Being Human

What I’ve been watching (May 3-9)

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Sometimes I’m asked how I decide what to review on this blog, and the answer’s pretty simple – it’s whatever I happen to have watched, read, seen or listened to that week. I never choose to watch something purely to review it, which at least means that everything I review here is something that I actually wanted to see and why a negative post is usually a function of genuine disappointment rather than because it’s not my sort of thing in the first place.

But I don’t review everything I see/hear/watch in a week – I do have a life, strange as that seems to me as well I’m sure as to you. I cherry-pick the things I have something (new) to say rather than just churning out the same comments on an ongoing series for the sake of it. However, I thought as a one-off experiment, what I’d do here in this Very Special Post is run through the disturbingly long list of things that I have watched on the screen in the last seven days just to put a little context around the posts that did make it to the big time so far in May … Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Being Human S4 E3 – “The Graveyard Shift”

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Contains spoilers for the series so far.

After my notes on the season opener, I thought it only fair to report back on how season 4 of BBC3’s supernatural drama Being Human is faring with its new-look line-up.

It’s still hard to tell exactly what the show will look like once it settles down, as each of the three episodes so far have been so very different: there was the epic, apocalyptic season opener; then there was the transitional second episode which introduced (and dispatched) new characters; but now with season 3 we perhaps finally get a taste of the show’s medium-term destination, and it looks to be a return to the mix of domestic flat-share comedy and supernatural thrills and action that was its hallmark when Being Human first made it onto our screens.

If this is the case and is sustained, then it’s excellent news. I’ll be honest and repeat my earlier assertion that the show had found it increasingly difficult to rediscover that sublime early balance between comedy and drama, fun and chills that worked so well in its rookie season. As the story of Mitchell and George got ever more serious and involved over successive seasons, the lighter moments of relief got squeezed out along the way. The chance to get back to the show’s roots is to be seized with both hands.

No wonder then my favourite scenes were in the greasy spoon café, where new boy Hal (or Lord Harry, as it turns out we should be calling him!) suffers the indignity of cleaning out the fat fryer and having to take orders from Tom the werewolf. Their odd couple scenes are an echo of those of Mitchell and George from better days, but if anything the chemistry between the two characters is even better than it was between the original duo. Mitchell was always the alpha male of that relationship, whereas with Hal and Tom it’s far harder to pin down who is actually “on top” at any given time.

Tom may be somewhat low on the intellectual scale side of things, but he is more comfortable in the modern world than Hal and he’s a more assertive and physical presence than his lupine predecessor George ever was. George was actually a bit of a wet fish in between his monthly transformations, which was difficult for the show to write around; but Tom has a second job as a vampire slayer which means if anything he’s actually far more interesting when he’s not being all fur-and-fangs during the new moon. His habit of keeping stakes to hand just in case Hal gets feisty – which you know he’ll use on his flat “mate” in a flash – becomes a nice running joke. I wasn’t wild about the character of Tom in season 3 and viewed his addition to the regular cast for season 4 with some considerable apprehension, but given space the part has blossomed and Michael Socha’s playing has won me over.

And I’m a huge fan of what new cast member Damien Molony is doing with the character of Hal. He’s compulsively watchable even when not required to say or do much on screen, from the way he stands – uptight and distraight – in front of the fat fryer, genuinely appealing for Tom to stake him in order that this purgatory of the working day shall finally be over (let’s be honest, we’ve all had jobs like that) to the simple, small details such as the way he handles the TV remote control just like your grandparents would (they understand what it is, they can use it, but you can tell by the degree of concentration and suspicion with which they aim and press the buttons that it’s really some sort of suspicious alien artefact to them.) Molony brilliantly juggles being a notionally superpowerful vampire with being a vulnerable guy totally out of his depth, prone to OCD tendencies and who is afraid of everything – most of all himself. His prim and proper 50s manners are a hoot and I can’t wait to see how he plays off the lewd and crude Adam, when the teenage 80s vampire returns in a few weeks time.

For all the fantastic work setting up the character, it’s a shame that the writers have let down Hal in the plotting department where he seems to have inherited Mitchell’s hand-me-down plots: he’s a vampire with a blood-soaked past seen through historical flashbacks, but now trying to kick the habit like a reformed drug addict always on the verge of a relapse. He’s also notoriously famous in the vampire community, and the bad guys try and win him back in order that he can lead them – all of which are stories we saw Mitchell play out through the earlier three years of the series. Have they really run out of inspiration for something different to do with Hal, or is there something in the overall Being Human story that requires these Mitchell-esque qualities to be present in order to move forward?

Elsewhere, the show is still suffering from being a bit of patchwork quilt and feeling a bit fragmented, as though still shattered into pieces by the events of the season opener. The newly minted female ghost from the future we saw in episode 1 has made only the briefest of appearances in episode 2 and nothing at all in episode 3, and instead we have the unexpected arrival of a new ghost (Kirby, played by the always-entertaining James Lance this time in a hilariously bad fake wig.) Having dispatched one Big Bad in the form of Griffin in episode 1, the series built up the new threat of Fergus (Anthony Flanagan, always good in sneering bad guy roles) only to now abruptly dispatch him at the end of episode 3. As for the promisingly amoral modern PR vampire Cutler, there’s no sign of him this week at all. Instead, we do get the unexpected return of Regus the Vampire Recorder played by Mark Williams (from the Harry Potter films.) I was frankly dreading his return after the character was written far too broadly comedic in episode 1, but he works better this time around and has a much improved script to work with, so it actually works out very well, Indeed, I rather took to him and cheered that his little cameo run in the show got an unexpectedly happy ending. As happy as the undead can get, at least.

The other big problem with the show at the moment is the character of Annie. While Lenora Crichlow herself is fantastic as ever, she is really being undermined by the writing. She’s supposed to be protecting young baby Eve from the vampires, but despite explicit warnings from Regus she wanders off alone with the baby to the park where she is easy prey for Fergus. Really, the writers (and Annie herself) need to understand that she’s no longer the dizzy, empty-headed newbie she was three years ago and rather is now the senior member of the team, the main protagonist and in charge of the serious business of looking after Eve. She needs to be more fully in command and assertive, especially while “the boys” are basically dithering around trying to sort themselves out and in no position to take the lead. I suspect this may indeed prove to be one of the key character arcs of the season, and the moment when she made a key intervention in a fight and sent a knife flying seemed particularly portentous. Lets hope so, or else I might start wishing that she had joined the character exodus at the start of the season and that it’s a shame the lovely Pearl didn’t stick around longer.

All the same, the show as a whole is sorting itself out and finding its feet (or paws) as quickly as anyone dared hoped. There are still issues of course, and still a concern in my mind that it could yet all lurch off in a totally different direction at any second, but in some ways that’s what gives it an edge and makes it worthwhile continuing to watch. And it’s definitely worthwhile doing that, that’s for sure.

Currently airing on BBC3 on Sunday nights. The DVD/Blu-ray will be released on 23 April 2012.

Being Human S4 E1 – “Eve of the War”

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Contains spoilers. Some really, really big ones. You have been warned.

When last we left BBC3’s cult series Being Human it was with a very big problem: the arc of season 3 had inexorably built up to the point where one of the major characters of the show, John Mitchell (Aidan Turner) finally hit the end of the road. My last words in the review of that episode where that “[series creator Toby] Whithouse may just have written a cliffhanger from which Being Human can’t be saved,” after the screen went black with Mitchell staked and remaining series regulars George (Russell Tovey), Nina (Sinead Keenan) and Annie (Lenora Crichlow) left confronting the newly arrived Big Bad, über-powerful “Old One” Edgar Wyndam (Lee Ingleby).

At the start of season 4, the absence of Mitchell proves to be the least of the show’s mounting problems. Sinead Keenan has also left the show over the hiatus, her character reportedly brutally murdered off screen in a very unsatisfactory end for someone who has been carefully built up into a key part of the series. Lee Ingleby also evidently proved unavailable for this season and is similarly – and equally frustratingly – dispatched off-screen. This disjointedness is a major body blow to the show and to be honest a real black mark against the production team for not pre-empting the transition better, because any longtime fan can’t help but feel gravely cheated by the fact that everything set up at the end of season 3 is jettisoned out of sight in such a manner.

Small wonder then that Russell Tovey has also decided to call it a day and handed in his notice, although he commendably at least shows up for a one-episode swan song to give his character a proper send-off. But the fact remains that at the end of this first episode of season 4, we’ve lost three quarters of the regular cast who were the heart of the show; only ghostly Annie remains, and despite the ever-delightful playing of Lenora Crichlow the character has always been the least substantial (pun intended) of the line-up. The producers end up promoting the previously recurring character of werewolf Tom (Michael Socha) into the main cast as a necessary move to bolster what’s left of series continuity, but I have to confess that I never warmed to him in season 3 and don’t regard this as a particularly welcome development – although his thuddingly unsubtle hints about wanting to move into the shared house were some of the warmer, lighter moments of the show.

