If the spectacle of sensitive new age vampires pouring their heart out in a diary makes you turn in your crypt, it’s probably time you fled the twilight and tried Being Human instead. For those who’ve not stumbled across this gem of a series, Being Human is the story of three twenty-something friends, John Mitchell (Aidan Turner), George Sands (Russell Tovey) and Annie Sawyer (Lenora Crichlow), sharing a house in Bristol, England, and trying against the odds to hang on to their humanity in a world that rightly and wrongly fears them and treats them as monsters: Mitchell is a 116 year old vampire, George a socially inept genius recently turned werewolf (as if being a socially inept genius wasn’t bad enough!), and Annie is a ghost who died in the house a few years earlier.
Created by English actor, comedian and screenwriter Toby Whithouse, the series is that distinctively British blend of comedy and drama in which comedy is the perfect foil to the drama: we laugh at the characters but feel for them. No one does pathos like the Brits. Season One aired on BBC 3 in April 2009 and Season Two a year later, before the series made its way across the Atlantic: in the US, Season One aired in July and was quickly followed in September by Season Two. A third season has been commissioned by the BBC and will be broadcast in 2011, and for reasons that I fail to comprehend given the show’s positive reception in the US, the Syfy channel plans a 13 episode remake. I shudder at the thought of it.
Comparisons with The Vampire Diaries are inevitable given that both are about vampires, werewolves and other things supernatural, and they follow the adventures of three young characters, one female, two male. More significantly they have certain themes in common, notably the idea of the monster hanging onto its humanity despite its monstrous nature.
Even so, the contrast between the two series is far more pronounced than the similarities and it’s a distinction, I think, that is characteristic of drama made for US television and drama made for British television.
Where The Vampire Diaries is glamorous and polished, larger than life, Being Human is gritty and almost monotone. Far from being a negative this look and feel grounds the fantasy and horror in a more believable reality, and this enhances the drama, makes the horror more shocking and the humour all the more down to earth. As with the US series, Being Human’s three stars have charisma, but it’s not shamelessly exploited: the focus never strays from character and story and the writers are not afraid to show the characters in the worst possible light as the story demands it. Even at his most monstrous, The Vampire Diaries’ bad boy vampire, Damon Salvatore, remains somehow charming and attractive. When Mitchell gives in to his nature and turns violent he is nothing less than a monster.
The chief antagonist in Season One is William Herrick, a powerful vampire who “recruited” Mitchell during World War I and who seeks to organise vampires into a force to govern humanity. Mitchell stands opposed to Herrick having accepted that his kind are monsters but that there is another path open to them, difficult as it is, by which they can reclaim their humanity. The series ends with George affirming his humanity by embracing the werewolf in his nature and putting his life on the line to save Mitchell from Herrick.
In Season Two the housemates’ commitment to being human is put to a far greater test when they face a human threat in the form of the mysterious Professor Jaggat and the cold-hearted religious fanatic, Kemp. Jaggat and Kemp are fundamentalist Christians who have discovered the existence of vampires, werewolves and ghosts and are determined to destroy them or carry out brutal experiments upon them. It’s intentionally ironic, of course, that as the supernaturals strive to be human, they confront the darkest side of humanity from corrupt police to utterly ruthless religious fanatics. But just as the writers avoid such clichés as “bad-boy” vampire and “good-boy” vampire, they don’t shy away from moral complexity in the depiction of the antagonists either: Kemp might be a religious fanatic and ruthless exterminator of the supernaturals, but he is driven by a sincere (and not unreasonable) belief that vampires are evil incarnate following the murder of his wife and daughter by vampires some thirty years earlier.
There’s far more to Season Two than that of course, including a host of new characters and plot twists that defy expectation. Mitchell’s romance with a feisty doctor, Lucy, is disrupted by a power-vacuum in the vampire community following the death of Herrick. Throughout the season flashbacks reveal far more of his brutal past and we come to understand why he is held is such awe by other vampires. George continues his struggle to control his curse and naively tries to bring a woman into his life, with disastrous consequences. And Annie has a brutal reminder that life as a spirit is full of challenges and great danger as Death seeks to reclaim her.
All’n’all, a highly recommended series, and now that Season Two has also been released in the US on DVD and Blu-ray (as of 21 September), you can pick up both seasons and give Being Human a go! Do yourself a favour and watch it before Syfy has an opportunity to remake it!
Here’s a trailer for Season Two to get your blood pumping: