A bold meld: fairy tale and police drama. CBS's `Beauty and the Beast' experiments with far-out format

Beauty and the Beast CBS, Friday, 10-11 p.m. New fantasy-action drama series premi`ering in special time period. Begins regular 8 p.m. schedule Oct. 2. He looks like ``a cross between a lion and a hippie,'' according to one young viewer. He lives in the vast labyrinth beneath the streets of New York City. And he is making a large crack in the overworked mold TV uses to produce its prime-time series.

Vincent is the soulful protagonist of this startling departure in series formating. The show is a marriage of classic fairy tale - with its psychological allegory - and TV police adventure. Add strong doses of ``Phantom of the Opera'' and you have a combination of the absurd and the insightfully different.

Vincent - the ``beast'' of the title - has been raised below the streets of New York by a brilliant eccentric. He rescues a lovely young lawyer named Catherine (the beauty) whose face has been slashed by mobsters (and is later displayed on screen in harrowing detail). Nursing her to health, he sends her back ``up there'' to a life of power lunches and glittery high-rise office buildings, where her father is a corporate lawyer.

After Vincent falls for Catherine, his feelings toward her throughout this preview are discreetly restrained and reflective - because, after all, he is part lion. But Catherine loves him in her way, and he can tell clairvoyantly when she's in danger and then race through tunnels to her aid.

Such a series - with its elements of the wonderful, tightly circumscribed by the silly - is almost impossible to judge by standard notions. What it takes is a grudging suspension of disbelief (and prime-time viewers are certainly in training for this), a childlike acceptance of the fantastic even in the midst of big-city slickness and routine police-action drama. By repressing guffaws, you can better accept what the show's fairy-tale roots have to offer, which is found in the subconscious thought represented by Vincent's subterranean domain, a place where mercy and truth - which life on the surface has little time for - can thrive.

``There's a whole world of tunnels and chambers that most people don't even know exists...,'' says Vincent to Catherine. ``It's a forgotten place ... but it's warm and safe ... and we try to take care of each other. It's our city, down there.'' Part of the show's fairy-tale heritage is in the contrast it draws between the compassion and sensitivity below ground and the intolerance and cruelty on the surface. When Cathy gazes on Vincent's face, it's pure fairy tale, tapping that form's well of elemental feelings. And when she's doing computer searches for criminal types - after she's taken a job with the district attorney's office - it's still a fairy tale. It continues to be when Vincent visits Cathy on her terrace and says, ``I've seen your world, and there's no place for me in it.'' He prefers his urban burrows, which is also a refuge for lots of life-battered people, heard tapping messages on pipes.

Whether it will also prove a refuge for viewers in search of something new is a serious question. I hope it promises more than the savage rescue near this episode's end, which momentarily throws the show into the ``Incredible Hulk'' category.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy some of the unusual touches this strange production offers. There's the way Vincent climbs, somewhat magically, over buildings and steals rides on top of subways, and the way his soft, almost angelic voice contrasts with his werewolf looks. There's the way a set of spiral stairs seems to take you below conscious life. And there are the tremendously evocative glimpses below New York's streets, a place as Gothic as anything in the Brothers Grimm.

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