The Beast, a limited summer run series, is practically all premise: The title refers to a 24 hour cable news network and its insatiable appetite for — well, I’d say news, but ”The Beast”’s gimmick is that it also turns its cameras on the news gatherers themselves: The WNS studio has cameras all over the joint, broadcasting the reporters and producers hashing out what they’re going to report. Thus, were the fictional WNS to actually exist, you’d switch it on and see station owner Jackson Burns (a goateed, sinuous Frank Langella) say, ”I’m very interested in the process” and that he just wants to ”feed [news] out there, raw.” ”The Beast”’s pilot has a frenetic pace courtesy of feature film director Mimi Leder (”Pay It Forward”) and uses a newcomer to the network, a print reporter played by Elizabeth Mitchell (she was Laura Innes’ lesbian psychiatrist fling on this season’s ”ER”) as our wide eyed guide to WNS’ quirks. Jason Gedrick (”The Last Don”) is the show’s dashing, leather jacketed anchor, but the best performance is given by Peter Riegert (”Local Hero,” ”Animal House”) as a middle aged angry producer.
I like ”The Beast”’s irreverence — it makes fun of both CBS’ Mike Wallace and its network’s own veteran newsman, Peter Jennings. I like the way it turns Paddy Chayevsky’s 1976 film screed ”Network” inside out: Instead of presenting an anchor who can’t take the cynicism of TV news anymore, ”The Beast” revels in exposing TV’s inner workings because its makers think that’s a form of honesty ? of idealism, even. This extends to the oldest journalistic conundrum in the scriptwriter’s handbook: the debate over whether to air a live execution. Again, ”The Beast” backs away from the effectiveness of its stars and goes for easy targets. In the pilot, Langella is the cold, calculating center of the show, but by episode 3, this beastly boss gets all paternal, telling a troubled Gedrick, ”If ever you do want to talk, I’ll listen.” Which means, in theory, that all of WNS’ viewership will have to listen too. Oh, I can just hear the thumb joints cracking on remote controls all over the country now.