Back during Beauty and the Beast's brief three season run, there were numerous letter writing and phone call campaigns by rabid fans who tried desperately to keep the show from getting the axe. Never a top ratings winner, its fate on the network schedule was always at risk, and yet, the fans made it known how they felt, and they may have indeed saved the show on more than one occasion. With that in mind, I know I risk the wrath of the show's loyal fan base when I write that, after watching the Beauty and the Beast: The First Season 6-disc set, I frankly don't get what the excitement was all about. A clumsy, lumbering fantasy with an inherently dishonest approach to its central romance, Beauty and the Beast: The First Season was an almost instantaneous source of parodies and jokes for stand-up comedians during and after its run (a Seinfeld take-off with Vincent as a teenaged "art house goon" video clerk was probably the funniest). And it's easy to see why. There's not a shred of irony or humor about the concept in the whole season; filmed with a laughably straight face, Beauty and the Beast: The First Season initially made me snicker, and then eventually ground me down and bored me to tears.
Beautiful corporate lawyer Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton) chafes at the restrictions imposed on her life. She works for her father Charles (John McMartin), a highly successful New York City lawyer, but doesn't feel what she does is necessary or that she's achieving anything independent of his influence. In a relationship with ambitious, self-centered Tom (Ray Wise), Catherine balks at the insensitive demands of her boyfriend during a dinner party, and leaves to go home. Outside, a couple of thugs kidnap her in a van, and horribly disfigure her face; we later learn that she was a victim of mistaken identity, and that the criminals thought she was someone else. Left for dead in Central Park, Cathy is rescued by a mysterious, hulking figure who carries her below the streets of New York City to a fabulously appointed underground lair. Her eyes and face bandaged, she can't see the person who is caring for her, but -- rather rapidly and with almost no set-up -- she comes to love her care giver, Vincent (Ron Perlman).
Vincent resides below the city for what he believes is a very good reason: he apparently is half-lion (the series is always - and deliberately - kind of hazy on this score) and doesn't want to be the object of pity and terror because of the way he looks. Hiding a beautiful, tortured soul behind his mutation, Vincent strides among the many other residents of the "Tunnel World" as their unofficial leader and protector. Naturally, Cathy is taken aback when she sees Vincent for the first time, but she longs to stay his friend (or lover, or confidante - again, the series doesn't want to get pinned down into something uncomfortable here). Vincent, tortured by his impossible love for Cathy (he's always tortured in the series), tells her that he has developed a psychic bond with her: her pain is his pain. Taking her back to the "real" world, he tells her he will always be there for her, if she needs him.
After perfect plastic surgery (which pretentiously, left one scar for Catherine to flash when she needs to), Cathy decides that she must do something worthwhile with her life, and takes a job as an assistant D.A. with the city. Tracking down the thugs who assaulted her, she finds outs they're part of a bigger corruption scandal involving prostitution, and decides to go after them. Catherine, hearing Vincent outside on her terrace (apparently, he's not allowed up on the furniture), goes to him and shares one moment (soon to be many, many stolen moments) of impossible love with him. Cornered in a house with her attackers ready to kill her, Cathy's psychic pain reaches Vincent, who immediately hops on top of a speeding subway car (I kid you not), and, bursting through the house's door like either the Incredible Hulk or the Kool-Aid pitcher ("Oh, yeeeeeahhhh!"), literally rips apart her assailants with his razor-sharp claws, and saves her life.
There's so many things screwy with Beauty and the Beast: The First Season that it's hard to know where to start. Most damning to the show's credibility is the producers' insistence on keeping the true nature of Vincent and Cathy's relationship a shadowy, unfocused - and inherently dishonest - mystery. Now, before you start emailing that I just don't get the romantic aspects of the story, I do understand and am aware of the basic conventions of "romance novel" plot devices (which is what this series really is: romance novel mixed with fable and fantasy). And of course, the granddaddy of them all is "unrequited or impossible love." In those fictions, the obstacles in the way of the lovers are usually social conventions that must be observed, such as someone's marriage or a class distinction between the two lovers.
But in Beauty and the Beast: The First Season, the real distinction, the obstacle that the show never really has the guts to address, is that Vincent is half animal. A lion's face, razor sharp talons on his paws/hands, and super-human strength all point to Vincent's obvious mutation -- all that's missing is a tail (and yes, I know the series' later "real" explanation of Vincent's "condition," but the producers obviously wanted you to think he's half animal). And let me assure you, the network was absolutely terrified of ever going too deeply into what viewers might perceive as Vincent's conception; bestiality, thank god, is the last taboo a commercial TV network will ever want to tackle. So what the producers would like to pass off as a mysterious, almost cosmic meeting of the minds between two tortured souls, is really a dishonest attempt to dance around - without ever really coming out and defining it -- an impossible, totally improbable concept for a TV show: a half-man/half-lion sharing an intimate physical and emotional relationship with a woman. In the first episode, Cathy asks how "it" happened, and Vincent replies, "I don't know how. I have ideas...." Yeah, well I have ideas how it happened, too, and let me tell you; it's illegal in 38 states.
