TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011… Number 9

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.