Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast premieres today, a lavish, live-action affair starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, and Luke Evans. The film has thus far received decidedly tepid critical reviews (my colleague David Sims: “A Tale as Old as Time, Told Worse”). No matter, though: If you’re a fan of modern-ish renderings of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 fairy tale, there are many, many—so many—other live-action versions of it already in existence, varied to suit any beautiful-bestial entertainment need.
There’s Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, and Edward Cahn’s Beauty and the Beast, from 1962, and 1983’s Skønheden og udyret, a Danish version of the story directed by Nils Malmros. There are also the movies—all of them titled Beauty and the Beast—that premiered in 1992, and then in 2005, and then in 2009, and then in 2014. There’s also the 1987 musical film starring Rebecca De Mornay and John Savage. And in case film isn’t your preferred medium, there have also been several Beauty and the Beast video games. And novels. And songs. And also a ballet. And there have been multiple TV shows, too—not just Belle/Beast-themed episodes of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Men and Merlin, but also a 1976 TV movie starring Trish Van Devere, and a 2009 TV movie starring Estella Warren, and the series that premiered in 2012 on the CW, this one starring Kristin Kreuk.
So you have a lots of bets, bête-wise. But the best of all of these efforts, I’d venture to suggest—the most compelling, the most nuanced, and definitely the one with the hair-sprayiest Beast—is the 1987 TV show starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. The one that was set in New York City. And that doubled as a crime procedural. The one that was co-written and produced by one George R.R. Martin, writer of A Song of Ice and Fire, the source novels for Game of Thrones. The one that was a little bit fantasy and a little bit realism, a magical, whimsical, gritty fusion of Law & Order (which would premiere in 1990, the last year of Beauty and the Beast’s run on CBS) and the Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast; the one that won multiple Emmys, and was nominated for many more; the cult hit that anticipated Buffy with its cheeky form of late-’80s American feminism.
Hamilton, coming to the role fresh off her work in The Terminator, is Catherine Chandler, a socialite and half-hearted attorney in her father’s law firm in Manhattan. She’s in that situation that many films and TV shows of the ’80s found their lead women to be in: She’s “successful,” but misunderstood—and, thus, unfulfilled. She does her job dutifully, but dispassionately; she has a boyfriend who treats her as arm candy; she wants more, but isn’t yet fully aware of that. Then, one night, as she’s leaving a party alone, after a disagreement with said boyfriend, she is grabbed by criminals—who, mistaking her for a woman named “Carol,” slash her face (“you know what happens to little girls who can’t keep their mouth shut?”) and leave her for dead in what appears to be Central Park.
Yes. I told you it was gritty! And then: Catherine is rescued. By, yes, the Beast—a fellow named, in this case, Vincent (he was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital)—who lives with the father who adopted him as part of a collective of misfits who have made their homes underneath New York City. Vincent, for reasons not immediately explained by the show, resembles the Disney (and the Cocteau) versions of the Beast, and not just in his vaguely feline affect: He wears medieval-esque clothing, as does his father, and sports the overall look of a lion who has joined a mid-’80s hair band. But the thing about Vincent—the thing that connects this Beauty and the Beast to the many others that preceded and followed it—is that he is extremely good, and decent, and caring. He shares an “empathic connection” with people, and with Catherine, in particular.
Ridiculous? Yes, so very much. But also: charming? Ahead of its time? Offering subtle and often totally unsubtle commentary about belonging and otherness and the transcendent powers of empathy? All that, too, definitely. If you haven’t watched it, it is well worth a watch—probably more worth a watch than the latest live-action Beauty and the Beast. (All three seasons are currently included on Amazon Prime.) And you might, be forewarned, keep watching. Because that 1987 pilot episode brings with it so many urgent questions. Will Catherine receive plastic surgery that undoes the scars mistakenly inflicted on her, thus returning her to Beauty status? Will Vincent become a vigilante? Will being the victim of a violent crime motivate Catherine to join the District Attorney’s office, thus giving her a renewed sense of professional purpose? Will she fall in love with Vincent? Will she and Vincent end up having a child together? Will they be both a little scared, neither one prepared?
They’re questions that will, over the course of three seasons, be answered by the show that IMDB sums up, dutifully and also quite beautifully, as “the adventures and romance of a sensitive and cultured lion-man and a crusading assistant district attorney in Manhattan, New York City.”