The Beast: Series Premiere

“There’s a fine line between who we are and who we’re going after,” says FBI agent Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze). His rookie partner, Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), nods, trying to look like he understands. “There’s a line,” Charlie continues. “So we know where to cross.”

The line is what’s at issue in The Beast, A&E’s new cop series. Hard to distinguish and easy to miss — particularly in the dark and rainy settings favored by the show — the line has Ellis worried. Confronted early on by the possibility that Barker’s corrupt, the kid is stuck in one of a familiar situation: does he monitor his daunting would-be mentor, or does he reject instructions and potential evidence handed offered by Internal Affairs reps? Ellis wants to be cool. When challenged by a seeming informant (the excellent Larry Gilliard Jr.) to get high to prove he’s not a cop, he screws up his face and starts smoking, his expression twisted and Ethan Hawkeish. When a former classmate, now desk jockey, notes he’s got the preferred new job, Ellis has to agree: he’s undercover, living the fast, dangerous, and exciting life that all the recruits once dreamed of.

Except he’s not, exactly. Charlie’s got him parking the car and fetching coffee, the kinds of newbie hazing tasks that inspire resentment and frustration. Ellis can’t tell the classmate what’s going on — he pretends to be as special as he’s supposed to be — but he can’t help but wonder whether he’s being used by a guy he’s supposed to monitor (“We need you, Ellis,” say the IA folks, “We need you to find the truth, no matter where it leads”). “The man has a god complex,” Ellis reports. “And he’s a first class asshole to work with, but he’s not crooked. He’s the best agent I’ve ever been around.” Maybe so, but Ellis is such an unconvincing actor (a point made more than once by Charlie when they’re undercover) that even as she says this, he seems not to be believing it. He defends his partner and by extension his own instincts, but he’s also not sure of where the line is, or how and whether the line matters.

Charlie, for his part, repeatedly crosses back and forth over all kinds of lines. He’s tough and cynical, he’s wise and sad. It’s a grand role for Swayze, famously living with pancreatic cancer, his face lean and lined, his work here kind of Point Breaky, which is to say, melodramatic but taut. During a faux drug deal in the second episode (airing 22 January), he and the kid run into a problem; as the buyers approach from a distance, he comes up with a cover story and insists Ellis shoot him. The kid is astonished and won’t do it. Charlie shoots himself, blam, in the shoulder, staggers and gasps, then pulls himself together for the encounter. It’s a convincing act, bleeding on the sidewalk, and Ellis is as impressed as the villains. This guy seems for real, even when you know he’s lying.

It’s this credibility that makes The Beast go. Even when the show trots out clichés (rainy nights, junkie informants and strippers, a pretty blond neighbor/love interest for Ellis [Rose, played by Lindsay Pulsipher]), Charlie is compelling, his many performances jaggedy and surprising, his rhythms weird, his sense of humor entertainingly bleak. “When you work for who we work for and you do what we do,” he explains in one of the series’ frequent too-explanatory speeches, “You’ll find there are things in life you have to protect. The beast eats away at you and if you’re not careful, the beast will eat it all, and you have nothing and you are nothing.” Yeah, yeah: while Ellis looks all expectant and green, you’ll be restless, waiting for actual news. And then, Charlie comes up with some. Pulling his gun on a fierce suspect who’s just announced he’s not “to be trifled with,” Charlie doesn’t quite smile: “If by ‘trifled with,’ you mean screwed, consider yourself trifled.”

If Ellis is the seeming moral center, if his questions about who’s who are those proposed by the show, Charlie’s embodiment of that dilemma are much more compelling and complex. To underscore his access to any and all information, Charlie tells a reluctant snitch, “The witness protection program is my bitch.” Unable to get the bureaucratic go-ahead he needs during regular hours, he pulls his control agent (Kevin J. O’Connor) out of an AA meeting, just as he confesses to the group, “I’m an alcoholic, I feel safest with those who understand the meaning of that” (the timing of the interruption is its own sort of creepy joke).

Again and again, Charlie’s crossing over lines makes The Beast more interesting than it should be. Troubled by his work, Charlie’s sister Lauren (Janelle Snow) asks, “How can you bear to be in your own skin?” However he bears it, let’s hope he can keep intervening into his own show.

RATING 6 / 10