Wednesday, February 21, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 28: Beauty and the Beast (1987): "Once Upon a Time in the City of New York

Twenty years ago, all the way back in 1987, a fairy tale came to vivid and beautiful life on our television sets. This was the year that Star Trek returned (The Next Generation), but it was also the year that the story of "Beauty and the Beast" was re-imagined for prime-time television on CBS. The series ran for three years and drew good ratings for a time. More to the point, it earned a great deal of fan devotion. Now - at long last - the romantic vision returns, this time on DVD.

Today, watching the pilot episode of the series for the first time in two decades, one can determine clearly why the series was so beloved. Beauty and the Beast is indeed a fairy tale, a very specific form of "escapism." Accordingly the series opens with a delightful conjunction of fantasy and reality. The opening legend reads: "Once upon a time," the classic first line of all great fairy tales, and then adds for good measure " the city of New York," thus making viewers aware this will be a modern story. In other words, a fairy tale with a twist.

In 1987 (as today...) we desperately needed good, moral fairy tales like the one this series provided. Urban crime rates were at their highest in (recorded) American history, and the "greed is good decade" had taken its toll on the country and the economy. At the top of the social ladder were the yuppies - young upwardly mobile professionals - vying for stock options and corner offices, and at the bottom of the heap were Ronald Reagan's forgotten Americans, the homeless whom publicly he deemed "homeless by choice." Their ranks swelled in the 1980s. By the millions. This was also the time of Gordon Gekko, or in real life, Ivan Boesky. It was an era when criminals made millions on Wall Street, and when violent wildings occurred in Central Park. It was a time (much like today...) of fear. And, it must be pointed out, Beauty and the Beast came to television just when racism - and racial tension - was again becoming major national news. There was the Howard Beach incident of December 20, 1986 and the Tawana Brawley incident of November 28, 1987, to name but two such attention-grabbing headlines. But the issue was clear: the racial divide had not been healed in America. And what is "racism" if not the "fear of the other," the person who is "different" from one's self? Beauty and The Beast successful addresses and incorporates all these facets of American culture in the late 1980s, and so today practically reads as a time capsule of the epoch.

So imagine if you will, one Friday night in 1987. When - without warning or preamble - a glorious world appears on your television set, a classic fairy tale made modern and relevant. In this first episode by Ron Koslow (and directed by the brilliant Richard Franklin, of Psycho 2 fame), the ugly "above" world of New York, that of corporations and yuppies, is revealed (literally...) to be a nightmare for lead character Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton). She's stuck with a smarmy business-man fiancee, Tom (Ray Wise), working a thankless job as a corporate lawyer, and wondering what her life is really all about. After an argument with Tom, Catherine leaves a party early one night and runs smack into the realities of street crime. She's abducted by several thugs, taken to a van...and cut with a knife. Her face scarred, she's dumped in a park and left to die...bleeding. Later, when she re-imagines this crime as a dream phantasm, Catherine sees Tom and his circle of friends mocking her. Her co-workers do so as well. They have no sympathy for the victim of a violent crime, and instead mock her. Why? Well, because she's scarred, and in 1980s America (the U.S.A. of aerobics and Perfect [1985]) the one thing you can't be if you hope to be ugly.

Near death that terrible night, Catherine is miraculously rescued by an unusual stranger. On this strange, fog-shrouded evening, a colossal, shadowy figure named Vincent rescues her and brings her to his subterranean home, to the world underneath. To the world where the poor and disenfranchised live...unnoticed....forgotten. But Vincent's world, beneath the city and beneath the subways, is not one of sadness, desolation or hopelessness. On the contrary, as he establishes to Catherine quite early in the show, "You're safe here." In this underworld, he claims "no one can hurt you." Which is quite different from the street crime above, and the white-collar crime of Tom's world. Catherine feels safe there, and begins a friendship with Vincent, who reads to her passages from Great Expectations while her wounds heal.

You probably know the rest of the story. Vincent (Ron Perlman) is a survivor too, a strange, hulking lion-man. And he develops a bond with Catherine, an empathic one. So that even once she's healed and returned to the world above (now re-born with purpose as a crusading district attorney...), he is still "bonded" to her.

