Patrick Swayze as a lone wolf FBI agent in The Beast.
The Beast (A&E, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) stars Patrick Swayze as Charles Barker, a volatile FBI agent schooling his cub of a partner in the lone wolf ways of undercover work. Barker is unsleeping and ungoverned and said to be unknowable, though that last fact flies in the face of what we learn from the character's actions. Everybody already knows everything there is to know about this maverick make of stock figure and the ready-made tone of cop shows where all the barroom jukeboxes play only electric blues.
Within the first two episodes, Barker shoots his partner twice in the Kevlar vest (to save their hides during a standoff in a meat locker) and himself once in the shoulder (to ensure that a drug bust goes down smoothly). He also commits arson, threatens that "the Witness Protection Program is my bitch," and, firing a surface-to-air missile through the window of a gangster's loft apartment, blows up a government-owned four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was a Lincoln Navigator, if I heard the product placement right. Earlier in the scene, an urban church's neon cross had reflected wanly off its moonroof.
Barker himself prefers to prowl Chicago in a pantherlike black Cadillac that, in a hastily overworked running joke, he frequently orders the rookie partner to park. (If the kid, Ellis Dove, is also in charge of waxing it, he's doing a zealous job; skyscrapers and leafless trees and false azure bounce off its surfaces in any number of densely layered shots.) Two or three characters taunt Dove as a pretty boy, and viewers should follow their lead, given what actor Travis Fimmel, a former Calvin Klein model, brings to the role, which is mostly a Joaquin Phoenix snarl.
Other elements at the bureau want Dove to prove that Barker is really, really dirty, as opposed to just really dirty for the greater good. The available evidence confirms those suspicions, but this is a special bond, and the kid is wretchedly conflicted. After Dove and Barker role-play and ad lib their way through an arms deal, they sit in the Caddy, where the youngster marvels at their subterfuge and the high it gave him. "You felt it didn't you?" says the sensei. "Now you just have to learn how to control it," which sounds more like Stella Adler than Donnie Brasco but anyway illuminates the feverish brain of an addled show.
But who could root against Patrick Swayze? To tune in Thursday night is to view the show through the frame of the publicity around the actor's treatment for cancer. The story of his toughness and evident anti-sentimentality informs the character and gets you thinking about his screen history—not as the heartthrob of Ghost and Dirty Dancing but as an attractive badass. The Swayze text most relevant here is Road House, the great guilty pleasure in which he played the world's best bouncer—a head-cracker who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy. It confirmed his place as not exactly the thinking man's action hero—that would still be Toshiro Mifune—but possibly the action hero's thinking man.
Barker, intended as a philosopher of street knowledge, is giving Dove an immersion course in the moral relativism of Dirty Harry and the lifestyle existentialism of Michael Mann. "The beast eats away at you," Barker says of his calling at one point. "If you're not careful, the beast will eat it all, and you have nothing." Elsewhere, when Dove needs assurance that "there's a line" between criminal psychopaths and Barker's psychopathic school of criminology, Barker snaps, "Yeah, there's a line—so we know where to cross!" Some people can only howl at a line like that, and others, less sophisticated, will swing a fist in the air to cheer it, but I found it quite simple and most congenial to do both at the same time.
Next week will bring Lie to Me (Fox, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET, starting Jan. 21), a more by-the-book drama about investigators who don't go by the book. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) follows the path trod on The Mentalist, House, and all the other shows featuring perceptive freaks and bristling counterintuitionists. An expert in "deception detection," Lightman runs a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy where he and his wisecracking colleagues scrutinize "microexpressions" like body-language experts filling talk-show time on a slow news day and devote every conversation to "gestural shifts," "oblique eyebrows," and "partial fear expressions." If the hero could look through the screen while we are looking at him, he would detect some quizzical wondering at the trend of unorthodox problem solvers—note the wrinkling of the brows—and some boredom with a plotline about a congressman's hooker scandal—see how the eyes glaze over. But since the show's core concern aligns with the basic televisual pleasure of studying faces, it's got a certain energy. The index finger, though restless, does not change the channel.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from Lie to Me by Mike Yarish/Fox Broadcasting © 2008.