Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In one of the introductory sections of George R.R. Martin’s two-volume, career-spanning story collection Dreamsongs, Martin writes about H.L. Gold’s pioneering literary magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, which once printed a pledge on its back cover never to take generic action stories—what the magazine called “Bat Durston” Westerns—and give them a fake sci-fi sheen. Then Martin writes about the shame he felt in the ’70s when some of the work he submitted to the high-end sci-fi magazines was rejected for not being “hard-nosed, steel-clad, [or] scientifically rigorous” enough—for not being “real science-fiction,” in other words. “They were claiming that I wrote Bat Durston stories,” Martin moans. But then he takes a broader view:
The thing is, the more I considered old Bat, and Asimov, and Heinlein and Campbell, and Wells and Verne… and all the rest of the Smiths and the Joneses too, the more I realized something that H.L. Gold did not. Boys and girls, they’re all Bat Durston stories. All of mine, and all of yours, and all of his, and all of hers. The Space Merchants (which Gold serialized in Galaxy as Gravy Planet) is about Madison Avenue in the ’50s, The Forever War is about Vietnam, Neuromancer is a caper novel tricked up in fancy prose, and Asimov’s Galactic Empire bears a suspicious likeness to one the Romans had a while back. … Motor cars or horses, tricorns or togas, ray-guns or six-shooters, none of it matters, so long as the people remain. Sometimes we get so busy drawing boundaries and making labels that we lose track of that truth. … We can make up all the definitions of science-fiction and fantasy and horror that we want. We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself. The rest, my friends, is furniture.
Of course, Martin would say that, given the diversity of his output over the years. In addition to sci-fi and fantasy, Martin has written horror and super-hero stories, in a range of styles from humorous to experimental to classical. He’s written short stories, novellas, novels, and epic multi-part novels. And long before his A Song Of Ice And Fire series made it to television via HBO’s hit Game Of Thrones, Martin worked in TV himself. He was invited to contribute to the mid-’80s revival of The Twilight Zone, and became a staff writer as the series headed into its second season in 1986. Then after it got cancelled, Martin moved straight from The Twilight Zone to another geek-friendly CBS show: Beauty And The Beast.
Beauty And The Beast was one of the stranger network offerings of the ’80s. Linda Hamilton stars as a well-to-do New York attorney named Catherine Chandler, who discovers an entire community of freaks and gentlefolk living under the city and becomes captivated by a long-haired, cat-faced hulk named Vincent (played by the naturally leonine Ron Perlman). The show isn’t easily classifiable: The relationship between Catherine and Vincent marks it as a romance, but at times it’s also a crime drama, and at times a good-vs.-evil fantasy-adventure. In essence, it’s the story of a young woman going against her upbringing and remaking her life. But it’s an offbeat kind of story, as established by the opening credits, which explain the premise over soft-edged, very late-’80s-looking imagery and a lush Lee Holdridge theme song.
Beauty And The Beast was created by Ron Koslow, but Martin was a major contributor, and gets a writing credit on 14 of the series’ 56 episodes. One of the best Martin episodes is season one’s “Ozymandias,” which first aired on April 1, 1988. The title comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet about the ultimate meaninglessness of monuments to power—a poem that gets quoted in full at the end of the episode:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The Ozymandias of Martin’s “Ozymandias” is wealthy real-estate developer Elliot Burch (played by Edward Albert, son of Green Acres’ Eddie Albert), who intends to build Burch Towers, the world’s tallest building complex. He comes to the district attorney’s office because he believes that his chief business rival is trying to scotch the project by stealing equipment and hiring fake “picketers” to harass construction workers. He’s also there because he’s in love with Catherine—an investigator for the DA—and though Burch has all the official approvals he needs from the city, he’d like Catherine’s personal approval as well. He describes Burch Towers to her as “a city within a city,” and shows her a picture of the New York skyline with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, saying that he too would like to give something back to the city he loves.
What Burch doesn’t realize, though, is that Catherine knows all about cities within cities. Visiting her friends in “the world below,” she learns that Vincent is concerned, because the construction of Burch Towers is rattling the tunnels and threatening his world’s entire foundation—starting with the lair of old painter Elizabeth, who has scrawled the history of New York on her walls. Elizabeth refuses to move to the lower chambers, preferring to stay with her art, showing the kind of self-defeating pride in her creation that Burch has shown with his Towers. In fact, all of Vincent’s people are fretting about the loss of their art and culture, while Vincent tries to reassure them that, “What’s lost can be built again. As long as we have each other, our world will survive.”
