Wednesday, April 11, 2012

T.V. Review: "Being Human" (U.K.) Series One-Three

Hullo, Supernaturalists!

I don't know about the rest of you guys but personally I'm sick to death of friggin' vampires, werewolves and demons.  Especially neutered, mopey, glittery tossers who neither bite nor bang things.  Mercifully, screenwriter Toby Whithouse has come to the rescue with Being Human, a palate-cleansing flat-mate horror comedy with genuine bite.

Here's a promo for the show just to lay some groundwork...

The first episode introduces us to George (Russell Tovey), a milquetoast male nurse who's come down with an acute case of lycanthropy after an unfortunate hiking trip in Scotland.  He's friends with Mitchell (Aiden Turner) a one-hundred year old Irish vampire who works as an orderly in the same hospital.  Despite their afflictions, both men do whatever they can to retain some semblance of their humanity.  George attempts to isolate himself during "that time of the month" and Mitchell fights to stay on the wagon and refrain from drinking blood.

When the two of them move into a new house together they discover that it's haunted by Annie (Lenora Critchlow) a beautiful young ghost struggling with denial issues.  Because of their supernatural natures, both Mitchell and George have no problem seeing Annie,  who seems relieved to finally have some company who can interact with her.

Together these three unlikely roommates do what they can to fit into normal society, but their task isn't easy.  Annie discovers a terrible truth surrounding her mysterious demise.  George's tentative attempts at romance are undermined by his brutal alter-ego.  Undead enablers incessantly try to undermine Mitchell's attempts to go straight for their own nefarious purposes. 

The cast is wonderful.  Jug-eared Russell Tovey plays George to sad-sacked perfection.  Although the character occasionally lapses precariously into emo territory I'm willing to forgive this somewhat.  After all, if you experienced an agonizing flesh-and-bone-rending transformation every month which threatened the lives of your loved ones you'd probably be cranky too.  We see this played out in his tentative relationship with Nina (Sinead Keenan), a feisty nurse who's concealing her own inner demons.

Lenora Crichlow plays Annie as charmingly naive and immature.  Although she's sometimes ruled by her emotions and is occasionally undone by blind trust, we also soon see that it's not wise to cross her, especially where it concerns her new found allies.  Over the course of twenty-two episodes Annie experiences considerable growth and change.  She starts out as a sheltered, cloying and somewhat helpless waif but after some fortuitous encounters with fellow spirits Gilbert (Alex Price) and Sykes (Bryan Dick) she becomes considerably more self-reliant.  

The only character that I find somewhat conventional is Mitchell.  This isn't a slight against actor Aiden Turner who's appropriately intense and compelling to watch, it's just that we've seen the whole "tortured vampire" shtick done to death.  Mercifully the show gives this tired concept a refreshing spin by really exploring the concept of vampirism as drug addiction.  Mitchell's day-to-day struggle with "sobriety" is documented with such realism that I'm willing to forgive the fingerless gloves and occasional histrionics.  

Its minimalist budget and matter of fact production design really gives Being Human an authentic quality rarely matched by American television.  Setting the first two Series in quirky-yet-workaday Bristol was a minor stroke of genius.  The house shared by the three protagonists is a run-down dive with dirt marks on the light switches.  The minor characters and background performers actually resemble real people and not precious, rarefied mannequins.

The limited budget also forces the show runners to get creative.  The special effects team does an incredible job depicting the painful  early stages of George's transformation, conjuring up shades of David Naughton in American Werewolf in London.  Knowing that audience imagination is more powerful then anything they can possibly depict on screen, the producers initially limit full-body shots of the final stage werewolf suit to quick cuts, shadows and silhouette.  

This is born out when the producers are forced to show George in final lupine form at the climax of the first Series.  As expected, the full-scale costume looks a tad hokey, but certainly nothing worse then what we've seen on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or in Ginger Snaps.  I'm pleased to report that the suit improves dramatically in the Second and Third series, eventually coming to resemble a cross between the werewolves  in The Howling and Dog Soldiers. 

The show's world-building continues to deepen and mature in Series Two and Three.  Mitchell's diabolical sire Herrick (played with cool menace by Jason Watkins) is taken out through unconventional means, but comes back to sow seeds of dissent.  Nina is injured in a tragic accident, causing George to justify his feelings of isolationism.  Even after unraveling the mystery surrounding her own demise, Annie isn't given the option to cross over to the afterlife.  Despite finding new purpose in her paranormal state, she's victimized by a secretive religious sect who end up forcing the issue.

Whithouse and company certainly don't mind fucking around with conventions and audience expectations.  The writers have no compunction doing truly horrendous things to their characters.  Also, since it's the BBC, they often blindside us with unexpected and shocking burst of sex and/or violence.  Honestly, it's the perfect antidote to conventional North American television which comes across as sterile, non-threatening and paint-by-numbers in comparison.   

Tonally the show is gloriously all over the map.  Episodes have dealt with such dark topics as sexual assault ("Tully"), pedophilia ("The Black Day") torture ("Long Live the King") and even mass murder ("Damage").  The writers also betray their coal-black sense of humor by conjuring up such memorable characters as the zombified slag Sasha in "Type 4" and the Hargreaves from "Adam's Family", who turn out to be rich, degenerate swingers who conveniently keep blood-bag gimps trussed up in their dungeon. 

Above all, every Series finale episode I've watched thus far has been a nail-biter.  The gloriously anarchic Series One capper featured George pitting his inner wolf against the Big Bad, resulting in collateral damage.  The final episode of Series Two is even more intense, with George and Nina on the verge of "scientific" sacrifice, Annie ghost-busted against her will and Mitchell going completely bat-shit insane.  Unable to match the frantic climax of Season Two, the writers go for a more intimate and emotional conclusion for Series Three that makes good on its promise to irrevocably change the face of Being Human forever.  

Despite having to navigate around conventional pitfalls and occasionally lapsing into melodrama, Being Human is a very brave, very smart and very engaging show. I'd love to watch its American counterpart just to see how much it misses the point.

   Tilt: up.  


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