On Being Human

Note: I wrote this about a week ago, but I got too busy to copy the final version from my netbook to this site. I finally have a free minute, during a class preparation break, so here you go. Posting will be slow for a while, till I’ve built up that momentum so crucial to propelling myself through the semester. I figure it’ll be about a week till things are back to normal, in terms of my free time.


Having torn through both of the extant seasons of the British TV series Being Human, I can say I really like the show. What’s a little bit harder for me is explaining why I like it. It’s about a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost who are living together and trying to have, er, “normal” lives, among the humans around them, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a show I’d like. After all… Twilight did nothing for me, and while I read the Anne Rice vampire books — at least, up till Lestat started talking to Jesus — I wouldn’t really say that any beyond the second or maybe the third were even interesting to me.

In fact, after so long playing RPG games featuring these three specific supernatural beings, after reading tons of novels (good and bad alike) about these kinds of creatures, the question for me is: why do I like Being Human?

In the great tradition of lists, here’s a top five list.

  1. The nature of life (or in two cases, unlife) as a supernatural being is a mystery both to the characters and to the audience alike. When George thinks he can get control of his werewolf nature by caging himself up on full moon night and taking sedatives, it bites him back (psychologically) for the rest of the month. When Annie glimpses what’s beyond the Door of Death, she gets a nasty shock… and when, at the end of Series 2, she ends up on the far side, she describes a bizarre, bureaucratic limbo which baffles our expectations. Even Mitchell, the oldest and most powerful of the group (a vampire who’s been around the block) is sometimes baffled, or left at a loss for how to handle his own hungers, the damage they cause, and the politics of local vampire society.And when I say the show is doing new things with the stock supernatural character archetypes, it makes me think of Twilight and the liberties taken in that universe. The vampires there are stripped of all the things that make vampires… well, vampires, but also all the things that make them complex and interesting. In Being Human, a vampire who abstains from blood-drinking is like an alcoholic abstaining from booze: it’s a painful, humiliating, losing struggle. There’s a cost to “going clean” and while even this trope — vampiric bloodhunger as drug addiction — may not be new, it’s at least interesting, and explored in interesting enough ways. (Especially in terms of how the human apoproaches to dealing with addiction are, or are not, or cannot be, sufficient for a vampire.)
  2. The characters are profoundly human. That is, of course, an old meme in SF and horror and fantasy, one well-tried and, you would think, used up. But somehow, the paerticular performances make it work. George is so absolutely neurotic that every time his voice cracks in protestation, embarrassment, or terror, I wince in sympathy. George is deeply not-cool. (Mitchell is, oddly, more cool, though I’m a bit puzzled as to why that doesn’t bring up all kinds of disbelief on my part. Why isn’t he culturally more like someone who lived a hundred or more years ago? Why is he so flexible? Maybe there’s something about vampires, boundary-transgression, and the construction of the cool that could be explored here.)George and Mitchell’s character arcs seem goofy when I put it a certain way — they spend a lot of both Series occupied with women, or trying to be occupied with women — but they work somehow just the same. And Annie’s struggle with a series of painful realizations, one after another, mostly about how she can’t do this thing or will have to forget the hope of having that thing happen in her life — love, marriage, kids, family, even dating — is something I would expect to play out as melodrama, except it comes off touching.
  3. The series brings back memories of the old days of gaming for me, from when I was playing the White Wolf games that dealt with the three main supernaturals in this series — ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. (As I’ve noted before, Wraith: The Oblivion, the ghost-based RPG, was my favorite, though judging by its cancellation I was in the minority. People apparently preferred a baffle game about mages, and a game playing faeries in the modern world, over death and angst and sorrow and fetters attaching a dead soul to the life they’d lost, and the world they could never participate in. Go figure.)Anyway, when I watch the show, I wonder what it would be like to run a gaming group with a mix like that. It seems to me the main problem is that the natural enemies for each are so different. Vampires pick on werewolves, vampire-hunters pick on vampires, and Powers From Beyond stalk ghosts. The show has done an alright job of giving the group a set of enemies, though the villains are the least satisfying part of the series. (Especially in Series 2. I’m glad about what I saw in the very final scene of Series 2.)
  4. It’s freaking dark. Dark, dark, dark. But that’s not why I like the show so much. Simply dark is so easy one can do it with eyes shut and brain half turned off.Rather, Being Human is intelligently dark. The show’s cosmology and narratives repudiate any of the pleasant myths that we have received about death, for example. While I loved Dead Like Me, it really did pussyfoot around death. Sure, it had to, it was a comedy, and it was necessary because most of the show was about unpleasant deaths happening to not-unpleasant people. But still, it was really rare that an unpleasant afterlife was visited upon anyone, at least from what we could tell. Everyone went to heaven, and any implication of hell was going out on a limb.

    Being Human repudiates all of that. Beyond death’s door? Hell, not even the folks who go back there know what the hell is going on, and it’s not really recognizable from any cosmology we know (in the West, anyway). The glimpses of the afterlife we have look more like a scene out of Kafka’s The Trial.

    The point being that this show looks at death realistically, the way we really do when it sweeps into our lives, or brushes up against whole societies (like in Haiti and Chile a few weeks ago, like in Southeast Asia during the big tsunami a few years back, like back in the days of the Bubonic Plague), and it says, “That’s not very fucking funny at all, now is it? No, it isn’t.” You don’t quite feel stupid for laughing, but you do feel chastened, even while you feel quite entertained.

    And then there’s its take on religion. It’s not just that the religious leaders “have it wrong” but that they haven’t a bloody clue, except in moments of doubt. There’s a moment where George, the lost and messed-up werewolf, consoles a priest (or minister, some kind of Christian cleric) after he witnesses a vampire attack, and then advises him to just keep believing in his religion (and in general, his limited view of the world… that is to say, his consensus-reality fantasies about the world), presumably because reality’s just to weird and awful an alternative to believe in. The irony of a fantastical creature (a werewolf) encouraging a priest to believe in what he can knows to be solipsistic fantasy (that is, mainstream Christian cosmology, and mainstream consensus reality) is stunning.

    But it’s not just this. The prime villains in Series 2 include a priest, his explicitly religious (and, to differing degrees, fanatical and heartless) assistants, and a scientist who has written a book on Intelligent Design. Wait, those are among the prime villains in our real (intellectual) world, too, aren’t they?

  5. The show is not American. Sometimes, you just want characters who don’t live in New York, or Ohio, or LA, or wherever. It seems, though, some Americans don’t feel this way: bloody hell, why are they remaking this as a US series? Why not just license the already amazing British series and show it in the US? It’s just pathetic. Anyway, I like that it’s British. It’s a positive selling point for me.

Anyway, I don’t know what the American series will be like, but I sincerely doubt it will surpass the British original. (I have never watched the American remix of The Office because, frankly, I hold the same belief about that show.) Check it out, if you can. It’s very well worth your time.

And, ooh, there are tie-in novels. I almost never read tie-in novels — I think the last one I did read was back in grade school… E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, I think it was (though I barely remember it) — but I sure would have a ball writing one of those tie-ins. Wish I knew the lingo, and knew the right person. That’d be fun.

Also, the show’s blog has tons of deleted scenes and other goodies. Wish they were available in my area. I shall have to try a proxy or something…

4 thoughts on “On Being Human

  1. I’m with you–this is one of the few TV shows I bother with these days. And I like for all the reasons you do.

    Now we have to wait for season 3. Tap, tap.

    Not sure I’m waiting for the US version, but I’ll check it out.

  2. Neile,

    Yes, I am feeling rather impatient to see Series 3 start. I guess maybe I could try catch up on Lost or something… or How I Met Your Mother.

    Not that I have much time for TV these days. Got a lecture to organize on the notion of “cultural” purity and “mongrel culture”, another lecture for next week to organize on the subject of the blackface minstrel show, and a bunch of reading packages to finalize. (They’re vague, and I have a lot of reading to do to be sure what I’m assigning students. That’s my 3-day weekend gone, basically. Ha, and I might get a few hours in on fiction writing and brewing if I am lucky…)

  3. Dude. Twilight had better not have done it for you, it’s crap.

    Do you have any idea how much time at cons is spent bitching about it?

    If you want to give some decent vampire stuff a try, I have recommendations for books.

  4. Heh, you maybe missed my post about Twilight.

    Feel free to recommend vampire stuff, but I doubt I’ll pick up much till I’ve read what I have. (Which, right now, is a Sonia Blue triology I never finished, and a copy of I Am Legend, and I’m about where I can watch a TV show about bloodsuckers and be entertained. Reading takes more time.

    (I should note: I did enjoy the first few of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books too, many, many years ago.)

    By the way, just to clarify, in comparing the liberties taken by Being Human to those taken in Twilight, I meant the latter was bad, the former very good.

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