The idea of beauty in Beauty and The Beast

(This is an unpublished paper written for the Aesthetics of Television Serial Conference in Gandia (Spain) in 2017).

Beauty and The Beast created by Ron Koslow on CBS in 1987 is a very uncommon TV Series that had risen to the status of a cult show. It was broadcast at a turning point in the history of american TV Series, the 80’s, and has been quite influential, notably on Joss Whedon. As a modern adaptation of the fairy tale, it transposes the original story in New York and tells the tragic romance between an assistant District Attorney Catherine (Linda Hamilton) and Vincent (Ron Perlman), who is half-man, half-lion. The fairy tale obviously emphasizes the idea of beauty hidden behind appearances, but the show also organizes its fictional universe as a political statement on modern society and reinvents the story’s moral background. Vincent lives underground in a utopian community that is built upon acceptance and love. The series creates an opposition between the normative, unjust ang ugly world of a contemporary city that excludes the poor and the misfits, and the mythic and the beautiful world of the tunnels below groung. What is interesting in the show is that its aesthetic work -through sets, music and photography -, its narrative scheme -that combines a serialized aspect with a procedural structure – and its allegorical construction echoe its main themes. The aesthetic concept of beauty and its representation thus appear central in the series. They are at the core of the show’s philosophical, existential, political and metafictional discourse, which invites us to question our own relationship to beauty and empathy.

Vincent of course is at the core of the representation of Beauty in the series because in this story he is not a monster, and he is not supposed to change in the end to go back to a human form. He is fully human exactly as he is. He is a beast only for those who don’t want to accept him, but in fact he embodies beauty and humanity at their highest and purest. Vincent represents what the world below means : love, care, generosity and acceptance. So the main tension in terms of the idea of beauty in the series is between an idea of a normative beauty versus a beauty that is a pure relationship of love.  The world above is a world of unjust and unequal rules, that decide arbitrarily what is supposed to be right or to be beautiful, that sets apart anyone that does not correspond to it as a freak. Vincent is an example of that, he is the ultimate outsider, because of the way he looks. But in the world below, as Vincent says it in “Brothers”, the ninth episode of the second season, which is a sort of variation on Elephant Man: there are no freaks here. I think that this is the the key sentence of the series. Charles, “the dragon man”, in this episode is a mirror of Vincent’s life, not only for himself but also for the other characters who have to face the pain and loneliness of both Charles and Vincent. So this rejection of the figure of the freak is linked to a question of point of view and of empathy.

But this discourse depends on the narrative and the generic structure. In fact, the series is built around a generic tension between two types of narrative and each of these narratives leads to a political and moral point of view. So what is at stakes in the show is how you can keep both aspects together or how you can or cannot navigate between these two worlds. One, is a world that corresponds to the rules of a procedural TV show, based on characters in the district attorney office that are trying to help people and to solve some cases and, on the other hand, we have the world below which is a world of fantasy and of fairy tale. The 1987’s New York,  is filmed in a realistic way, a common way, and seems at best dull, but generally sad, ugly and violent, and apart from that, the tunnels, the world below, are designed and filmed as a fairy tale world. The sets, the costumes, but also the light effects and even the directing create a world of beauty and of magic. It is a dark world, without sun or nature, but it is a world of love and human relationship. And there are a lot of amazing visual ideas that create a fantasy world, with waterfalls and underground lakes, bridges over infinite abysses where you can hear the whispers of the world above, gigantic stairs, caves with cristals, etc. So it is a whole world of wonders the people from the world above have no idea it exists. It is a world of hidden truth and authentic beauty. Both worlds coexists, whether it is at the level of the episode or at the level of the series.

But the moral and political background of the series definitely put an emphasis on the world below. In this world, lives a community that gravitates around Father, a former doctor that saved Vincent’s life when he was a baby and around Vincent, who represents the heart and soul of the community. This group functions like a utopia where everything is shared and where there is no money, but most importantly where everyone is accepted exactly the way he or she is. So the political content of the show is very radically opposed to the Reagan’s America of the time revolving around money and power. Instead, it shows another way of life where everyone can bring something special and be happy, loved and not judged. And I must say that it is something of course that echoe our situation today too, unfortunately, because we are still in this Reaganian neo-liberal capitalism.

