TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011... Number 9

Aidan Turner as Mitchell in BBC's Being Human.

PopMatters continues its 10-day countdown of some of the high and lowpoints of the 2010 to 2011 TV season. This time up... the superlative BBC drama Being Human and the oh-so-sad, watered down SyFy version of the show.

Highpoint Number 9: Mitchell’s Arc in Season Three of the BBC series Being Human

After two spectacular seasons, the only question was whether Being Human—the critically acclaimed BBC series about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost who live together—would continue the standard of brilliance it had already laid down. The great news is that it did. Although Annie and George’s (and his girlfriend Nina’s) stories continued to new and interesting places, Season Three was dominated to a degree previously unknown by the story of the vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner).

In the first two seasons he had been merely the most compelling character on an overall superb show, but even while splitting the overall narrative, his story reached fever pitch this year. Season Two ended with Mitchell driven to commit unspeakable horrors, horrors so terrible that one had to ask whether he had gone beyond the pale. Had he crossed the point beyond which there was no redemption?

The question of Mitchell’s guilt hovers over the entirety of the season, and it's to the show’s credit that it did not opt for an easy, glib answer. The show asks: Are there are unforgivable sins? And the answer is yes, there has to be. If some acts are not beyond the pale, then in a way nothing ultimately matters. For there to be real good, there has to be true evil, and the emotional heart of Season Three focused on Mitchell trying to come to terms with what his acts of the previous season meant. Were they incompatible with his attempts to live as a human instead of as a monster?

The final two episodes of the season were as intense and as compelling as anything I’ve seen on TV, and much of the horror came from the tension Mitchell’s dilemma created. The crisis stemmed from the fact that if anyone on the show was the main character, it was Mitchell, and viewers naturally want to pull for him. But his crimes force us to wonder about whether or not Mitchell is beyond redemption, that he could never consistently be, despite his best intentions, anything but inhumanly cruel. Far too often, TV takes us to easy answers and unexpected but convenient resolutions to difficult issues; Season Three of Being Human refused to do so, and the result was some truly great and memorable storytelling.

It's perhaps too early to ask where Mitchell ranks among TV’s great vampires. He isn’t particularly well known in the US, but for my part I would rate him as highly as Joss Whedon’s two great vampiric creations, Angel and Spike. I certainly find him to be a more fascinating vampire than those on The Vampire Diaries and Moonlight, not to mention the truly godawful Twilight series in either book or movie form. Mitchell belongs on the shortest of short lists of great TV vampires. And perhaps because he failed to overcome his own darkness but still yearned to be more than he was capable of being, he is in a way the most human of them all.

Low Point Number 9: The SyFy Version of Being Human

I was quite dubious when I first heard that SyFy (Is that not the dumbest network name, ever?) was going to adapt for an American audience the BBC series Being Human. My initial question was, “Why?” When AMC decided to go forward with an English-language version of the brilliant Danish series Forbrydelsen as The Killing, it made a certain kind of sense. Some Americans may watch movies with subtitles, but they aren’t used to watching a subtitled television series. But why adapt an in-progress series in English? After all, we speak the same language.

I am baffled by the American version. My befuddlement increased when the series debuted and it turned out, especially near the beginning, to be a rigidly faithful rendering of the original. Though much duller, because it stretched the events of the six-episode BBC Season One into a 13-episode first season. It moved some events from later seasons of the BBC series forward, leaving me with some hope that the American version would try to develop some original storylines instead of merely following the original. I wonder what the point or justification of the SyFy version is.

I’m not universally opposed to American remakes of British shows. In fact, two great American comedies were remakes of BBC shows: All in the Family (which was a remake of Till Death Us Do Part) and The Office, for example. Considering the latter, I was a huge fan of the BBC original and still think that the best thing about either series was Ricky Gervais’s brilliant embodiment of David Brent. But Gervais aside, I actually prefer the NBC version.

The BBC series focused almost exclusively on four characters: David Brent, Tim and Dawn (the Pam and Jim equivalents), and Gareth (the Dwight equivalent). This meant that there was little opportunity to develop secondary characters or focus on other relationships to any significant degree. What I love most about the NBC version is the rich group of secondary characters: Kevin, Kelly, Angela, Creed, Stanley, Oscar, Andy, Toby, Darryl, Meredith, Phyllis, Ryan, Erin, and the rest. In fact, while I’ve never been a fan of Dwight or Michael Scott (I find Dwight too exaggerated and usually only funny as the butt of Jim’s parodies, while I’ve always found Michael to be too histrionic and over-the-top), but the rest of the characters make the show a constant delight.

Alas, the American adaptation of Being Human leaves me depressed. There's no great difference between the two except the American version is slicker and prettier. Both the werewolf and the ghost are a tad more attractive than the British equivalents, though in both instances I greatly prefer the original actors. Mark Pellegrino’s Bishop is prettier than Jason Watson’s Herrick, but not remotely as compelling.

The SyFy version is laced with mood music each week while one of the three main characters provides a voiceover that is both annoying and superfluous. Few shows are enhanced by voiceovers (Veronica Mars is the major exception, along with a couple of unforgettable episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Passion” and “Becoming, Pt 1”, both from Season Two). The voiceovers on SyFy Being Human are merely decorative, although they attempt to create a confessional tone, an approach emblematic of the series as a whole.

And none of what I’ve mentioned so far touches on the biggest gap between the two shows: the two vampires. I have enjoyed Sam Witmer, who plays the vampire Aidan, in other roles, such as Crashdown in Battlestar Galactica and a short but memorable role in Dexter. He certainly is not bad as the vampire in the SyFy version, but he suffers badly with comparison to his BBC equivalent. If there's one actor in either show that you have to single out for his or her charisma and star power, it's Aidan Turner as Mitchell.

More than anything, the American series is just a terrible failure of the imagination and is emblematic of the American television and film industry’s willingness to exploit other sources for their profit. Just as we’ve seen the period between film remakes grow shorter and shorter (two premiere examples being the latest X-Men and Spider-Man movies), the readiness to remake shows developed in other countries shows a dismal inability to come up with anything original.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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