With Wyndham also gone, we get a similarly jarring reset on the adversary front: a sudden new vampire nest, with a new chief vampire by the name of Griffin once again falling back on the old trick of posing as a police inspector – an oddly unimaginative revival of the character of Herrick from past seasons. Even in the hands of the classy and creepily effective Alex Jennings this is a bit of deja vu too far, and when Griffin is suddenly dispatched at the end of the episode (by the oddly deus ex machina means of a hitherto unsuspected fatal vampire allergy to werewolf blood – if we’d known that in the past three years then stories could have gone very differently!) you wonder what the point of him was in the first place.

Maybe this bit of Herrick-redux is to give us a brief respite from the frantic restructuring work that’s going on elsewhere in the show. We now have an out-of-the-blue eons-old vampire fable (written on human skin parchment complete with nipple!) as the series’ overriding arc. It feels like something rather out of Blade and Underworld and bleeds into a time-jumping sub-plot to 2037AD and a Terminator-esque bleak view of the remaining human resistance losing to the superior vampire invasion forces. This requires the future rebel leader to time travel back to ‘present day’ (albeit as a ghost; this isn’t science fiction after all!) to change history in order to murder an innocent baby whose name is not John Connor but might as well be. Or maybe that’s what’s happening; it was all rather odd and confusing, as if we’d wondered into a completely different TV programme.

Mark Williams (from the Harry Potter films) shows up in the odd role of Vampire Recorder that is frankly too broadly comic for the context of the rest of the dark and harrowing episode; somewhat better judged was timid newly-turned vampire Dewi (Darren Evans) who has a ‘Stake Me’ sign taped to his back by his mocking companions. And best of all is Monroe star Andrew Gower’s introduction as Cutler, a younger and more modern vampire than the old school Griffin who combines irreverent humour with a steely sense of danger and who should prove to be a very worthy and interesting adversary for the heroes to play against. Unless he’s also written out by the start of the next episode – right now, who can tell?

In the meantime there’s still the problem of what to do about the hole left in the show by Mitchell’s departure. Apparently Craig Robert’s teenage vampire Adam will make a brief return to the show later in the season, but in terms of a full-time replacement for Aidan Turner we’ve yet to be properly introduced to the character of Hal played by Damien Molony. It appears that he’s part of a vampire/werewolf/ghost flatshare far older than the one we’ve been watching over the last three years (and therefore far more successful in managing to be low-key and stay out of trouble for decades.) That this supernatural Unholy Trinity is located in of all places my old home town of Southend-on-Sea in Essex is especially weird for me.

There’s a nice “Bizarro parallel universe” feel to the brief scenes we get with this new triumvirate: Pearl the ghost is from the 50s, while the werewolf is an elderly barber whose body can no longer withstand the physical effects of the lunar transformation. Hal himself is immediately established as very different from the dangerously swaggering and tortured Mitchell: he seems more upper class and vulnerable, a Shelley-esque poet-type who has been carefully hidden away from the real world and who wears his emotional sensitivity on his sleeve. But now he knows that this idyll is coming to an end, and he is patently afraid of what will happen to his small supernatural family in the days to come. Molony has big shoes to fill but he does it well, quickly establishing himself as something very different from his predecessor while managing to captivate the necessary attention and steal the requisite scenes to give him the appropriate presence of an incoming series regular right from the start. Mitchell’s departure really has become a surprisingly small problem in the grand scheme of things.

So there’s definitely some good stuff happening here, and overall the show is doing probably the best job possible in the circumstances given the destabilisation caused by so many abrupt personnel changes. It’s also being commendably ambitious and audacious in the way that it’s trying to reboot the show and reorientate itself to its enforced new circumstances, rather than just going for any ‘safe’ and more familiar options.

But right now, my main problem is that I have no idea what show it is that I’m watching: what it’s meant to be or where it’s going, what form it will take when (if?) it settles back down again. With all the changes it’s having to push through, the show has had to sacrifice any claims it previously had to my established ongoing loyalty; only time will tell whether the new characters, cast and plot will win the revamped show the investment of new loyalty in its own right. Jury’s still out on that one: but I’m intrigued enough to stick with it for a while yet to see whether it succeeds in coming together or not.

Currently airing on BBC3 on Sunday nights. The DVD/Blu-ray will be released on 23 April 2012.