In a way, in the series, the world below is our point of view on the world above, leading the viewer to question the world he or she is living in, because the aesthetic of the tunnels contaminates sometimes the whole series. For example, the musical themes are a way to create links between both spaces. These themes are very lyrical and emphatic, and corresponds to the spirit of the tunnels. Every episode opens on aerial shots of New York with this kind of music and so we are compelled to see the city through this expressive and emotional point of view, that emphasizes all the tragedies that are taking place in the city. Likewise, when Vincent comes out at night sometimes in the streets, the directing changes and transforms our perception of the streets, that seem to be more dreamlike, with smoke, and slow motion, and strange framings. So this work on the visual aspect of the show underlines the idea that beauty is a point of view, it is something that Vincent and Catherine bring with them, whatever the situation is. Indeed, what the world above needs is an empathic point of view to be transfigured.

As a consequence, it is not surprising that art has such an importance thematically in the series because it is another way to question beauty and also to mirror in a reflexive way the ideas of the show. Beauty and the Beast incorporates many episodes about artists (dancers, painters, musicians) and also many scenes of characters reading poetry out loud which is very unexpected in a network TV show, especially at the time. You have sometimes very long scenes were they are reading Shakespeare or Blake. Literature is considered on the one hand as a means of communication. For instance, Vincent gives Shakespeare’s sonnets to Catherine to express his love. Also we can often see characters reading to children creating a sense of community and love, but literature is considered as a means to access reality. Because Vincent is confined in the world below and the only way for him to see mountains, and lakes and sunsets are the books that he reads. I think that this representation of, I would say, classical arts, such as poetry or classical music, is in a way a mirror to what the show is doing, because the show is in itself a means of communication and an access to reality for the viewer, because it creates feelings that are real and it also gives us to see our world, especially in political terms, in a different way. You have to accept this odd beauty that the series has to offer and so you experience, as a viewer, beauty as a relationship of love.

In the series, art is everywhere, not only in literature, music or painting, but in the fact that everyone is an artist in his or her own way : Pascal for example is an artist concerning a very special means of communication, the use of pipes in the tunnel. Catherine says to Vincent : “Your world is so different from mine. In mine, people works for a paycheck but here, Pascal and his pipes.” The pipes chamber is Pascal’s life, his masterpiece, his viewpoint on the world. The relationship the characters have with their function in society is more an art than a job. Same thing with Mouse and the art of building stuff. Every character has something special to offer to the community. And it is also revealed by the way the episodes are written. The emphasis on one different character in every episode is a way to make the viewer care about them, to understand them, to see what is special about them, except that it is shown as being applicable to anyone. So the procedural aspect reveals every character’s beauty whereas the serialized structure of the show reintegrates every character in a community of love.

Even if the show builds a serialized structure on the progressive discovery of what we can call a mythology and on the development of the love story between Catherine and Vincent, the long term plot is very loose. I’m not talking about season 3 because I don’t want to spoil it. Season 3 is far more serialized but I don’t want to explain why. It doesn’t matter for what I’m trying to say today. But in the first two seasons, the characters do not really evolve, and this is because they are perfect heroes since day one. Catherine and Vincent are pure generosity and love and their relationship is almost immediately at its highest point. They never really doubt of each other. The only events are contained in the fact that sometimes Vincent could be at risk to be discovered in the first season or in the second season about the decision to live together or not. In terms of characterization, Vincent and Catherine are very unique because they possess the complexity, the authenticity of a realistic psychological storytelling but also the heroic and bigger-than-life quality and ideal nature of mythical characters.  You can see here the ending scene from labyrinths, the 8th episode of season 2 that symbolizes this double nature of the characters by a fade out that creates a superimposition of the model of the characters and the characters themselves. In this episode a young role playing gamer, that has met Vincent and Catherine, incorporate them in his game. His friends ask him who is Vincent : “Is he new?” And he answers : “No, he has always been there”. Exaclty as mythical figures of whom we cannot really know since when they exist.