Beauty And The Beast arrived toward the end of the go-go ’80s, and frequently served as a critique of what had happened to New York City over the course of a materialistic decade. When the series began, Catherine was a corporate attorney working for her father, but she moved to the DA’s office after being attacked by criminals and saved by Vincent. Nevertheless, when she calls on an old friend who’s been protesting Burch Towers, the friend hisses, “Where did you learn about commitment? Did you buy some with your daddy’s credit card?” Her friend also voices complaints about gentrification that aren’t too far removed from Elizabeth’s fear of what the world below will lose if Burch Towers are completed.
But Catherine has a grander plan. She agrees to marry Burch, but only if he’ll cancel the Towers project. She’s willing to sacrifice her happiness to save Vincent’s world. But Burch can’t do it. As he’d told her before, “I go for the win.
Beauty And The Beast has an unusual tone: down-to-earth in its aboveground scenes, enchanted and florid when it moves down below, yet with a hazy look in both locations. The show trades on the romantic idea of a peaceful community living in the forgotten spaces of a bustling metropolis, a lot like a cleaned-up version of the documentary Dark Days, which is about the addicts, outcasts, and mentally ill who fend for themselves in New York’s abandoned subway tunnels. But Beauty And The Beast also suggests that the tunnel-people are more in touch with their feelings than the people up top, and that only with Vincent can Catherine really speak from her heart, not just her mind. It suggests that only by connecting with this almost dreamlike world can city-dwellers be whole. (This aspect of the show was deftly parodied by Saturday Night Live in its November 12, 1988 episode, in a sketch in which Phil Hartman’s all-romance-all-the-time version of Vincent contrasts with Jon Lovitz as a gawkier, nerdier beast.)
Beauty And The Beast started strong, getting nominated for Best Drama Emmys in its first two years, and developing an intense cult following. But it was never a huge hit, and once Hamilton left at the start of the third season, the show went off the rails and was cancelled at midseason. Martin moved on as well. He worked on movie projects and developed TV series that didn’t get picked up. He also had an unexpected success with the superhero-themed Wild Cards short story anthologies, which he edited and contributed to. Encouraged by his Wild Cards experience to return to long-form fiction, he began working on a science-fiction novel, until one day he got sidetracked by an idea for a story about a boy going to witness a beheading. Before he fully understood what had happened, he’d started writing A Game Of Thrones.
That one of the most beloved and acclaimed fantasy epics of our time could’ve sprung to life while its author was working on a sci-fi novel and assorted horror projects goes back to what Martin writes about genre trappings as “furniture.” Martin’s one of the best in the business at creating full, vivid fictional universes, but only because he understands that the heart of his stories is rarely in the complicated mythological details or the style of the writing. Even the subject matter isn’t necessarily the defining element of a piece of literature. Consider Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which was originally written as part of a friendly game of one-upsmanship between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith. Smith’s own “Ozymandias” was published three weeks after Shelley’s, and reads:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
The two poems have the same subject, and a similar theme. Yet Shelley’s sonnet is more directly about the arrogance of the mighty, and thus more powerful. (Or maybe it only seems so because it’s better-known.)
As for Beauty And The Beast, one of the reasons it had a hard time attracting viewers is that the kind of male viewer who might be inclined to enjoy a show about a courtly underworld populated by noble monsters also tends to be the kind of male viewer uninterested in a show about two people expressing their love for each other in flowery language over swelling music. And let’s face it: Beauty And The Beast hardly undersold its romantic side. Fans of the series had to be willing to accept its conventions, which included characters pouring their souls out to each other. That’s not an easy thing for everyone to buy. Critics and the culture at large are often more forgiving of genre fare if it’s action-driven as opposed to emotion-driven, regardless of the ultimate quality. The dumbest shoot-’em-up is frequently more respected than the most artful chick-flick.
Yet whether Beauty And The Beast is about a hard-nosed lawyer learning the secrets of her own heart or a society of costumed oddballs fighting evildoers, the show remains the story of people trying to live in harmony. It’s all laid out in the opening credits, really, which show a towering city, and then, down a fractal staircase, a cramped underground. Two worlds—different and yet connected.
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Studio One, “Arena”