This feature contains spoilers.
Rarely is a show so lovingly remembered, yet so widely unseen, as the 1980s television adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. One of a handful of series that has inspired a radical fanbase to not only campaign for its survival during the three years it aired, but to keep it in the public consciousness decades after its original release, the show remains a cult classic, but has never been able to gather a mass audience. If you’re not acquainted with the CBS romance/crime show, it was a pre-Disney take on the classic tale of forbidden love, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman as said lovers separated by society’s prejudices.
Catherine begins as the wealthy and privileged daughter of a highly successful New York lawyer, unsatisfied with her mundane life and frustrated with both her father and fiancé’s suffocating influence. Leaving a dinner party alone one evening, Catherine is kidnapped, disfigured and abandoned on the side of a road, only to be rescued and nursed back to health by a mysterious man. Her face conveniently bandaged, she forms a bond with the man, Vincent, without ever seeing his face (or crucially, questioning why he doesn’t take her to a hospital) and, by the time she is healed, they’ve formed a bond too strong for his alarming appearance to break.
For Vincent is, as you’ve probably gathered, the titular beast of the series. Appearing half-human, half-lion (his parentage is kept deliberately vague), he lives underneath New York along with other lost souls bullied or shunned by modern society. He and Catherine, by half-way through the first episode, are deeply connected (although, again, the exact nature of their relationship is kept murky), and continue the now-familiar dance of forbidden love for much of the series. Catherine becomes a useful agent of the people ‘below’, becoming a district attorney and assisting her new adoptive community whenever she can.
Beauty and the Beast probably created an entire genre, so familiar to us today that it’s actually hard to fathom that it once didn’t exist. Combining fantasy with romance, and then introducing a weekly procedural element, had never been done to such an extent before, and the gothic imagery central to the show’s signature look has influenced plenty of subsequent fantasy shows. With the contrasting elements of the series now seamlessly blended in almost every corner of television, time may well have come full circle on Beauty and the Beast, with a new version starring Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk ready to air on the CW this October.
The original show’s fans are still incredibly passionate, and I’m aware that making any sort of criticism can be a supremely dicey game to play. Having said this, Beauty and the Beast really hasn’t aged too well. In a world now ruled by satire and meta-textual stories, it’s slow, lumbering and humourless by comparison. There’s absolutely no lightness or acknowledgement of the central premise’s lunacy, and I feel that even a smidge of overt awareness would have increased the show’s longevity. Many episodes, containing no development of either the characters or their relationship, are a slog to get through while others are as inventive and enjoyable as you might imagine. It’s unbalanced, which is a shame.
One major problem for me was how the romance between Catherine and Vincent is initially handled. The situation begins in an absurdly unbelievable way, since I’d think anyone else would be more likely have him charged for kidnapping had they woken up in the sewers with a strange group of men (a disproportionate number of characters living underground are male), forced to stay there for six weeks and then released back into the city. The fact that they are in love never really sat right with me, and it’s a struggle to get past this reservation once the series gets underway.
The first season consists almost entirely of case-of-the-week stories combined with stolen moments of giddy romance on Catherine’s terrace. There’s little development, and the central love story comes across as nothing more than a big tease, designed, like so many fictional romances, to keep the viewers coming back for more. However, there’s only so long you can draw something out, and the show struggled to keep people interested. However, many of the episodic storylines are inevitably quite interesting, and the show focused on the city’s underworld, sympathetically looking at those drawn to and consumed by its excesses at a time when urban living was feared.
The action and peril was upped in the second and third seasons, possibly in a bid to tempt male viewers to the show, but it was still always all about the central couple. The first season finale momentarily explored the long-term ramifications of such an impossible love, having Catherine effectively flee the city in a bid for normality and sanity, but the resolution to this first run of episodes simply left audiences with the same sentiment it began with, and their bond comes out of it unbroken. The episode was a brief and admirable departure from the show’s relentless self-assurance, but its ideas were sadly never really capitalised upon.
So the vague and undefined romance was drawn out for another year, and viewing numbers fell further and further. Brief moments of brutality and human drama that came with the second season’s central arc must have been welcome to viewers not so smitten with Vincent and Catherine’s interactions, and the former’s story was developed into a much more interesting narrative. A man who knows nothing of his origins, and who can never truly be with the woman he loves, Vincent was a tragic and complex character, all his layers convincingly brought to life by geek-favourite Ron Perlman. The show’s make-up is also something to applaud, courtesy of Academy Award winner Rick Baker.
But the real test of the series, already terminally low on viewing figures, came when Linda Hamilton expressed her wish to leave after the second season. Pregnant and eager to work on other projects, Catherine was written out in a two-part episode aired at the start of a delayed third season and the series struggled to reclaim the formula that had won over so many passionate fans. With one of the two main characters killed off, the writers did at least grant loyal followers a resolution to their partnership, and a child was conceived. The main arc for season three was Vincent’s attempts at finding the baby, taken by the same people who had killed his mother.
To fill the space left by Hamilton, a new female love interest was brought in but it wasn’t enough to save an already struggling show, and letters from fans to the network weren’t enough to fend off cancellation for long. The series ended in 1990 and has probably been watched by more people on DVD since than it did when CBS originally aired it. The fact that Beauty and the Beast is still being talked about, and has been remade with the same format in 2012, proves what an influential programme it was, and how well-respected it has become. The name George R. R. Martin on producing credits may have led Game of Thrones fans to it recently, or maybe the status of Hamilton and Perlman has pointed potential viewers in its direction, but all fans of fantasy television are advised to check it out.
An early and beloved example of fantasy television at its most seductive, Beauty and the Beast was an imperfect show with a rare conviction in its own ideas. With or without the romance, it had a strong and compelling concept, but it was the impossible union between Catherine and Vincent that hooked its fanbase. After a departure from this slow and allegorical style of fantasy in favour of a more action-infused sub-genre in the 90s, television seems to be looking back with series like Once Upon a Time. Could this be the perfect time for Beauty and the Beast to make a return? Possibly, but it’s unlikely that the new version can ever replace its namesake’s place in telly-fans’ hearts.
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