Those who tune in to the premiere of "The Beast" for purely macabre reasons (i.e., looking to get a glimpse of a man wasting away before their eyes) will come away disappointed. Patrick Swayze may be battling pancreatic cancer, but you wouldn't know it to observe the actor's powerful performance as a loose-cannon undercover FBI agent in what is otherwise a fairly standard-issue cop drama.

As for that bracing work by Swayze, forget about "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost" and think Dirty Harry. Playing a fed who is out of control, his performance is edgy, disturbing and all-involving. Even at its most contrived, "Beast" works far better than last year's homegrown A&E hour "The Cleaner," with Benjamin Bratt.

Swayze's manic, seemingly suicidal Charles Barker has just taken on a handpicked new partner with the colorful name of Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel of the short-lived 2003 WB Network series "Tarzan"), whom Barker takes great pleasure in hazing. This instantly turns Dove into a nervous wreck and wreaks havoc on his dating life.

Then there are the FBI internal affairs folks who enlist Dove to clandestinely rein in Barker, whom they "suspect" might have gone rogue.

This is where the series seems to suffer: There's no real ambiguity as to what's up with Barker. He's actually using a missile launcher to try to entrap the bad guys. Barker seems to be so undercover that he doesn't even know where the covers are anymore. And that leaves the audience feeling a little uneasy and confused.

"Beast" has a far grittier feel and look than one would suspect from a show starring Swayze — not to mention one on A&E. The action often is energetic and intriguing but sometimes is brought down by Fimmel's uneven performance. The rest of the supporting cast acquits itself well, and Swayze manages to bring the words of scribes Vincent Angell and William L. Rotko to menacing life.

Again, there is nothing terribly special about the execution of the drama or its premise in the opening pair of episodes.

What's unmistakable is the killer work of the star. May the man somehow beat the odds and fight defiantly on. (partialdiff)
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