There was a time when casting Patrick Swayze as a tough-as-nails, haggard FBI agent would have been laughable. His boyish looks and disarming charms made Swayze more suitable for films, where he danced Baby out of a corner or across the desert in drag.

Life has changed Swayze. Sure, he’s older. And his very public battle with pancreatic cancer has left him looking like a guy who cares more about the job than he does himself. But those two things show why the selection of Swayze to star in the new gritty A&E crime drama “The Beast” is no laughing matter.

Swayze plays FBI veteran Charles Barker. His years of working undercover have blurred the lines of how far he can go to bring the bad guys down. How far he has gone will be fodder for the series. An FBI Internal Affairs team begins an investigation to figure out whether Barker may have gone rogue.

These grizzled law enforcement roles are not easy to play. Make the character too rogue and the audience will never connect. Lean toward the more sympathetic version and the viewer won’t care enough to go along for the ride.

It’s way too early to know if Swayze’s performance is going to be as memorable as that of Michael Chiklis on “The Shield” or Dennis Franz on “NYPD Blue.” But Swayze shows signs in the first episode that his work could be just as strong.

The performance is even more remarkable considering Swayze’s battle with cancer during the filming.

The world-weariness of Barker is balanced by the naivete of his new rookie partner, Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel). The young agent soon learns that working as an undercover agent means he is one step from death and miles away from any serious relationships.

Fimmel is a big surprise. About the only thing he is known for as an actor is playing the lead role in the short-live TV series “Tarzan.” This role gives him more of an opportunity to show his personality.

He takes full advantage. It looks as if Fimmel will be a perfect acting counterweight to Swayze.

“The Beast” is the latest example of how cable channels have a better handle on developing TV shows than the broadcast networks. Television viewers want smart, well-acted programming. “The Beast” provides it.

What to watch

PROGRAM: “The Beast”

STARRING: Patrick Swayze, Travis Fimmel

WHEN: 10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15

CHANNEL: A&E

GRADE: B


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