There’s an easy punchline that a hundred [or more] lazy screenwriters have probably used in movies or TV shows.
A character happens upon somebody who was previously assumed to be deceased. The character nods and quips, “You look pretty good for a dead guy.”
It’s a universally applicable joke, because… not to put too fine a point on it… dead guys generally look pretty horrible. They’re all rotted and stuff. So it doesn’t matter who you are or how you look, if you’re about to breath and receive nourishment, chances are solid that you also look pretty good for a dead guy.
The cliche pops up in the pilot for The CW’s new adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” one of many cliches in a script that seems to be cobbled together from nothing but dribs and drabs of earlier shows. In its “Beauty and the Beast” context, however, the line is elevated (denigrated?) from sloppy mimicry into a flawless illustration of the pilot’s insurmountable core flaw.
Kristin Kreuk’s Cat Chandler, doing for NYPD detectives what Denise Richards’s Christmas Jones did for nuclear physicists in “The World Is Not Enough,” confronts Jay Ryan’s Vincent Keller in a retrofitted warehouse and, having read paperwork on his demise in Afghanistan, she tells him “You look pretty good for a dead guy.”
The problem: Vincent Keller doesn’t just look pretty good for a dead guy. He looks pretty good for an underwear model or for a CW leading man. As Cat devours Vincent with her eyes, we’re aware that she isn’t comparing him to a maggot-infested corpse. We have no doubt that she thinks he looks good by any imaginable standard.
And with that, you cease to have a show called “Beauty and the Beast.” You can still have a show called “Beauty and The Man-Beauty” or “Beauty and The Handsome” or whatever. But you’ve lost what is the most basic and primal thing about “Beauty and the Beast” in every one of its fairy tale and modernized incarnations.
The story is about not judging a book by its cover, about learning to see beyond the surface.
Going back to the original source material, The Beast has a curse, but he’s fundamentally well-intentioned, or else he recognizes that the only way to have his curse lifted is by appearing to be fundamentally well-intentioned. He gives Belle the run of his castle or he saves her life or he performs some action that tells the reader or the viewer that he’s a figure to be rooted for. But romance can’t bloom immediately because The Beast is horrify. He’s… beastly. There’s a reaction that Belle has to have in which she is terrified or repelled by The Beast on a visceral level. This is not an optional handicap. Whether the character who needs to be taught a lesson is Belle or The Beast, it’s mandatory that there me an immediate mixture of repulsion and attraction that wage war and either The Beast needs to become a man worthy of Belle, or Belle needs to achieve enlightenment worthy of The Beast.
This isn’t option, in my opinion. Fairy tales are designed to teach lessons. That’s the lesson in “Beauty and the Beast.”
In The CW’s “Beauty and the Beast,” The Beast looks like Jay Ryan with a scratch on one cheek. Does it look like the scratch probably hurt a bit when it was incurred? Absolutely. That sucker required stitches. It’s a boo-boo and a half. It’s also a scar that is easily obscured by even dim lighting and it’s a scar that’s placed perfectly to accentuate Jay Ryan’s cheekbones. If you had to design a scar that actually turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise, it would be this scar, because it turns Ryan from an Abercrombie & Fitch model into a stud with character. Cindy Crawford would never ditch her beauty-mark and I’ll betcha Vincent’s pretty happy with his scar.
So Catherine’s first reaction to this man who the title for the show refers to as a “Beast” is… attraction. And that physical attraction is coupled almost immediately with the knowledge that this “Beast” is doing good things as well. If the Beast has the benefit of the doubt on both aesthetic and moral levels… if there’s no tangible impediment to Beauty’s inclination towards the Beast… What the heck are you making a show called “Beauty and the Beast” for?
At TCA press tour this summer, the producers suggested that the Beast’s beastliness is going to be an inner beastliness. And he does, indeed, have some anger management issues, but they aren’t manifest in Catherine’s direction in the pilot. What the pilot sets up is a romance with no impediments. If things get bad, eventually this guy may assault her, sell her for a hotel or attempt to sexually assault a teenager. Oh wait. That’s Chuck Bass. So that leaves “Beauty and the Beast” with a potential to be, at best, a version of “Gossip Girl” with less New York City authenticity (more on that in a bit) and more genetic engineering, which makes this the least imaginative adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” in the tale’s centuries of evolution. This Beauty is never going to have to or be able to learn to “see past” anything in order to love this Beast, because her initial response will never be anything other than, “He’s hot and altruistic.”