Becoming Human – S1/Online

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This spin-off from Being Human was marketed as an “online-only exclusive”, and I confess that – having dutifully followed the bite-size instalments every week as released – I was a bit annoyed when the exclusivity went out the window and the whole thing – including the first showing of the final part – was suddenly scheduled for a BBC3 airing as a sort of post-Being Human care package for those viewers still traumatised by last week’s season finale. It felt like my “secret society” had suddenly thrown open its doors and become a tourist theme park. I’m still not sure whether the change is because the spin-off has been so successful and well-received that BBC bosses decided it needed a proper channel airing, or whether it was doing so badly that the only way to salvage anything from it was to seek the oxygen of broadcasting. I hope the former.

Still, enough about the production context; what about Becoming Human the show? Inevitably its original bite-size chunks (please excuse any vampire or werewolf unintended puns inherent in that phrase!) are evident when put together into one 55 minute program: despite the single through-story, the narrative clearly stops and starts every six or seven minutes by nature of the online format. It’s to the credit of the writers and the directors that this isn’t more annoying that it actually is, and the show more or less gets away with it – and even that some of the linking/segment start sequences are the nicest, most arty things in it.

It’s a bit difficult to know where this show is being pitched: it feels like a rather odd hybrid, and rather too easy to lose the audience in the gap. If Being Human is for mid-20-somethings then I guess Becoming Human would be for mid-teens, which explains its school setting and the age of its principle cast; and yet the show is a little too smart and stylish and intelligent to be really aimed at the Hollyoaks audience. There might not be nearly as much blood, guts and top-grade swearing as its parent show, but there’s still too much horror and general cursing for its supposed main demographic. Some of the dialogue relies (very wittily) on 80s pop-culture references, which again will be over the heads of a teen audience. In the other hand, would a grown-up audience really be that taken with a show whose main story is about being a teenager, the pains of surviving school-life, dealing with teachers – and bullying? In any case, who would be watching this spin-off if they hadn’t already been of an age to be fans of Being Human? If anything, this feels like a relaunch of the core series concept of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost meeting up and becoming friends – a return to the original Being Human series which was fun and light and happy to be occasionally insubstantial, before it became all Dark and Angsty and Meaningful. If you liked that first series of Being Human and miss its lightness of touch then Becoming Human could be the show for you.

All that said – if you’re willing to go with it, and are a 20- or 30-something still happy to go back to school in TV land, this is a terrific little gem of a show. The writing is wonderful, the show looks and sounds terrific for an online-only venture (until its broadcast airing I hadn’t properly appreciated the great soundtrack), and it’s just terrifically witty throughout with some great dialogue brought to life by a top-grade young cast. In particular it stars Craig Roberts, playing the young vampire Adam who debuted in an eponymous episode of Being Human, who manages to steal every scene by little looks, gestures and quirks that make his character spring off the screen. I would at this point be predicting a brilliant future for this actor, if only the little blighter hadn’t beaten me to it and be currently starring in Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine at the cinema right now, with both the film and Roberts’ lead performance getting rave reviews. Not that the other leads – Josh Brown as XXL-sized ghost Matt and Leila Mimmack as werewolf Christa – aren’t also excellent. Christa gets some of the best put downs, usually directed at Adam: “Seriously, do you not have an off-switch?” she barks at him after his latest inappropriate quip as the two continue their love-hate (mostly hate) screwball relationship.

As for the through-story – about who made Matt a ghost in the first place, and where his body is – it’s inevitably underdeveloped given only 55 minutes and that the online format was to fashion each instalment around confronting a new red herring suspect, but the writing is successful enough that the whodunnit reveal when it comes is one of those gloriously “out of the blue”/”why didn’t I see that coming” moments that many a more “serious” show would kill for.

On the whole, then, well worth catching. I doubt it will get picked up and developed further, but that’s a shame – this has real potential and genuine class.

Being Human S3 Ep7/8 – Though the Heavens Fall/The Wolf-Shaped Bullet

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Toby Whithouse’s show started as a one-off pilot play about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a flatshare, but once it was picked up (and substantially recast) it took on a whole new life of its own. With a US spin-off/remake and three popular and successful series under its belt, it’s been one of the BBC’s few unequivocal genre successes outside of the venerable flagpole Doctor Who franchise (for which Whithouse has also written.)

