Déjà Vu is Often Part of Being Human

Being Human sometimes involves suffering déjà vu. Fans of the cult-fave British series might focus on a few nitpicks or Britpicks, because they already know the plot of Syfy’s latest series. More important, though, the story didn’t get lost in translation, and the human dramas of the series’ protagonists—vampire, werewolf, and ghost—are well worth exploring, again or for the first time.

Fans of the British Being Human, now slated for a late-January premiere on BBC, already know the story, for the American series often matches the original scene for scene. A few details have been changed and the story somewhat compressed so that the pace of Syfy’s first episode is very fast indeed. It’s as if the writers assume that at least part of their audience already knows the plot and is busy making comparisons with the British version (which I found myself doing, despite my best intentions not to). Those with no prior expectations for characters or stories should be particularly intrigued—and those who know the plot will still find a lesbian kiss here, a Bon Jovi reference there that differs from the original script.

A strength of the original is the musical backdrop, an eclectic mix of British pop that spans a few decades, if necessary, to supply the appropriate lyric or beat. Hint for Syfy: Keep the musical background full of ghost-referencing songs or lyrics that offer insights into the human/inhuman condition, just like the music enhanced the first scenes of the premiere episode. Music is a plus of the U.K. series and should become an integral part of the U.S. series.

Another benefit is the variety of camera angles and quick cuts that keep the story’s pace brisk. The dialogue (especially Sally’s) sometimes rushes past, which can be distracting, but the transitions between scenes, or even whole scenes of the mundane aspects of normal life—such as cleaning house—can and should be time compressed via careful editing and visually interesting shots. Keeping the story moving is a good idea; rushing through dialogue, not so much.

Certainly there are “Americanisms” in Syfy’s story, with North American actors and accents telling the tale. However, the opening narration changes the series’ tone and depth, at least to me. In the introductory voiceover that sets up the question of what it means to be human, werewolf Josh mentions some superficial definitions. “We’re all hiding something, aren’t we? … Color that hair. Twist off that wedding ring. And why not? What are the consequences? I’m only human, after all.” Josh then describes being Other, certainly a theme of both versions of the same story.

Sometimes word choice makes a big a difference, and the British pilot episode’s opening narration is much darker. In it, vampire Mitchell notes that “human nature, or the human condition, is being alone, like being lost in the woods…I see the world as full of beautiful things, unspeakable things. The trick is to keep them hidden.”

How very American to offer as a first definition of “being human” the way that humans look on the outside, rather than delving beneath the skin. Much of this first episode emphasizes human flesh and touch—the slide of blood down the arm of a beautiful woman, the inability of vampire Aidan to comfort ghost Sally by touch. Certainly, sensual enjoyment of life—or, conversely, the inability to eat, drink, or touch—is emphasized in both versions, but I was a bit disappointed that the opening lines of Syfy’s Being Human focused primarily on appearance. I hope that the titular theme is explored in a bit more depth as the series progresses.

My other quibble is the amount of space—perhaps a historic nod to the “wide open spaces” of the U.S., as well the global perception that Americans want the biggest of everything. The Bristol house was dark and cramped, and the claustrophobic space of kitchen or staircase added the right tone to the roommates’ first years of feeling boxed in emotionally and socially. (I haven’t seen episodes set in the new Welsh digs, but they reportedly are larger.) Josh and Aidan’s starter home has bigger rooms, more windows, and a cheerier brightness, for all that the layout is similar to that of the little pink house. It’s not a bad change—and I like the Boston house’s layout simply because it’s close to the house in my head, the place where the story I already know was originally told. The new setting, however, doesn’t seem quite as appropriately closed off to match the roommates’ fears.

Highlights of the first episode include Mark Pellegrino’s darkly devious Bishop, the ruling vampire. Like the police officer he mesmerizes into doing his bidding, I felt compelled to watch him, even if I knew what he was planning to do. Pellegrino makes the role deliciously his own (and I almost didn’t add that he really sinks his teeth into it without chewing the scenery). Sex and violence are necessary to this story’s success, and—parental warning firmly in place—the primal natures of human and inhuman alike weren’t hidden or subdued, with one exception. Compared with British George’s transformation as a werewolf in the first scene of the pilot episode, American Josh’s “coming out” is rather tame—shown in long shot, with more obstacles and less lighting. Yes, there’s nudity, but it’s almost shy.

Josh in general is more subdued than George, as werewolves go. I missed George’s giddiness in first exploring the house or his greater vulnerability and angst in dealing with his curse. Such comparisons aren’t fair—Josh (Sam Huntington) and George (Russell Tovey), and the actors who play them, should be clearly separated. That’s a difficult prospect for those Being Human fans who watch both series. I enjoy both actors’ performances, but sometimes I like one or the other better in a similar scene.

If you missed the premiere, Syfy is repeating the first episode once a day the rest of this week, with a new episode broadcast next Monday at 9 Eastern/8 Central in the U.S. The Syfy site’s schedule is searchable by series and lists the week’s various viewing times.

Syfy might have to imagine greater to distinguish their series from the BBC’s, but they’ve chosen a worthwhile story and seem to be committed to a high-quality production. Is Being Human a story worth being told twice, especially when the remake premieres days before the original’s third season? Yes. Might Being Human offer at least a few different insights into who we are—nationally? Yes. (It already has done that with its opening narration.) Is Syfy’s Being Human worth watching, both for quality of story and the way that story is told? If the first episode is any indication of future episodes, Yes. Is it still going to face comparisons, however unfair, by fans who have seen both? Unfortunately, Yes.