“Being Human”… Even When the Monsters Win

Being Human seems ripe for clichés about the undead or cursed. It takes a bite out of the competition. It gives the vampire (or werewolf or ghost) premise new life. Its haunting story arcs are frighteningly good. Instead of sucking the life out of its audience, it digs up new ways to entertain and enlighten. Howl it do in the U.S. on BBC America? (Quite well.) This British import, however, defies the clichés and conventional wisdom about what a supernatural drama needs in order to become a monster hit.

Ghost Annie (Lenora Crichlow), vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner), and werewolf George (Russell Tovey) want to be average, everyday mortals, although they know this option is no longer possible. They are most heroic simply when they continue to go about their everyday “lives” and struggle against the forces of evil determined to subjugate them. As often as not, these “forces of evil” — the series’ true monsters — are human neighbors, scientists, corporate administrators, religious zealots, or well-meaning acquaintances who might reveal or destroy them.

Being Human stands out from the pack by using the inhuman to illustrate humanity. It goes against the prevailing wisdom shown in similar genre series during the past forty years (e.g., Dark Shadows, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Forever Knight, Angel, Wolf Lake, Moonlight, and True Blood) that portray the ghoulish as savior heroes or, at least, outsider hero wannabes. Unlike a Buffy or an Angel, in which nearly everyone is something supernatural and their world is always surreal, Being Human’s Bristol neighborhood, with its local pub, fixer-upper homes, and worn out hospital, is grittily and often frighteningly real. Unlike the specifically Northeastern U.S. Dark Shadows and Mrs. Muir, SoCal Sunnydale, or Southern True Blood, Being Human’s setting could stand in for many UK or U.S. working class neighborhoods.

This compelling BBC dramedy continues to win critical acclaim and gain an ever-wider audience in the UK as it goes into its third season. In early June 2010, the cast began filming eight new episodes in Cardiff (although the series will still be set in nearby Bristol). Mitchell, George, and Annie are uniquely “human” and imminently watchable, even as the second season (beginning July 24 on BBC America) leads audiences even further into the darkness, and the season opener makes the usually likable George a bit more of a “monster” than usual.

Critical Praise on Both Sides of the Pond

Like the series’ fans, critics recognize Being Human as something special. In an IGN review, British critic Matt Wales applauded the second season’s finale: “Hear that twanging sound? That’s the noise of Being Human catapulting itself into a whole other league.” Wales wasn’t alone in his quality assessment; Being Human was nominated for a Best Drama BAFTA.

When the series headed across the Atlantic in 2009, reviewers were equally effusive. TV Guide critic Matt Roush entitled his positive review of Being Human “Another BBC America Winner.” The Los Angeles Times review concluded that “Creator Toby Whithouse takes all the themes associated with the cursed and the damned very seriously, and if his exploration of them is less baroque than other franchises, it promises to be even more effective.” The New York Times review overtly compared Being Human with American hit True Blood: “Oddly enough, Being Human, a series that posits ghosts, werewolves and vampires roaming through the pubs and supermarkets of Bristol, is more prosaic, but more compelling.” The review also explained part of Being Human’s appeal to Americans: “The charm of the show lies in the delicate balance of engrossing drama and disarming humor; the series is not campy or self-conscious, it’s witty in an offhand, understated way.” Although Being Human could be merely entertaining and its characters (and actors) appealing, the series makes some insightful points about modern living that elevate it beyond the average ghoul show.

A World in which the Monsters Win

The series’ leads often try to act human but admit they will always be separate from humanity. Being Human admits that, in fact, the world’s real monsters have won the battle between good and evil; all characters are monstrous to some extent. The main characters may be sympathetic victims (of being bitten by a werewolf or a vampire or pushed to death’s door by a murderous partner), but George, Mitchell, and Annie are far from perfect. Sometimes self-centered, vain, fretful, annoying, depressed, or insecure, they nevertheless can also be loyal, funny, supportive, and hopeful. Even at their moral best, when they try to protect humanity from the undead who would prey upon the living, they often fail. Being Human is a significant TV series not only because it presents a modern view of the world in which monsters prevail but because it does an extremely good job of illustrating what makes humanity worth saving, even if it often seems to be a losing cause.

In a first season episode, vampire Mitchell saves young Bernie from bullies, earning him the boy’s adoration and mother’s gratitude. As role model/surrogate dad, Mitchell brings the boy home, where they, along with George, share some quality “guy time.” Despite his youthful exterior, Mitchell is decades older than his neighbors and finds the boy’s movie taste rather pedestrian. He encourages Bernie to share his interest in Laurel and Hardy films and tells him to take home a DVD from his collection. Unfortunately, the boy accidentally picks up a vampire snuff film sent to Mitchell by the collective trying to coerce him to come “home” instead of living hopelessly among humans and passing as “one of them.”

Soon after Bernie’s mother sees him viewing the DVD’s graphic sex scene, she gets the neighborhood to attack “pedophiles” Mitchell and George. In the aftermath, Bernie is mortally injured — and Mitchell and the boy’s grieving mother must decide whether to make her son one of the living dead or to let him die. Either choice is far removed from Mitchell’s original good intention to improve the boy’s quality of life.

