Let’s start by laying it out: Patrick Swayze was a great actor and through his most popular period in the ‘80s and ‘90s the closest thing his generation had to an old-school Hollywood star. More so than Tom Cruise or other contemporaries here was an actor capable of convincingly projecting machismo and vulnerability. Swayze was equally at home in romantic and comedic roles as he was in ones that required action and violence. He could do charm, sensitivity, toughness and brittleness, often in the same character, and was adept at suggesting the often tumultuous internal lives of his characters, just with a slight shift in expression or body language. So, it’s really no surprise that in his final role here as FBI agent Charles Barker, completed while Swayze was fighting the illness that would eventually claim his life, Patrick is outstanding.
The Beast (broadcast for only one season on the A+E Network) follows the various cases of Barker and his new partner, Ellis Dove, played here by Travis Fimmel. The duo work as high-risk undercover agents going deep to trap weapons smugglers, drug dealers, spies and other criminals. As the series starts Dove has apparently been personally requested as partner by Barker to help him stop arms buyers who want to get their hands on an RPG-launcher. But Barker doesn’t make it easy for Dove, ruthlessly schooling him in the tightrope world of undercover work. Charles impresses upon Dove that even the smallest mistake can unravel an operation and blow cover. They discuss where the line must be drawn so that they do not cross over into becoming what they are hunting, and in Barker’s response as well as his actions throughout it’s clear he is willing to bend rules to get the job done. At the same time, Barker is helping his sister out with something shady her husband has gotten involved in and it’s in this early subplot we discover just how inflexible his moral approach is. This would be enough for a standard set-up for a series and is for the most part with The Beast – each episode finds Barker and Dove involved in another escalating crisis as they try and stop the villain of the week.
But as is also now essential to a series there is an arc set-up as well. Dove learns Barker is under investigation by the bureau too, not simply for bending rules but for being as dirty as they come. The question for Ellis becomes has his partner, a man he doesn’t necessarily like but definitely respects, crossed that line with no coming back. A disc drive has gone missing with the names and identities of undercover FBI agents and maybe it’s Barker who is responsible. And so Ellis becomes a man compromised between two opposing but equally influential options: stick by the agent he can learn the most from or betray him and potentially bring him down. It benefits from having Swayze as its lead, because from the beginning he could really be either. Yes, Barker has a clear moral code but at the same time he is reckless, dangerous in action and more than willing to blur or ignore FBI rules to get a job done. It’s an excellent performance by Swayze with a further edge of melancholy added by his real life circumstances. The character of Barker is clearly a man with time running out and Swayze layers this as desperation throughout the series. His Barker is mercurial, flinty, brutal with emotion and with action but at the same time capable of great compassion and seemingly with a real investment in Dove, a man at one point described as someone Barker sees as himself, 20 years ago. As a final show by Swayze it capped his career with a performance that encapsulates almost everything he did well, and elevates the series because of it.
At the time the show was broadcast, for all the positive notices Swayze received, Fimmel was not similarly praised. It’s a hard role to do as so much rests on his shoulders in terms of audience investment. Fimmel was then an ex-male model with only really a short-lived Tarzan revival of a few years before to his name (that presented Tarzan as crime-fighter in New York and is…uh…unlikely to show up in this column at any stage). Interestingly, Fimmel would go on to play Ragnar Lothbrok in the series Vikings a few years later and give one of (for this writer anyway) the greatest and most unpredictable performances in television history, so perhaps it was just wrong actor for the material. But he’s not a liability, more simply outclassed by his fellow lead, and is certainly not terrible or undermining to the series. It’s inevitably a dark series too, and although it provides the requisite action for such a show, there’s a wider thread of melancholy throughout. Shot in sharp dark and metallic tones the look and feel of the series is as flinty as Barker and the show itself is often surprisingly bleak and this provides a welcome swerve away from other, similar series’ need for comfortable resolution. In direction terms it’s somewhere on the cusp between a standard television approach and the more popular ‘cinematic’ feel of many recent series. It’s not as dynamic as some other shows but trades that for a focus on character and performance. We’re not damning it with faint praise to say that what it does well, it does satisfyingly well. For fans of Swayze or those who enjoy police procedurals and are curious about how a series that straddles the gap between the network and cable approaches would turn out, it has much to recommend.