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I have now watched two episodes of the new A&E series “The Beast,” which begins at 10 p.m. Thursday on A&E, and I am just filled with questions.


How many brain cells did I lose watching two episodes of “The Beast”?


If Patrick Swayze’s character - a grizzled, plays-by-his-own-rules FBI veteran named Charles Barker - really is going “deep undercover” in this series, then why do half the scenes in the first episode of “The Beast” take place along the Chicago River ... one of the most photographed and surveilled places on earth?


Why does Swayze’s naive young partner (Travis Fimmel) enter a subway station at night and in emerge from that same train 15 minutes later in broad daylight?


Why, in a city of 3 million people, does Swayze’s partner keep running into the same interesting girl at every coffee shop and bar he frequents?


Why is A&E so aggressively seeking out the low road with a violent, conspiracy-laden cop show reminiscent of the short-lived Fox series “K-Ville”?


Why am I starting to think I was a little rough on “K-Ville”?


The answer to all these questions, I suspect, is that no one really cares. No one at A&E really cares about continuity errors, or that Swayze can’t actually fire a shoulder-mounted RPG from inside a Chicago office building, or that the FBI internal affairs office would never waste this much money and manpower to investigate whether Barker might be a rogue cop.


The network brass probably figure, if the viewers don’t care whether Criss Angel is a charlatan or not, why should they care if “The Beast” bears any semblance to reality?


Well, other than the fact that the network’s official slogan is “Real Life. Drama.”


Perhaps the producers are hoping to entice some of the millions of fans of Fox’s “24,” the ultraviolent government conspiracy cartoon that returns for its delayed seventh season at 8 p.m. Sunday.


But here’s the difference between “24” and “The Beast”: “24” has earned the right to play it fast and loose with reality. When the announcement appears on screen, “Events occur in real time,” we know perfectly well that they do not. Indeed, there is so much plot compression going on before the first commercial break, I’m mildly surprised they didn’t just hook everybody up to one of those Time Machines that TV stations sometimes use to speed up sitcoms.


Speaking of comedy, the new sidekicks at FBI headquarters - Jack Bauer’s old haunts at CTU have been disbanded, and this season of “24” will be based in Washington, D.C. - aren’t anything to write home about, either. Janeane Garofalo plays a bureau data wrangler who responds to being at the center of the biggest security breach in history by taking a moment to center her chi.


Her subordinate, played by Rhys Coiro, hates his job so much that he’s surly to everybody, including Bauer, who has the temerity to ask to look at the same confidential document twice.


These cliche “24” characters join a host of other overused conventions that announce themselves in the first 60 minutes: the strong-minded but vulnerable president (Cherry Jones) whose ability to manage an international crisis is tested by some dumb family member; blinking, late-20th-century computer screens that tell the bad guys (and us) exactly what they need to know; yes, and even our old friend Torture makes a cameo appearance in the first hour.


There is a distinctly 2002 feel to this season of “24.” The president seems gung ho to declare unilateral war on a distant land. The mainstream news media is held in high regard. Someone even says something about “raising the threat level” - is that still around?


But you know what? It all manages to hold together. Maybe that’s because of a particularly canny choice of evildoer this season. Maybe it’s because there are just enough surprises. Mostly, though, I just think it’s because Kiefer Sutherland and everybody else involved with “24” actually care about making a video page-turner you can’t bear to turn off, no matter how farfetched it might seem.


Perhaps next season they could raise the stakes a little more. Have Jack Bauer wake up on a Sunday, only to discover that it’s daylight savings time and he has one fewer hour to work with. I can see it now: Kiefer Sutherland IS Jack Bauer in ... “23”!

Tagged as: 24 | the beast
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