The BBC series Bedlam begins with a scene right out of a classic scary story. A lone driver on a dark and rainy night pulls over to pick up a mysterious hooded figure, who says nothing upon entering the car. Rain is coming down in sheets, the headlights barely make a dent in the darkness ahead. The radio plays a monotonous pop song. The driver mentions that he’s only going so far. The hitchhiker stares at him menacingly, and then looks pointedly at the dashboard display; lights, radio, clock. The driver offers to switch stations, and finds a news report.
Something, someone, dangerous is loose in the area and, though the details are unclear, warnings have been issued. Stay off that road. The now nervous driver prattles on about how he should phone his wife, how she’ll be making shepherd’s pie for supper, he’s really got to get home. The radio announcer drones in the background as the hitchhiker lowers his hood, turns to the driver and says, “You are dead.”
Trying to ignore what he has just heard, the driver pulls off the road, ostensibly to let his passenger out. This is as far as he’s going, you see. He babbles a bit more about the shepherd’s pie—he’s understandably shaken and attempting to cling to a safe thought, he has to get home to his wife—but the hitchhiker repeats, “You. Are. DEAD.”
It’s here the twist occurs. The driver’s head slips back, his eyes go black and he begins to scream. Because he is, in fact, dead. He and his wife perished in a car crash and his spirit has yet to move on, but once he’s shown proof of his demise, he steps out of the car and disappears into the white light that awaits him. It’s an exciting and enticing start to the story, for sure.
The mysterious hitchhiker is actually the main protagonist, Jed (Theo James, Downton Abbey), who has the ability to not only see ghosts, but to specifically see how they died. He has recently been released from an institution where he was being treated for this “affliction”. He has also been receiving strange, unexplained text messages, and is on his way to “SAVE KATE” when we see the opening hitchhiking scene.
Kate Bettany (Charlotte Salt), is his spoiled, ice-queen cousin. She and her vaguely sinister father Warren Bettany (Hugo Speer) are converting the insane asylum that has been in the family for generations into blocks of luxury apartments, aptly named Bedlam Heights. Kate’s wing of the building is finished, though groundbreaking and renovations are still going on elsewhere on the property when Jed arrives to stay with her, and her flatmates Ryan (Will Young), the computer consultant, and Molly (Ashley Madekwe), the idealistic freeloader.
There’s loads of sexual tension between all of these 20-something characters, including Kate and Jed (that’s explained away by the fact that Jed was adopted by Warren’s sister-in-law), but all the “Will they or won’t they?” gets old and overdone even before the end of the first episode. The interpersonal dynamics seem stale, so watching these four young, hot and often half-naked folks sharing a living space sadly lacks any of its presumably intended incendiary effect.
And despite the cracking ghost story of the opening sequence, the first few haunting occurrences at Bedlam Heights leave a lot to be desired, too. Creators Neil Jones, Chris Parker and David Allison are clearly aiming Bedlam at the audience that made shows like Being Human or The Vampire Diaries hits, but pretty actors and a supernatural premise aren’t all it takes (Twilight aside). Part of the problem is that the core cast of characters just are not that interesting or likeable.
Jed’s all right and he gets more intriguing as the season unfolds, Ryan is easy to connect to and he begins to serve as a partner to Jed and a humanizing, anchoring element outside of the spooky stuff that goes on in the show. However, Molly is boring even beyond her limited role, and it is a limited role—the one note expression of the anti-Kate—which is too bad because the show could use a bit of cheerful spark and Madekwe is more than capable of that when given a chance.
Kate is just really annoying above anything else. She’s like a hollow caricature of the bitchy, self-involved, slightly evil, seductress. She’s supposed to be the Daddy’s girl with Daddy issues and Daddy’s gold card, but no idea how to interact with others unless they are in servitude to her. However, instead of coming over as a villainess with an agenda, or even as a misunderstood woman whose pursuit of success is mistaken for evil intention, she comes across as a half-realized attempt at a bratty child in grown-ups’ clothes.
Like Molly, Kate’s character is flat and one-dimensional. Granted, as the series progresses, you’re supposed to suspect, hate, possibly feel sympathy for, and then suspect Kate again, but it’s hard to even hate her when you can’t care enough to bother. It makes you wonder why the other characters care for her, as well, when clearly the writers didn’t care enough about her to make her more than a sketch of a character. Not a good sign when she’s apparently the impetus behind the big story arc (“SAVE KATE”).
What is good about Bedlam: Season 1 is the portrayal of the ghostly goings-on. There isn’t an flashy amount of CGI, the show relies instead on more practical effects, which are often genuinely scary. Because the grounds and the buildings were once home to a Victorian asylum, and in the 20th century to a modern mental hospital that was condemned for various crimes against its patients, most of the spectral specimens have unfinished business of a not so far-fetched nature.
For example, the ghost of a lower class woman who never stopped loving her her high-ranking paramour, even though he is the one who committed her to the asylum so that he could save face among his peers, haunts a handsome young man who sees a string of women because he couldn’t deal with the death of the one he truly loved. A former patient who went mad with grief and blamed himself after his children were killed in a car by his estranged wife haunts a young woman who accidentally hit two kids while fleeing from her abusive relationship. It’s all standard “once they atone, once they right a similar wrong, they can be at peace and move on to the next life” stuff, but it’s done in a very engaging, and for the most part, an intelligent way.
Also good are the other tenants of Bedlam Heights, many of whom are the victims of very specific and personal hauntings. Most are well written, fully fleshed out characters that fill their one-time slots superbly. The disturbed young woman on her own for the first time after being released from hospital, and the little girl whose imaginary friend turns out to be more than imaginary. In fact, if the stories of Jed, Kate, Ryan and Molly as flatmates and possible romantic partners took more of a backseat to the tales of the other tenants’ lives and the ghosts’ deaths, Bedlam would, perhaps, be a better show.
The season’s ending, in which we discover more mysterious clues about the dark history of the Bettany family and the asylum, as well as key insights into who Jed is and why he possesses his particular talents, offers hope that a second season will do just that. It’s going to have to do something a little differently, otherwise it’s likely to disappear all too quickly. Just like a ghost.
Bedlam: Season 1 contains six original episodes on two discs, with no bonus material or other features.