Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Vampire, Werewolf and Ghost Walk Into A Bar: Being Human

Sure, as other critics have recently pointed out, the premise behind the new-to-Canada British TV series, Being Human (2009), does sound like the start of a dusty, old joke. Fortunately, its premise is not as bad as the title of my piece suggests. The show's conceit is that a vampire (Aidan Turner), werewolf (Russel Tovey) and ghost (Lenora Crichlow) decide to share an apartment in contemporary Bristol. Yet, the show, in the best British-series tradition, finds a way to bring both humour and tragedy to its high-concept idea.

It borrows widely from several current and older horror movies and TV shows: the vampire has become unwilling to 'partake' of human blood (Twilight (2008/2010), True Blood (2008/2010)); the nice-guy werewolf struggles with the dual nature of his personality – the desire to be a good man coupled with the need to tear people apart (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, David Thewlis in the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)); and the sweet, sexy (mildly annoying) ghost who just wants to be able to hold those she formerly loved (Ghost (1990)). It is also visually inspired by John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981), because how George the werewolf became a werewolf is not only identical in terms of location (the wilds of Scotland), but when we see his transformations, it is very obviously quoting, sometimes shot for shot, Rick Baker's effects in that film. And yet, this show is still original, bright, sexy, very fresh and, as I said above, sometimes very funny and deeply moving.

It also trolls some of the same territory as True Blood, but without the self-seriousness that taints that show, nor the camp I understand is coming to it during this season (I've only seen Season One of True Blood.) Why the high-concept makes so much sense here is that these are three 'marginal' people who have come together to support each other. Happily, the metaphor manages to avoid the obvious heaviness that also infects True Blood. It even finds an elegant way to undercut True Blood's central conceit of vampires enjoying substitute blood by making it clear substitute products, such as blood-donor blood doesn't work. As Mitchell the vampire tells a recently turned desperate vampire in episode three: “There's not enough life left in it. It's not a fresh kill.”

The giddy fun of this show is jammed cheek to jowl with the more disturbing elements. For example, there's this exchange between the guilt-ridden George and the world-weary Mitchell when George worries how he might 'act' if he has sex with a woman he's attracted to.

Mitchell: “I never know with you whether it's Jewish guilt or werewolf guilt.”
George: “They're pretty much the same thing.”

And later Mitchell forces the issue by telling the woman George fancies that George wants her to come over for dinner. When Mitchell tells a mortified George what he's done, they have this exchange.

George: “We need to set some ground rules about guests.”
Mitchell: “Such as?”
George: “We don't kill them.”
Mitchell “ Ah, such a bourgeois concept.”

Shortly after these exchanges the show bravely ventures into darker issues. For example, as George gets his beast on with his lady fair, Annie the ghost discovers how she really died – a memory she had so far suppressed. It's a complete jaw dropper and a game changer for her character. The show is also unafraid to go into the darker side of sexuality. At one point in the second episode, a vindictive vampire sends Mitchell a DVD. On the disc, all we see is a tattooed man seemingly having sex with an invisible woman (in fact, it's a vampire whose likeness cannot be picked up by digital photography). She then proceeds to feed, but all we see is his nude body jerk and shudder alone as she has her fill. She then dumps his limp corpse off the bed. It is chilling moments such as these, combined with its smart humour, that have quickly hooked me. I look forward to the rest of this week to find out how the first season plays out.

Season One is only six episodes long, while Season Two and the still-shooting Season Three comprise eight episodes. Short seasons such as this is a technique the Brits have used brilliantly over the years, something that American television really has to adopt for more challenging material. The science fiction channel, Space, is showing Season One back to back this week in preparation for the launch of Season Two in October. (Space will repeat Season One as a weekly series starting next Monday).

ADDENDUM: 10:30PM - August 25th. I've just watched episode four. In the ep, Mitchell befriends a picked-upon neighbourhood boy. Through circumstances, neighbours suspect Mitchell is a pedophile. The episode deals with this controversial subject in a mature, unnerving manner. The ending is truly moving. This show just keeps getting better and better. 

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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