Being Human USA S1 E1-3 (UK Watch)

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It’s taken over two years for the US version of Being Human to get picked up for an airing in the UK – perhaps there was a moratorium on the North American version being sold back to Britain while the original was still in production? With the UK series coming to an end after five seasons, however, it seems we’re finally okay to see what they did with the concept on the other side of the Atlantic.

I was initially dubious about watching this, given that I really loved the early seasons of Being Human with the original cast and wasn’t sure I could be objective about a show that is ‘the same but entirely different’ – it was hard enough to manage that between the original Danish Forbrydelsen and the subsequent US remake entitled The Killing. Everything that’s the same grates, because of course the original did it better; and everything that’s different leads to mounting irritation of the ‘why did they have to muck around with that?’ variety.

Both shows revolve around the concept of a ‘supernatural unholy trinity’ of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing the same ordinary suburban house, devised by Toby Whithouse. In the UK version the characters were Mitchell, George and Annie and they lived in Bristol; in the US version it’s Aidan, Josh and Sally and the location is Boston, although the show is actually shot in Montréal, Québec. Of course it would be grossly unfair to directly compare the shows character for character – so that’s precisely what I’ll do, because it’s pretty much unavoidable.

I was initially put off by the look of the vampire character: where the original Mitchell had a dark, grungy indie band look to him, Aidan is much more styled along the Twilight movie lines – cleancut, a little pasty with a vaguely constipated look on his face, all he lacks is some glitter on his skin. It took me around an episode, but eventually the playing of actor Sam Witwer actually won me over. He can do humour well and he’s able to lift the character beyond that of the Twilight emos or even his British predecessor – although it’s slightly disconcerting for all concerned that his character here has seemingly been named after that actor (Aidan Turner, who graduated to The Hobbit films.)

There’s almost no change in the ghost character between Annie and Sally, with even her main early storylines being faithfully reproduced. Ghosts can’t change clothes once they’re ghosts, and the costume that the US character gets is almost identical to that of the UK production. Actress Meaghan Rath is slightly up against it here because her counterpart Lenora Crichlow brought such a glowing personality to the part, able to be warm and funny even when her character was at its most pathetic and tragic; the US version is rather more blank, one-note and lifeless (pun intended) so far. That said she’s already much better than she was in the pilot, so as Rath feels her way into the role there’s every prospect that she’ll get there soon enough.

The werewolf in both productions is a nervy nerd type character, but what’s really interesting is how that basic bottom line description means quite different things to British and American audiences. Russell Tovey’s original performance wouldn’t have worked at all for a US audience, so Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen form Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns film) completely reinvents the character in an American fashion while staying true to the core of the idea – and for my money it works rather brilliantly, being the best of the trio in creating something completely new which doesn’t grate or irritate in comparison with the original. He’s very funny and brings genuine heart to the show as a result.

In fact the show as a whole takes a similar line to its overall tone: even while apparently using slightly modified versions of the original series’ scripts, it’s doing it with a clearly shifted underlying artistic approach. The UK version was basically sold to network execs as ‘a flat-sharing comedy’ with the vampire/werewolf/ghost aspects initially smuggled in and only becoming the major focus as the series turned darker and more dramatic down the road. The US version on the other hand is much more focussed on the drama from the start and is immediately making more of the genre aspects, with the humour played down to being more of an ‘accent’ rather than the central purpose of the thing. An example of this is with the character of the main first season Big Bad, the local vampire nest leader: in the UK version this was Herrick, played by a completely cast-against-type Jason Watkins whose cosy, friendly personality contrasted absurdly with the bloodsucking evil of his character to brilliant and funny effect. In the US version the character is Bishop, played by Mark Pellegrino, who has seemingly cornered the market in playing evil bad guys in series including Dexter and Supernatural. He’s very much playing to type here, although that’s not to discount the wicked gleam in his eye that Pellegrino always pulls off so well.

Overall, it takes some of the quirkiness out of the show and makes it a straighter drama; and I have to say, I think this works for me at least as well if not (whisper it gently) even better than the original show’s odd and not always entirely successful mix of styles. That sort of off-beat mash-up takes some very careful and precise management to keep it working: while the UK version of Being Human did it absolutely brilliantly in the first season with all three characters having strong, equally important plot lines in each episode, it did struggle to keep all the plates spinning as the series progressed. Plots got more complex and inevitable real-life production concerns such as cast members moving on started to cause problems. In the end it often felt like Annie the ghost was a spare wheel given scraps off the writers table, or George was crow-barred in to provide some comic relief, or the show had to stop to do a ‘comedy breakout’ bottle episode while the main part of the show was really more interested in the latest Big Bad or whether or not the show-stealing Mitchell would give in to his blood lust again that week.

The US version could well go the same direction as its UK antecedent and similarly lose itself down the way; but I doubt it, because the ‘Americanisation’ of the show gives it a stronger series format for longevity compared with the British TV production model that rarely thinks outside the needs of a specific six- or eight-episode season. As long as a US show gets its basic foundations right then it should be able to keep going for five, six or even seven years without suffering the same wobbles as its British counterpart (not least because US TV ties in its regular cast on extended contracts even before the pilot episode.)

And amazingly, despite my doubts going in about whether I even wanted to watch this at all or not, I think it does get the foundations right in its tone, its characters, its production design and locations (both of the latter being eerily similar to the UK show, in fact.) It’s very watchable, doesn’t grate as an imperfect reflection of the original, and genuinely shows a lot of promise. Of course it has the advantage of the British show having already blazed the trail and established the premise, testing out in public what would work and what didn’t; but the US producers have paid attention, learned the lessons and made some smart moves of their own as a result, and deserve the credit for not making it another example of US networks screwing up UK formats (Doctor Who – The TV Movie, anyone?)

What these early episodes of Being Human USA most strongly do is remind me of how how wonderfully good those early UK episodes were, how well judged and balanced they proved to be: and so as a way of ensuring that the Being Human DNA outlives the British series’ demise, it would be nice to see this US version go on and become a long-lived success in its own right.

[Geek postscript: when I refer to Aidan Turner, Lenora Crichlow and Jason Watkins as the original Mitchell, Annie and Herrick, I’m taking a small liberty. In fact all three parts were played by different actors in an original pilot episode aired on BBC Three, but show runner Toby Whithouse elected to go a different way when a full series was commissioned and recast all the parts except for Russell Tovey as George. For the record, the original original actors in the parts were Guy Flanagan, Oblivion’s Andrea Riseborough and Hustle’s Adrian Lester respectively.]

Season 1 of Being Human USA airs at 9pm (10pm from May 9) on Thursdays on UK Watch, with repeats during the week. A fourth 13-episode season of the show has just been confirmed by SyFy. The series is not currently available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK except on Region 1 imports, but all five series of the UK show are available both as individual seasons and in a complete boxset.

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