BEAST, THE (TV SERIES) – DVD review

Like most law enforcement television shows these days, “The Beast: The Complete First Season” is super slick. Everyone has a shiny cell phone, loaded weapon, fancy car, trendy laptop computer and the ability to fire back a response to what someone else just said as though it was, well, planned out on paper. This isn’t “The Streets of San Francisco” with Michael Douglas or “In the Heat of the Night” with Carroll O’Connor. No, this is “The Beast” with Patrick Swayze, and while it falls right in with other law enforcement television programs you’re likely familiar with, the slight differences in characters, themes and settings help it stand apart.

The late Swayze is the star, and rightfully so. Never having followed his career extremely closely, I always remembered him as that nice looking fellow who took up some rather interesting and entertaining roles. I don’t know where “The Beast” will rank in his many different undertakings, but for my money, the most memorable Swayze moment was in the 1990 romantic drama “Ghost.” There’s a stretch where he butchers the Herman’s Hermits 1965 cover of “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” to no end, all to persuade Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) to deliver a message to his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore). Hopefully you got a laugh or two there, because there aren’t many moments to grin during “The Beast.” If you did so, Swayze’s character, Charles Barker, would probably clock you in the chin.

Set in present day Chicago, “The Beast” is a gritty, dirt under your fingernails take on undercover federal law enforcement. Barker is a veteran FBI agent who blends in undercover more naturally than most criminals can detect. He isn’t afraid to get up early, stay up late or tell you what he thinks straight to your face. There is little small talk with Barker, and while his all business personality may not be that enticing to deal with, it gets results. Barker’s latest assignment is to train and mentor Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), a hot shot FBI rookie who, according to their boss Harry Conrad (Kevin J. O’Connor), might just be the next Barker. Dove may be a rookie by experience, but his skills leave little to question. He’s a sharp shooter with military experience and extreme self-discipline. Still slightly rough around the edges, Dove intends to soak up Barker’s skill and knowledge like a Shamwow! However, Barker is old school, and believes learning by experience is the best way to get your feet wet. He puts Dove in impossible situations, always ensuring he remains a step ahead and within earshot, just in case his expertise or experience is required.

The series is balanced between Barker and Dove’s adventures and their relationship as partners. It doesn’t lean totally one direction or the other, generating a fine medium between plot lines and character development. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen the rookie and veteran paired together. If you saw and liked “Training Day” (2001), you’ll probably relate to and enjoy “The Beast” as well. Swayze is almost perfectly cast in this A&E television series. He essentially plays himself: an experienced, older fellow with many stories to tell and struggles survived, always wanting a challenge to stimulate his mind and push his skill set to its limit. If you appreciated Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe in the long running “Law & Order” series, you’ll appreciate what Swayze brings to the table. Likewise, Fimmel is solid as an inexperienced Dove. It’s clear he’s passionate about what he does, and doesn’t really act as cocky as he could with a loaded skill set like his, except when he’s undercover. Dove lives under constant pressure, and his stress level is probably boiling over, but he realizes his work is performed for a greater good.

Although each episode has its own plotline, there are two introduced in the very beginning that linger in all thirteen shows. Unsurprisingly, Dove bumps into an attractive lady named Rose Lawrence (Lindsay Pulsipher) when coming into his apartment complex. He likes her immediately, and although shy and reserved, she wants to get to know him. The two go back and forth with casual awkwardness throughout the series for two reasons: Dove can’t open up to her and tell her the truth about what he does for a living, while Rose is a law student battling for respect to offset her good looks and genuine persona. It’s an interesting dynamic that’s appropriately placed. Their relationship doesn’t ever dominate an episode, but instead gives a nice chance for Dove (and for viewers) to breathe between undercover jobs.

Secondly, Dove is approached by a half-dozen well-dressed internal FBI agents who tell him Barker is under close surveillance from the top. Many suspect Barker has taken the law into his own hands on more than one occasion, and his actions have drawn attention from different corners within the Bureau. Dove rejects these accusations on the spot, but begins some independent, off the record research on Barker. He is put into the most awkward situation possible, and it falls upon an already grueling lifestyle and occupation. Dove remains loyal to Barker despite what he’s heard, but is determined to do his job in a just and honest regard.

“The Beast: The Complete First Season” first aired in January 2009 and stopped in April that same year. In June, the show was abandoned because Swayze’s pancreatic cancer treatment had progressed to a point where he could not balance its demands and the rigor associated with six-day workweeks. The thirteen episodes, spread over three DVDs, each run plus or minus forty-five minutes without commercial interruptions.