Of course, none of this would have mattered one bit if the show had even the smallest sense of irony or humor about its inane premise. But unfortunately, it doesn't. Seldom have I ever seen a TV series take itself so seriously before (Studio 60 would seem to be a new candidate for that), and come off so pretentious and self-satisfied. There's no room for the viewer to breathe in this thing. The air of solemnity and doom is as oppressive as the underground world that Vincent inhabits (can someone explain why everyone dresses like the road company for Little Dorritt down there?). Where's a little laughter, a little humor, to leaven this heavy loaf of pseudo-profundity? As if the cursed love affair isn't enough, we're then hit over the head with story after story of oppressed "little people" that Cathy and Vincent save from the crushing forces of society. Carrying over the 1980s obsession with city life equaling urban hell, these easy, trite little morality plays are as facile and cliched as the romance novel conventions that the show's romance plot apes. It doesn't help either that Hamilton looks distinctly uncomfortable in most of her scenes, and that Perlman is constantly made to stage-whisper his whining and kvetching like a cross between Richard Harris and Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion.
Here are the twenty-two, one hour episodes of Beauty and the Beast: The First Season:
Once Upon a Time in the City of New York
Catherine Chandler is brutally attacked, and then miraculously rescued by Vincent, a mysterious man-beast who dwells beneath the streets of New York.
A "man-beast" is reported to be slashing and murdering subway criminals. Catherine must find out if Vincent is the killer.
Vincent and Catherine expose an unscrupulous land developer who prey on the elderly.
No Way Down
While trying to protect Catherine in the world Above, Vincent is captured by a vicious street gang.
A Halloween ball cannot masquerade political intrigue as Catherine and Vincent come to the aid of an Irish peace activist.
The Beast Within
After investigating the mob-related death of a longshoreman, Catherine's life is endangered.
Nor Iron Bars a Cage
Catherine abandons her plan to relocate to Providence in order to save Vincent, who's been captured by a Columbia University scientist.
Song of Orpheus
In order to save Father, Vincent and Catherine must unravel his mysterious past after he is summoned to face his former life in the world Above.
Catherine falls into the dangerous world of voodoo after she investigates a wealthy businessman's bizarre death.
A Children's Story
To expose the corrupt organization behind a "model" children's foster home, Vincent and Kipper, a boy from Below, seek Catherine's help.
An Impossible Silence
In order to convict a cop killer, a deaf girl from Below must give up her protected life.
Shades of Gray
Catherine turns to a renegade from Below in order to free Vincent and Father from a dangerous underground "maze."
Vincent and Catherine help a Chinatown beauty avoid an arranged marriage by escaping underground.
After a deadly new recreational drug sweeps through Manhattan, Catherine asks Vincent to help find its source.
A beautiful attorney seduces Catherine's boss, Joe Maxwell, creating a serious conflict of interest.
Promises of Someday
Painful childhood memories of resurface for Vincent after his long-lost "brother" Devin returns to the world Below.
Down to a Sunless Sea
Catherine fails to heed Vincent's warnings about her dangerous former law-school beau.
After Mouse discovers a treasure-filled ship buried beneath the city, Vincent's world is filled with greed and strife.
Everything is Everything
A gypsy boy clears his father's name and regains the love and trust of his grandparents with Vincent and Catherine's help.
To Reign in Hell
Vincent prepares for a battle to the death after Catherine is kidnapped by a giant warrior.
Vincent's world Below is threatened by a massive tower being built by Elliott Burch, a former suitor of Catherine's. She agrees to marry Burch on the condition that he halt construction.
A Happy Life
Catherine and Vincent are forced to question if they could ever be truly happy together.
The full screen video image for Beauty and the Beast: The First Season is pretty good, considering the show is twenty years old. The first episode caused some consternation because it looked fairly grainy and dark, but subsequent episodes shaped up, with crisp, sharp transfers and good color.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono audio track accurately reflects the original television presentation of Beauty and the Beast: The First Season
There are no extras for Beauty and the Beast: The First Season, which will probably really tick off the loyal fans of this show.
Hey, listen -- I know there are a lot of fans out there who absolutely love this show, and that's cool. I like shows that nobody likes, and besides, nothing I say here is going to change your minds. As fans, you should know that your favorite show looks pretty good on DVD, and I recommend you buy it (lack of extras keeps this from a high recommendation). But for those of you, like me, who laughed at it when it first came out, and who found it a pretentious, ridiculous bore, Beauty and the Beast: The First Season is strictly one for the litter box.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.