So as I ruminated on The Chicago Code and lamented that it’s almost surely about to be cancelled after only its first season, and pondered why Chicagoans are so unwilling to embrace it—and spotted the tip of the iceberg, at least, of that lattermost topic—it occurred to me that there is one other truly Chicago-based show in existence.
The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze.
Okay, well, sort of.
[An aside: The Beast aired more than two years ago, so any reveals that may follow can no longer be deemed spoilers. Nevertheless, you’ve been warned.]
If I modify my previous statement to say, “The Chicago Code is the only major-network show to be truly based in Chicago ever,” then the statement is very much true, without exception. There are no others. The Beast aired on cable channel A&E, quietly, in January–April 2009. Being a less-than-frequent A&E watcher, I was completely unaware of it airing—and would have been unaware of its existence, if not for several scenes of it having been filmed in the vicinity of my work. (In fairness, part of the reason it flew under the radar was the unavailability, due to illness, of its lead actor for press tours.)
Moreover, although it was filmed entirely in and around Chicago, The Beast could take place in almost any American city, for this reason: the stylish cinematography, lighting, camera angles, etc., seem geared to conceal the location, the sometimes-surprising appearance of the ‘L’ notwithstanding.
In one of the “behind-the-scenes” clips, director Michael Watkins compares filming The Beast to his previous work on The X-Files. He says that the city where they filmed X-Files was “the third character,” that its mood and appearance were significant elements of the show. And in the same way, The Beast definitely benefits from the look, the style, the grit of Chicago. Chicago definitely comes through as the “third character” of The Beast.
And yet, just like X-Files’ Vancouver, The Beast’s Chicago is Everycity. I’m not saying that they should have thrown in landmark clichés like Navy Pier or Wrigley Field just to signify “hey, we’re in Chicago.” But with only a few exceptions, the overly generic urban locations all look alike—and in many cases, they are. Four completely different scenes take place in a single block of Monitor Avenue. Nefarious stuff always seems to be happening in dark alleys—and if there’s an ‘L’ track nearby, it’s surely happening within a two-block radius in River North. Barker and Conrad’s usual meeting place is an old factory space that I’m pretty sure is on the “backlot,” what there is of one, at Chicago Studio City. And there’s a three-block stretch of West Roosevelt Road, just a stone’s throw from the studio on the border between Chicago and Cicero, that’s used time and again as the show’s go-to urban street.
So even with the verity of using the actual vicinity of the FBI’s Chicago field office—the Federal Plaza on South Dearborn—as itself in a couple of early episodes, The Beast hides its Chicago-ness. So much so, that when the nuclear physicist in episode 5 tells Barker that her husband is “right here in Chicago,” I thought to myself—“oh yeah, this is taking place in Chicago.” That fact had completely slipped my mind.
And that’s coming from a viewer who was watching specifically because the show was filmed in Chicago.
That gripe aside, I enjoyed the thirteen-episode run of The Beast, even though it suffers from typical rookie-season foibles. Along with some fairly cheesy lines delivered with earnest intensity, the show’s biggest issue comes in the form of crime-show clichés, which are rife throughout. They use the “pull the trigger on an unloaded gun to freak out the suspect” gag twice, and even resort to the tired old chestnut, “‘How did you know?’ – ‘You just told me.'” The bad-guy son of the foreign diplomat uses “diplomatic immunity” as protection from prosecution for his nefarious schemes. One episode involves a doctor with a God complex who thinks his murders are “mercy killings.”
But that’s okay. As I said, that’s typical for a show’s rookie season—the writers and actors are still getting a feel for the characters and their world. Even the best shows are lucky if they have that settled in within their first thirteen episodes.
The Beast definitely gets it together by the end of its first season. Unlike most critics I enjoyed Travis Fimmel’s portrayal of Barker’s partner, Ellis Dove, whose deadpan smirk and flat delivery show a certain wisdom: better to underplay it when working opposite Patrick Swayze. The star of the supporting cast is Chicago’s own Kevin J. O’Connor, sporting one of the most awesome mustaches on television in recent memory, and bringing a complex, nuanced depth to his role as Barker’s handler, Harry Conrad.
In the end, I can honestly say I’m disappointed that The Beast wasn’t able to continue.
The final two episodes did it for me. A tip about a counterfeiting ring leads to a meeting that goes sideways and turns out to be a frame-up on Barker. He goes to ground and by the end of it, it’s clear that all his paranoid trust-no-one attitude has been justified, that everyone outside his tiny coterie (Ellis, Conrad, and—maybe—Ray Beaumont) is either corrupted, or unwittingly co-opted by the corruption.
Suddenly all the pieces of the long arc, set up over the course of the season, fall into place. The characters are developed and the universe of the show is established. Meanwhile that thirteenth episode finally embraces Chicago as its location in a way that the show hadn’t done since its first few episodes. For the first time, an aerial shot runs along Lake Shore Drive; the Sears Tower appears prominently over Ellis’ shoulder; several scenes occur alongside the main branch of the river with Chicago’s distinctive skyline all around. Sure, there are several instances of West Roosevelt Road, The Beast’s Everystreet, in this episode too, as there have been throughout. But for what feels like the first time in several episodes, we escape the claustrophobic back alleys and factory lots and really see that what’s taking place is happening in a very specific place, the city of Chicago.
Most of all, what makes every episode of this show worthwhile is Patrick Swayze, for he plays such a delightful bad-ass. But the eternal legacy of The Beast is that it was Swayze’s final role, that it’s a document of a man powering through the pain of the cancer that was killing him. He’s so pale and gaunt, his eyes hollow and dark and filled with acute awareness of his own mortality, and yet he brings a fiery intensity to the role that enables even the silliest lines to ring true. It may be the best performance of his career.
Even when the final episode ends with Barker taking down a sniper and then silently calling out, with the point of a finger, the FBI assistant director responsible for ordering the hit, I could shrug off the implausibility of why she would be anywhere near the scene, watching through binoculars. Because then Swayze walks off into the sunset—well, actually toward the amber-lit archway of a pedestrian underpass—and I was saddened. Not just for the loss of Patrick Swayze, cut down before his time—but also for the loss of The Beast, and its leaving one of Swayze’s most dramatic and interesting roles unfinished.
The entire run of The Beast, disingenuously packaged as “Season One,” is available in a single DVD set from Amazon.com.