Patrick Swayze brings welcome intensity to this gritty cop drama, which represents A&E’s latest attempt (the last being “The Cleaner”) to nurture a scripted profile to dovetail with its “The Sopranos” reruns. Yet after two episodes, “The Beast” is a relatively toothless affair, drawing on a conventional cranky veteran/fresh-faced rookie dynamic between undercover FBI agents who go that extra mile to keep contraband — from drugs to rocket launchers — out of the bad guys’ hands. A serialized approach could enliven matters, but while Swayze’s star turn following a cancer diagnosis is newsworthy, so far it’s a pretty uninspiring dance.
Swayze’s Charles Barker is the kind of do-anything fed prone to dispensing sage advice, having reportedly hand-picked new partner Ellis (Travis Fimmel, the former model who showed more skin — along with less-developed acting chops — as the WB’s short-lived “Tarzan”) because the kid reminds him of himself 20 years earlier. For those keeping score at home, that would clock in right around the great, endlessly rerun guilty pleasure “Road House,” but let’s not digress.
Barker is another one of those enigmatic, tough-as-nails cops, who a colleague professes to know “as well as anyone can.” The theme of the pilot written by William Rotko and Vincent Angell is familiar (and shares similarities with the 2007 film “Breach,” which Rotko co-wrote with Adam Mazer) — reminding us that our guardians must occasionally do shady things, like take a hit off a crack pipe, in order to blend in with the criminal element they hope to stop. Plus, finding time to date can be a real bitch.
The series does feature some solid performers in supporting roles, including Kevin J. O’Connor and “The Wire’s” Larry Gilliard Jr., and the close of the second hour offers a modest tug to see where the story arc might be heading. The actual cops-and-robbers stuff, however, remains mundane at best. That leaves Swayze’s take on Dirty Harry (who had a similar penchant, come to think of it, for taunting rookie partners) as the main attraction, with Fimmel — who really should be the show’s focus, viewing Barker through his eyes — as a woefully light counterweight.
From its very first scene, “The Beast” demonstrates that undercover work has a limited margin for error, and that an ill-chosen phrase or minor slip can expose an agent to certain death. Cable TV tends to be a bit more forgiving with its foot soldiers, but ensuring survival still requires more moxie than A&E’s new recruit initially exhibits.