's some romanticism in the thought of a group of people secretly living far beneath a large city. I feel that this is because it speaks to people's fascination with the unknown. Walking down the sidewalk in a large city, you know that there are vast tunnels beneath you, such as the subways and the sewers. You know these tunnels can be something of a labyrinth, and there are those who work there, spending all day wandering these otherwise unseen caverns. We know nothing about them or their lives, so we speculate. All right, we already instinctively know that subway maintenance is hard labor, and sewer work is less than glamorous, and yet our imagination still races at the thought of would-be adventurers exploring dark passageways while millions of people in the city above them have go about their daily lives, unaware of their exploits. These underground dwellers have appeared all over speculative fiction—they've been mutant morlocks, refugee murderers, criminal masterminds, floating markets and, that's right, ninja turtles. In Beauty and the Beast the underworld mythology isn't explored very much at first, with most of the early plots focused on the cases Catherine investigates. As the season progresses, though, it's as if the writers slowly wake up to what a great opportunity for stories the world below represents, and we start learning more and more about it. There's a bridge where Vincent can somehow hear "the voice of the city." We meet Pascal (Armin Shimerman, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), who oversees this world's elaborate Morse code network. We even get glimpses that this underground world extends much deeper and farther than initially indicated, such as when Vincent and Catherine pay a visit to an enormous underground lake in one episode.
Does all this praise mean Beauty and the Beast is a perfect series? Not so much. The show takes itself very seriously, with almost no humor or lighter moments. There are a handful of times when it gets too cheesy for its own good. But thanks to the earnestness of the actors, and the overall "sense of wonder" feeling it contains, it's compulsively watchable, and a fun relic of '80s fantasy. If this sounds like your kind of thing, then check it out. If not, at least give it a try. You might be surprised.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The original tapes must have been buried in Paracelsus' vault for the last 20 years, because this DVD transfer is seriously hurting. The image here is overly soft—and not soft in a romantic way, but in a "someone just sneezed on the camera lens" way. Add to that a significant amount of nicks and grain, and you've got a subpar visual presentation. In the episode "Promises of Someday," there's a big reveal when Catherine finds a message carved into a wall. But the picture quality is so bad that I couldn't tell what word was carved there. (To be fair, it wasn't that big of a surprise.) The mono sound is decent, but when Vincent lets out his lion's roar, I want to hear it booming out of all my speakers, making the floors rumble and waking up the neighbors. Instead, what we get is unimpressive. I'm sure if the DVD producers were here, they'd make a big speech about how they did the best they could with what they had, but I don't know. We've seen miraculous restorations of films and TV shows much more obscure than this from companies much smaller than Paramount. The fans have waited a long time for this release. They deserve better.
Similarly, there are no extras. Oh, wait, on the first disc there's one of those trailers that lists a bunch of upcoming releases at once. So for all intents and purposes, there are no extras. I get that Perlman and Hamilton moved on to bigger and more fame-inducing projects, but how about seeking out some of the writers and directors? George R.R. Martin contributed several scripts to the series, and as of this writing, his Game of Thrones books are in currently development as a series, so he'd be a great choice to comment here. Also, makeup and special effects whiz Rick Baker (The Howling) created Vincent's catlike look, so he would have been another excellent voice to add to this set. There are another one and a half seasons to go, so there's still hope that future volumes will include some looks behind the scenes.
"You two share something quite extraordinary. Something that touches the
best in all of us."
There's no way a "perfect love" like Vincent's and Catherine's could ever really exist, but it certainly makes for a nice fantasy, as does the thought of a secret tunnel-dwelling society and a savage lion-like superhero. Beauty and the Beast gives us a chance to indulge those fantasies, even if it's just for a little while.
Beauty and the Beast: The Complete First Season is found not guilty. For this shoddy DVD release, though, Paramount must face Vincent's wrath.
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