Here’s a disc and episode breakdown:

DISC ONE
Episode 1 – “The Beast” – Barker and Dove, still getting to know one another and feeling out their relationship, must infiltrate and unearth an illegal weapons ring by baiting the criminals with a powerful rocket launcher they borrow long term from the FBI storage locker.

Episode 2 – “Two Choices” – The duo are after a hot lead on a valuable and violent drug deal. To get the job done, they need the recently captured dealer back on Chicago’s streets as bait. But when a newly retired Chicago police officer and unhappy father enters the picture, things change rapidly.

Episode 3 – “Nadia” – Dove breaks the cardinal rule in law enforcement and befriends a victim: a prostitute who sold her child to the Romanian black market’s human trafficking gang. Can he and Barker get the boy back and apprehend the traffickers in time?

Episode 4 – “Infected” – Two cases plague the pair in this episode. A massive jewelry heist and deadly infectious virus might be more closely linked than originally thought.

DISC TWO
Episode 5 – “The Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo” – A super smart nuclear scientist needs to be kept alive so he can testify about his research, and Barker and Dove are just the men to perform the task.

Episode 6 – “Hothead” – More internal politics abound when a disloyal and rogue agent surfaces. Barker seeks out the agent’s former love interest, and Dove goes undercover at his rich and profitable security company.

Episode 7 – “Capone” – Dove switches partners while Barker heads undercover with a violent drug gang. Both are working to find another FBI office that’s recently gone missing.

Episode 8 – “Mercy” – Dove takes this case personally as homeless veterans turn up as murder victims. All the while, Barker gets into character on Chicago’s streets, seeking answers to questions about the suspects.

DISC THREE
Episode 9 – “The Walk In” – Dove is set-up to crash and burn by another jealous agent, making his and Barker’s task of bringing down a Chinese spy who’s busy posing as a university professor slightly more difficult.

Episode 10 – “Tilt” – The pair are charged with protecting a confidential informant from an assassin who tempts them with a high stakes poker game.

Episode 11 – “My Brother’s Keeper” – Some nasty Irish organized crime families looking to expand their operation only have two men standing in their way, and they aren’t there to play house.

Episode 12 – “Counterfeit” – Someone sets up Barker to take a murder charge, and in response he disappears. Rather than rely on Dove to unearth him, the FBI finds another tough character to fill this void.

Episode 13 – “No Turning Back” – Has a case that’s been wearing on Barker for his entire career finally caught up with him? Is Dove’s devotion to his job and partner valid? How far will Barker go to find six rogue agents before they get to him?

The episodes are fun to watch, fast paced and entertaining. There are a few small flaws with timing and writing, but the action’s emphasis easily compensates for them. Both Barker and Dove live in basically run down apartment dwellings, which is fascinating considering how much this work likely pays. But I suppose with a regularly irregular work schedule, there isn’t much time to spend any of it. “The Beast” has plenty going for it in season one, which makes its abandonment, and Swayze’s death, so much more difficult to swallow.

Video:
Chicago hasn’t looked this good on a television screen for quite some time. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is extremely crisp and vivid. The daytime scenes are bright and vibrant, while the late night scenes are super clear despite the darkness. You can easily pick up objects and characters in the distance, but are never so distracted from the foreground that you stop paying attention. Both Swayze and Fimmel are attractive fellows with eyes that seem to sparkle in this transfer, be it day or night.

Audio:
Three different audio tracks accompany “The Beast.” The Dolby Digital English 5.1 soundtrack is loud and fulfilling. Also included are Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks in Spanish and Portuguese. You’ll have no trouble hearing spoken words, gunshots, car engines or explosions during any episode. The sounds you’d anticipate in any big city are there too, as is a decent musical soundtrack that mimics the action on screen quite nicely. The series is subtitled in Portuguese, Spanish and French.

Extras:
Each episode includes a behind the scenes featurette that gives some additional insight on the episode and series. Perhaps the most interesting insight to be had is that Swayze brought a few personal firearms with him, and each was adapted for the series to fire blanks. There are some interviews, some neat production nuggets and a laugh or two, but nothing super special or out of the box. I imagine if folks had known this was to be Swayze’s final appearance on screen before his death, more goodies would be available.

A Final Word:
I enjoyed “The Beast” because it isn’t perfect, but seems comfortable with that approach. Barker and Dove are deeper men than you might first think, and a small plot twist or turn every so often only enhances the entertainment value. It’s pretty rough stuff, but I can’t imagine Swayze wanting to go out any other way. This is a well-balanced television series that doesn’t lean too much on one plot device, one character, one theme or one relationship. There’s an authentic dynamic between Swayze and Fimmel, and the mentor to mentee relationship receives a new volume on its shelf as a result.

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