So the series is trying to, I think, reconcile symbol, image and utopia with our reality and it is presented many times as an impossible dream, but at the same time, the TV series makes this dream come true, in terms of the community of viewers and because its aesthetic and narrative structure demonstrate the existence of this beauty as a way of seeing the world.

Opening credits

Definitions and typology of TV serial narratives

To begin with, let’s try to define some key words. Many scholars have elaborated different systems of classification for TV serial narratives. But, for a few years, I have been using my own terminology in French, which I will translate and try to outline below.

I use three main categories:

1. Formula shows (séries formulaires): storylines are limited to an episode and the series’ basic premise doesn’t evolve through time. Characters don’t change and you are supposed to be able to watch the episodes in any given order

2. Serialized shows (séries feuilletonnnantes): the storyline continues from one episode to the other, for example in soap operas, and you have to follow the order of the episodes.

3. Semi-serialized shows (séries semi-feuilletonnantes): this is a hybrid form of narration which was born during the 1980s and corresponds to almost all the productions of the 1990s. Many scholars have already described these three categories but, for me, there are two kinds of semi-serialized shows and this distinction is at the core of my current work.

3a. Semi-serialized formula shows (séries semi-feuilletonnantes formulaires)(like The X-Files for instance). As in formula shows, every episode is structured around the same formula, but here the characters can evolve, as well as the relationships that exist between them, and  story arcs are built through several episodes, an entire season or even the whole series. Also the formula itself can evolve. It constitutes a starting point and sets the identity of the show but, generally, it is going to be progressively deconstructed or rebuilt on another foundation (on this point see, Vladimir Lifschutz and his concept of “déformulation“: Les séries télévisées : une lutte sans fin ).

3b. Semi-serialized episodic shows (séries semi-feuilletonnantes épisodiques) (such as Lost). In this case, the episode maintains a certain autonomy, but does not apply the same formula. Its autonomy is not solely chronological—it is not just a piece of the storyline as in pure serialized shows—but rather, often, thematical. The episode develops a theme or a character, which gives it a sense of unity and determines a structure with a beginning and an end.

Both types don’t offer the same narrative possibilities. For instance, the first tends to play on ellipses and on secondary characters, whereas the second relies more on continuity effects and gives less room to characters other than the protagonists.

In this classification, I use “formula” following the work of Jean-Pierre Esquenazi (See for instance : Les séries télévisées, l’avenir du cinéma, Paris, Armand Colin, 2010) who defined it as “the strict framework that a TV series draws for itself”, and linked it to the idea of genre. But I limit my use of this term to a specific application of a genre that creates a series of scenes or patterns that you can find in each episode. For instance, in The X-Files, the structure of the cop show is combined with supernatural or science-fiction elements. But it means that in every episode, the viewer will find the same scenes: a crime, an investigation, different hypotheses, etc. These are combined with elements of directing, cinematography, and music which make for the basic identity of the show. Thus, in The X-Files, the teasers have a particular role as they generally introduce the victim without clearly identifying the author of the crime, because the whole structure of the episode will be built on the confrontation between several points of view on this given original event. Moreover, every episode will actualize this concept one way or another.

Those terms are not supposed to be used as definitive labels, but I think they can help to describe the specifities of many serial narratives, especially as they developped on American television. But to understand these forms, we also have to contextualize them in the history of television, which could be the topic of another post in the future.

Among all these kinds of serialized narratives, semi-serialized formula shows are the ones that I am especially interested in at the moment, and they are at the core of this blog. It seems to be the most restrictive type, because it has to compose with the demands of both formula and serialization, but it is actually the negotiation between these two patterns which gives it its scope and its depth.

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