[10 May 2011]
The BBC’s Being Human has sustained its popularity by mixing and matching several interesting premises. The idea of 20-something monsters (OK, the vampire only looks 20-something, even though he’s 100-something) moving in together and trying to lead a normal human life has all sorts of dramatic and comedic possibilities. This idea works with tightly written scripts that combine quirky humor with loads of “alternative lifetsyle” metaphors. Over three seasons, even the weak episodes and plotlines have been redeemed when the show’s creators just go all out Addams Family and play with the collision of the normal and the monstrous.
Even more intriguing is the show’s success at creating a fairly detailed and elaborate mythology. We learn of a long and bitter history of anger, betrayal and downright warfare between the vampire and werewolf communities. Vampires have kings and they are trying to run the police department. There’s a supernatural creature hunting organization with a cumbersome acronym. Sure, all of this borrows heavily from Blade, Underworld, Buffy , True Blood and every other supernatural ‘verse, but seldom have these backstories felt so nuanced and just so… real.
Season three opened with the world of George, Mitchell and Annie turned upside down. Annie found herself exorcised by the God-bothering Center for the Study of Supernatural Activity (CenSSA) and seemed stuck in the television or Hell or something (you have to see it to understand). Mitchell the vampire has been transformed by last season’s massive bloodletting at the Box Tunnel. George and fellow shapeshifting girlfriend Nina are hoping for a normal life in the Welsh countryside which, of course, proves impossible.
Along with exploring the major story arc of Mitchell, the Old ones and CenSSA, the series features a few fine stand-alone episodes. “Adam’s Family” tells the story of a relatively young vampire, a 46- year-old “teenager” who carries eternal adolescent hormones and must face the death of his parents. George and Nina end up attempting to rescue him from a band of vampire kinkmeisters well-disguised as suburban parents.
“Type 4” introduces a zombie to the mix. Annie the ghost meets a clubbing party girl named “Sasha” (“like the Beyonce album” she announces) who turns out to be the walking, rotting undead. There is an unforgettably grosstastic zombie snogging session and some medical experimentation horror. The episode’s humor combines with an exploration of the corporeal terrors of death and loss and regret as part of the experience of dying. This provides the perfect setting for some major revelations in the lives of the main characters. (Did you know that werewolves can get pregnant in wolf form even if they are on the pill in their human form? Me neither.)
Perhaps the most notable change in this season is the increased importance of Nina as central to the cast and indeed to everything that makes the show work. While adding new characters to an ensemble show is often controversial (think of the addition of Michelle Trachtenberg’s “Dawn” to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season five). Nina and George become a perfect comedy counterpoint for the fairly dour primary story arc, even in episodes that show the bloody brutality of the vampire-werewolf rivalry.
My major complaint with the series has to do with its rather pedestrian decision to recycle, yet again, the idea of the brooding, Byronic vampire. Being Human could have used this idea and played with it a bit more or, more creatively, made better use of George and Nina’s lycanthropy. I really can’t deal with any more tormented vampires in my pop culture life.
Mitchell’s torment is central to the disappointing story arc of season three. Much of the season feels like an attempt to clean up the aftermath of the Box Tunnel Massacre and to explore a prophecy of Mitchell’s death. Unfortunately, this lack of tautness in the narrative even shows up in what many viewers will feel is a manufactured crisis preceding the season’s shocking conclusion.
Having said that, Being Human remains a nearly pitch perfect fictive universe with characters we care about and, show for show, far more unforgettable set-pieces than most of what’s on television. The failings of the primary narrative arc, though significant, are not enough to keep it from being very entertaining and nearly perfectly balancing comedy, drama and sometimes a deep thoughtfulness about issues ranging from human mortality to the intimate politics of pregnancy and abortion.
The DVD set is lean on special features, a fact not surprising to owners of BBC boxed sets. The third disc contains all the special features, a disappointment to anyone hoping for commentary tracks. Features include a set of interviews with the cast that are not especially insightful and mostly boil down to how much the principals enjoy working on the show. The deleted scenes reel is surprisingly short and doesn’t really give us anything new.
A final word on the Being Human in relation to its North American incarnation. Most viewers are going to prefer the original BBC tale. It certainly has more depth, though this is in part because the Sy/Fy series has only one season at its back. The writing for the North American series doesn’t have any close to the depth of the BBC original and the humor feels like Friends with bloodletting. The BBC, however, has managed to create a monster tale with pathos and meaning, making us recognize in them the struggle of being human.