Although Mitchell may initially seem to be the episode’s hero, this role is invariably twisted. He should have been a hero for protecting the boy against bullies and becoming an adult role model. However, because Mitchell is, after all, a vampire, he really can’t be an ideal role model, no matter how much he — or fans — may want him to be. Even when Mitchell and the boy’s mother have to decide whether the wounded child will “live” or die, his options are circumscribed by his role as vampire, not as a traditional TV hero. Yet he isn’t as overtly monstrous as the “well-intentioned” lynch mob that ostracizes not only Mitchell but George.

Annie’s and George’s story arcs are similarly complicated. Annie is an abused woman fearful to leave the house; whether alive or dead, she is a ghost within society. George is physically cursed to turn werewolf at the full moon and he questions whether he should love anyone or simply go through the motions of living lonely. These characters’ afflictions may be metaphors for agoraphobia, abuse, addiction, or any other reason for being perceived as outside the societal norm. Being Human is as much about the way these characters deal with their everyday but very real traumas as it is a story of the otherworldly.

Although recent SF series such as Caprica and Supernatural also try to define what makes us human (or, conversely, what makes us monsters), Being Human attracts viewers because of its less than heavy-handed approach. It touches on everyday experiences — getting or keeping a job, going on a date, meeting the neighbors — as much as the roommates’ dilemmas of where to turn werewolf during the full moon or whether to dine on real or synthesized blood. Being Human isn’t an apocalyptic tale. Instead, it presents the struggle between good and evil, humanity and monstrosity, within the themes of friendship and moral dilemmas as faced by three intriguing roommates who just happen to be a ghost, a vampire, and a werewolf.

Interview with the Werewolf

A werewolf walks into a pub, not an unusual occurrence on Being Human. That also sounds like the lead-in to a punch line, but werewolf George is anything but a joke, and Russell Tovey’s eagerly awaiting fans took their opportunity to interview the actor very seriously. On hand for a fan gathering at Cricketer’s Arms in Orlando, Tovey answered questions about his TV and film roles.

Although Tovey may be best known to U.S. audiences as George, his list of stage, film, and TV credits illustrates his versatility and increasing popularity. Perhaps best-known on stage and in film as Rudge in The History Boys, Tovey is also recognized by Doctor Who fans as Midshipman Alonso Frame. In addition, he is a playwright who appreciates the nuance of a good story.

When asked if, out of all these roles, becoming famous as a TV werewolf is a bit worrisome, the actor merely smiled, “Not at all.” Tovey emphasized how great it is for U.S. audiences to be aware of his work. “Sci fi, especially vampires and werewolves, at the moment is huge, and there’s a big following out there. I’m really happy to be recognized by that.”

Tovey is as curious as his fans to know what George will do next. “The writing is amazing. It surprises me,” he enthused. Although the first series increased the humor to offset the drama, Tovey liked the acting challenges provided by the second season’s darker twists. When asked where he might like to see his character go in future episodes, he joked that perhaps George and girlfriend Nina might settle down and have some little werewolf cubs. Wherever George takes him, however, Tovey seems happy to go on the journey.

Appearances at events like this smaller gathering enhance the show’s good word of mouth as much as sessions at larger conventions, such as Orlando’s Megacon or San Diego’s Comic-Con, where a Being Human Q&A is scheduled again this year. U.S. fan conventions are increasingly becoming an important way to market TV series, especially imports. Being Human is one of the latest in a series of BBC-originated programs (including Doctor Who and Torchwood) being marketed to U.S. cable audiences.

The actors appreciate and interact well with their fans, even if they still seem somewhat surprised at their growing American fandom. Although SyFy is creating a U.S. version, fans happy with the quirky original might find more to like about Being Human, instead of choosing between the two. As one of BBC America’s highest rated shows, Mitchell and company clearly have staked their claim on fans.

The Social Dilemmas of “Being Human”

The universality of the human experience makes this series especially marketable to global audiences. Undoubtedly, “being human” is often a drama offset by black humor, and Being Human merely plays up that fact. Even undead Mitchell or Annie still have to deal with peer pressure and the threat of not living up to expectations — whether that means becoming leader of the vampires bent on dominating humanity or deciding whether to go through the doorway to an afterlife shadowed by men with sticks and rope. Poor George not only has to worry about a safe place to spend the next full moon, but how his condition affects his love life and lover.

A strength of Being Human, as a series or reality, is the ability to laugh at the irony of modern existence and to band together with supportive friends and lovers to combat the aching loneliness of being “other.” Quirky but not campy, British but humanly universal in situation and appeal, Being Human helps audiences identify with average people whose futures are unexpectedly and unalterably changed in one brutal moment. In 2010, many viewers can relate.

The “monsters” in our world, as well as Annie’s, Mitchell’s, and George’s, seem to be winning the war. Seeing the “inhuman other” (that is, the series’ main characters) keep fighting back, even winning the occasional battle, is a compelling story that gives hope to fans. For that alone, Being Human deserves a closer look.