This is pretty bottom line stuff. If you do not understand this, you do not understand the property you are attempting to capitalize upon. If you do not understand the property you are attempting to capitalize on, your show comes across as opportunistic. If your show comes across as opportunistic, you’d darned better at least be crafting your opportunistic show decently.
“Beauty and the Beast” is, alas, also woefully crafted on every level.
The writing, beyond being thematically clueless (and, as indicated above) prone to cliches, is also creatively limited.
We open with Cat in 2003 as either a recent college grad or a soon-to-be-college-grad (things are muddled) studying for her LSATs. Her mom is killed and the assailants are about to kill her as well, but she’s saved by a big shadowy figure. Nine years later, Cat is the NYPD’s least assertive detective, partnered rather ridiculously with Tess (Nina Lisandrello), who also isn’t assertive, but she is stereotypical, so there’s there. They’re investigating a really uninteresting case — something about a fashion magazine, designed only to insert words like “beauty” and “fairy tale” into the dialogue — when clues lead them, with almost no preamble, to Vincent, a former doctor who enlisted in the military after 9/11 — a genuine tragedy that really should be kept out of shows as artificial and dreadful as this — and had his DNA tinkered with. Vincent likes to help people, because it makes him feel human — maybe Cat’s lack of assertiveness is intentional, since the character is simultaneously supposed to be A Strong Woman, while being in perpetual need of saving — but the people who experimented on him are still trying to find him and stop him. [Yes, this plotline is actually closer to this summer’s “The Bourne Legacy” than to “Beauty and the Beast.”]
When people aren’t blurting out cliches, they’re blurting out stupid and generally incorrect and inappropriate things like, “Sometimes things aren’t as they seem. You can’t tell who the real monsters are.”
Yes, writers. I know that’s what the theme of “Beauty and the Beast” is. Unfortunately, you’ve made a show that proves exactly the opposite when your heroic figure also looks like a background figure from “Magic Mike.” Vincent is EXACTLY as he seems and you know he’s not a real monster, because he doesn’t look even slightly like a monster. There’s a dark version of the show in which Vincent becomes less and less in control of his rage and he becomes a genuine threat to Cat and her love wanes as she realizes that the danger he poses outweighs his attractiveness. We’re told at the beginning of the episode that Cat is attracted to douches and it turns out that Vincent is the worst of the lot and, at the end of the first season, she kills him and we cheer. Instead, I suspect Cat and Vincent will just be cuddling when we reach that point.
The most beastly thing in “Beauty and the Beast” is the sheer quantity of exposition that has to be delivered by two actors who aren’t in any way prepared to deliver that much exposition. I can’t say for sure if Ryan is or isn’t a good actor, because he’s constantly ducking in and out of shadows as the show plays coy with his itsy-bitsy scar and when he talks, the effort put into his American accent renders everything he says atonal until he has his rage attack, when his voice has been manipulated to sound like Cookie Monster dealing with an existential crisis. Unfortunately, Kreuk’s deliveries are every bit as expressionless and never, for a second, does Kreuk have the physical or vocal authority to be believable as a cop. Together, Kreuk and Ryan have the static chemistry of magazine models: They look pretty together and you might purchase a fragrance they were endorsing, but there’s no sizzle.
Making things even more static is pilot director Gary Fleder, usually a fairly reliable TV helmer. In addition to doing one of the worst jobs of Toronto-for-New York City substitutions in film and TV history, Fleder stages every action scene with a cheap flatness that speaks to basic cable. When you compare the relative production values and stunt work on “Arrow” to what Fleder and company got on “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s tempting to wonder how much The CW played favorites when divvying up budgets this development season. The only effort put into the cinematography in “Beauty and the Beast” came on the careful lighting of Ryan’s ridiculous scar.
The CW recruited “Smallville” veterans Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders basically to steer and fix “Beauty and the Beast,” which gave some genre fans a sign of hope. And, who knows, maybe they will right this ship.
I can’t review the pilot based on that hypothetical hope, especially since the pilot fails to offer even a kernel of hope. There are no supporting characters that I want to see more of, no narrative mysteries to tantalize me. This is a show that was mis-developed from the very first seconds and that failure of vision carried into every aspect of its production. That it misappropriates the “Beauty and the Beast” name is only one facet of proof that nobody here knew what they wanted to be doing. Normally this is the kind of pilot that never sees the light of day, but instead The CW has given it the golden time slot after “The Vampire Diaries.”
I’ve seen tonight’s “Vampire Diaries” premiere. It’s terrific. Watch that at 8 p.m. and then change the channel.