That synopsis may sound cheesy, but this is a fantasy after all, and a lovely one at that. Vincent makes for a glorious hero, not just physically powerful, but also gentle and intellectual and highly moral. And Catherine, of course, is strong and resourceful. A perfect fantasy (and TV couple). But what makes Beauty and the Beast such a wonderful and rewarding viewing experience, even today, isn't just the romance, it's the very world the TV series so carefully forges. Like Star Trek, this is a highly moral universe, one about people who work hard to do the right thing and take care of each other. Even when it isn't easy to do that. It's a fantasy utopia, in a sense, but Beauty and the Beast crafts a world, like that of the 23rd Century, that viewers can feel good about escaping to.

With admiration, I noted how Koslow's screenplay for the pilot creates the character of Vincent and how Perlman interprets it. He's a man of deep feelings, with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong. Unlike many heroes of our cynical time, when Vincent commits violence, it's clear he feels shame. Here, we see it in a close-up of his eyes after he's killed a thug trying to hurt Catherine. For him, violence isn't something to be relished. No, it's part of his dark side; not the good side that his father (Roy Dotrice) says boasts "the soul of a doctor." I also like how Vincent sees New York, or "the world above." It's a world of "frightened people," he says, where his face - a different face - reflects the "aloneness" of others. This is great fairy tale stuff, and almost explicitly a comment on racism. Vincent hides in the shadows, lives in darkness, not because he is ugly (he isn't...), but merely because he is different. And differences - in this world - are to be feared.

Although now twenty years old, Beauty and the Beast, especially in this pilot (the only episode of the set I've watched so far...), is dominated by great production values and filled with wondrous sets. There are long spiral staircases leading down, down into the golden-bronze underworld. There are libraries stacked with books, cut from solid rock. In one iconic shot composed entirely for its visual poetry and dynamism, Catherine is depicted walking away from Vincent - in silhouette - into a blue ray of light.

Also, there's a brilliantly crafted moment in the middle of the show wherein Vincent begins to describe the fairy tale world beneath the city, "where the people care for one another." Instead of focusing on a close-up of the character, or of Catherine, for that matter, director Franklin chooses instead to to pan across Vincent's room...a place of books and trinkets and statuary. We "see" the world he is describing as he describes it. Many moments in this pilot feel equally cinematic.

The writing here is also surprisingly good...and often downright poetic. There will be those cynics who can't stomach the genuine sense of romance on display here, the slightly purple prose, the syrupy music. Yet Beauty and the Beast isn't just a fairy tale, it's a romance...a love story. So, if you ask me, the violins are perfectly appropriate, and even welcome. And I believe the series writers' were correct to make Vincent speak in a manner of almost Shakespearean classicism and greatness. The purpose of a program like this is indeed "wish fulfillment," the idea that we can step into a tunnel and walk into a utopian world below the streets, Vincent's world. It would not be appealing or interesting if everyone there spoke in the exact same manner as those of the "above" world.

No, the romance between Catherine and Vincent is timeless, tragic and touching, and therefore their mode of expression must be grand, rarefied and poetic. We've seen sparks fly on television before (the banter of Moonlighting, the back and forth of The X-Files), but rarely before (and rarely since...) has a love story been vetted for the masses with such an august sense of style, and such an authentic heartbeat. There's a literary feeling to the writing here that is almost startling. The dialogue feels like it would be better read in a book then actually spoken by actors. But, by the same token, it's highly individual and original...a look and feel all it's own. Some people really won't like it, or may term it over-the-top and corny. But hey, I can appreciate a show that wears it's heart on its sleeve. And I hope you can too. If you can, experience Beauty and the Beast again. All you'll need to enjoy it is an open heart.

And a box of kleenex.


  1. Anonymous11:34 AM

    Thank you for capturing the heart and soul of this show. It's nice to read a review by someone who gets it. The active fans of the show still practice charitable works in connection with the fandom. - tunnelbrat

  2. Anonymous10:03 PM

    I just read your thoughts on Beauty and the Beast and it's truly heartbreaking what television has been reduced to since Vincent and Catherine were ripped from our very lives.

    I can't thank you enough for your expression - you hit the nail on the head.

    Do you think we will ever see the likes of B&B revived again on screen? It would almost seem sinful to bring it back without the quality of content that it had.