Thursday, January 15, 2009

Down So extensive: The furtively Life Taught Herea.

Patrick Swayze, right, as a longtime F.B.I. agent and Travis Fimmel as his new partner in the new cable series “The Beast
Patrick Swayze’s performance as an ungoverned F.B.I. man in “The Beast,” a new crime drama beginning on Thursday on A&E, is impressive for its resistance to cliché and remarkable for the mere fact of its execution.

Not extended after the pilot was shot last year, Mr. Swayze was given a analysis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, but chose to stay with the project, in receipt of treatments throughout fabrication. During the filming of 12 subsequent episodes, as producers explained at the Television Critics Association press tour this week, the actor missed only a single day of work.

“One thing I’m not going to do is chase staying alive,” Mr. Swayze told Barbara Walters in an interview last week. “You spend so much time chasing staying animate, you won’t live.” (He was hospitalized on Friday for pneumonia.)

On “The Beast” Mr. Swayze is stonewalled from making analogous displays of honesty. As Charles Barker, he plays an undercover agent who has used up so much emotional capital down deep in the foxhole that there is nothing left to nourish him when he burrows back up. Barred from feeling too much, he is made to speak from a Top 20 list of police show aphorisms: “Yeah, there’s a line. So we recognize where to cross.”

“The Beast” is set in a Chicago where spring seems to come only every leap year, and Barker’s piece of the city compounds that broad, bleak vision. He lives in a dark, foul apartment that begs for a psychiatric appraisal of its occupant: it’s a place in which to curl up with a bottle of Lexapro.

But Barker doesn’t even stock the proper antidepressants. When his rookie partner, Ellis Dove — named as if we’d miss his brooding innocence — shows up for one of Barker’s coarsened, avuncular cop lessons, Barker offers Dove a beer but can deliver only a glass of milk.

Dove learns after the fact that he has been assigned to glean what he can about Barker’s rogue habits. The agency’s Internal Affairs Department has begun an investigation, but Dove is reluctant to believe that Barker’s approach to law enforcement strays much beyond a game of hopscotch around paperwork and rote procedure. Dove, as he tells a date, watched his father walk out when he was a small child, and in his mind it wasn’t soon enough. Barker won’t show him when to deploy a nine iron, but he fits a certain variant of the paternal bill.

It is a problem for “The Beast” that we are just as prone to trust Barker’s decency as his partner is. The moral and psychological ambiguity doesn’t appear to be there: however Barker might have sideswiped orthodoxy in the past, we get the sense that he was probably justified in breaking the rules he did. By the end of the first hour of “The Shield,” we knew that Vic Mackey was the kind of cop who didn’t stop at taking short cuts; he killed whoever got in his way. After the first two episodes of “The Beast,” we see that Barker is made of the stern stuff it takes to weasel around some security clearances.

Mr. Swayze, though, is another story. He takes hold of the role with the assurance of someone who has little time or tolerance for nonsense. He works to keep things in a low register, refusing to ride and screech and jump curbs presumably the way the writers have intended.

It is unfortunate for Travis Fimmel, who plays Dove, that his co-star maintains such formidable composure. Mr. Fimmel is all loose ends; he can’t seem to find the character. I’ve had old socks with a firmer grip than the hold Mr. Fimmel, who is Australian, has on his Midwestern accent. He gives the impression of having watched Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Departed,” tried on a flak jacket and turned up for filming. Mr. Swayze has a great deal to teach him indeed.

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