I thought the first season was a triumph, a blend of genuine sitcom fun with serious drama and outright moments of horror. For my money it lost that ability to ‘balance’ so well in season 2 which was heavily weighted toward the darker and bleaker aspects, and there’s been a notable attempt in season 3 to set time aside for the lighter things in life which has been much to its strength, although sometimes it’s felt that those more fun moments have been wedged in somewhat awkwardly, such as a out-of-place “zombie” episode or werewolf George’s bottle show to visit his dead father’s grave. Perhaps the show’s increasingly complicated relationships and mythology gets in the way of the central part of the show reconnecting with that lighter elements. Of course, by the time of the big season finale two-parter there was no longer any time for the fun things and it was all-action and very, very heavy and dramatic.

For one thing we had the return of ‘evil’ version Herrick, after several episodes of the vampire being locked in the attic with his memory and sanity distant acquaintances. This sounds like a really interesting idea, but while well-written and excellently played by a superb Jason Watkins this somehow wasn’t as satisfying as it sounded on paper, and this was underlined by how wonderful it was to have the out-and-out monster Herrick return for the season finale. Also excellent in the supporting cast were Erin Richards as a dogged detective Nancy (I genuinely didn’t see the twist coming about her shouty boss) and ex-EastEnders star Lacey Turner as ghost Lia, plus Spooks star Nicola Walker hysterically funny in a one-episode cameo as a social worker and George Gently‘s Lee Ingleby as a late addition “Old One” stealing several scenes in the final 20 minutes. The biggest guest star name was undoubtedly Robson Green, and he was faultless as hardened werewolf McNair.

In the main cast, Sinead Keenan has really come into her own as George’s werewolf girlfriend Nina and finally made to be a strong addition to the core cast; meanwhile Lenora Crichlow’s ghostly Annie finally got some strong storylines that really drove the series rather than just end up being a comedy B-plot off to one side. If there was a character who had become slightly sidelined in this series it was George, played by the wonderful Russell Tovey, which might explain the need for that “dead dad” bottle story; but he certainly came back in strength for the final episode where the resolution revolved around his relationship with his vampire best friend Mitchell, played by Aidan Turner.

If there’s one person who has been made a star by this show, it’s Aidan Turner. Since the start of Being Human he’s already been the lead in Desperate Romantics and had a major role in BBC4’s Hattie, and now he’s been cast in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming The Hobbit films. His influence on the show is such that the US remake of the series even rechristened the Mitchell character ‘Aidan’. And he certainly dominates the season, with his downwardly-spiralling Mitchell consumed by guilt over dark deeds driving the series forward. His romantic scenes with Crichlow have been both touching and comic, while the look on his face as he arranged for detective Nancy to visit “Uncle Billy” in the attic was a shocking look of dark, evil cunning.

Look away now if you haven’t seen the end of the series and want to avoid spoilers

The problem with the season is that Mitchell’s downwards spiral had left him irredeemable and beyond the point of no return. His fate was inevitable from early on, and while the final scene is nicely played it still ends the only way it can given the season arc – with Mitchell staked and dead. It’s the right ending for the season, but it’s also the right ending for the show which has always been about his and George’s friendship more than anything else (and guess who gets to do the staking?) It’s where the show should finish, which makes the news that a fourth season has been commissioned all the more surprising.

Of course, being dead in a genre series does not need to be final, or even much of an obstacle. But Turner’s presumably now spending a year or more on Hobbit duty in New Zealand which is a bigger, more practical problem for the show: without Mitchell’s dark presence the series loses a lot of its dark core and narrative drive. Who really wants to see a show about a well-adjusted werewolf couple with their once-a-month problem and their ghost lodger, without the ever-present danger of the bloodsucker flatmate and the vampire clans? On a purely commercial level, these days a series that doesn’t have a ‘vampire’ on its cast roll loses a huge amount of marquee pulling power. Most of all, Being Human without Mitchell is just … wrong. It wouldn’t work, nor would pulling in some “Mitchell substitute” to fill the vampire-shaped hole in the dynamic (although Craig Robert’s teenage vampire Adam who appeared in one eponymous episode before being spun out to a digital-only mini-series could be a possibility.)

There have been times during this season where my attention has wandered and I’ve had to force myself to pay attention to it – not a good sign. That certainly doesn’t apply to the riveting two-part finale, and the season as a whole has had some impressive high points, but while the slaying of Mitchell is undoubtedly a dramatic coup per excellence to end the show with I’m not sure I’m minded to return for another series if he stays staked – or that willing to forgive them a “beyond the stake resurrection” either, come to that. Whithouse may just have written a cliffhanger from which Being Human can’t be saved.