Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Trouble with Being Human

No, not in a deep, existential kind of way – I mean, as a review of problems I have with the BBC Three series Being Human. For the uninitiated, it’s a comedy-drama about a house-share of twenty-somethings, who happen to be a vampire, a couple of werewolves and a ghost.

There are many, many spoilers up to episode 6 of series 3 in this blog, so if you don’t want to know what happens look away now.

If you do want to read this but haven’t been following the show, check out the
episode guides.

Still with me? Good.

I watched the pilot of this show about four years ago, joined in the internet campaign to get it picked up as a series, and was suitably delighted when it was chosen to air on BBC Three. I’ve been a fan since day one, in other words, and although I’m still watching now it’s in its third series, I have to say – my love is faltering. There are just some serious, gaping flaws with the script and the show as a whole this series that I can’t ignore.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never had the kind of slavish devotion to it that’s meant I haven’t had problems before: the nature of ghosts and vampires and blood being two major issues for me.

Annie the ghost is a particular bugbear and has been from the beginning. It’s her physicality that bothers me. Annie can make tea; move things around; in the first series non-supernaturals could see her; she walks places most of the time instead of popping in and out; there are never any fancy fade-in/out “ghostly” special effects*… There is no way of actually telling the character is a ghost unless she a) mentions it, or b) does one of the very rare sudden appearances. Hell, in the first series there was an episode in which Annie was out in the rain, with her hood up and hair wet** and all I could think was, seriously? A ghost is being affected by the real-world elements? It stretched credulity a bit far – and my credulity is elastic enough for me to enjoy watching
True Blood, just to give that some perspective.

This series, though, it’s even worse. Annie’s able to touch, hug and kiss people; her outfit keeps changing (in small ways, yes, but surely the point of ghosts is they don’t change?!); and she not only makes tea but she was able to help a zombie (I’ll get to that later) get dressed and style her hair and make-up. In short, apart from no humans being able to see her, Annie’s pretty much a ghost in name only now. This frustrates me – but it is pretty internally consistent.

The creator, Toby Whitehouse, said during series 1:
“Regarding her clothes, we wanted to show how her death has, in a way, frozen her in time. And keeping her in the same clothes (although you'll notice how they change slightly, depending on her mood) as that was a good visual way of expressing that. I always imagined her like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, still in her wedding dress from decades before. Annie is trapped, she can't move on, she can't complete her journey. Everything about her, including her clothes, is stuck.” -

So how do we go from having Annie “stuck” wearing the same clothes, then having them change much more significantly in the third series? Is it supposed to represent how, having crossed over and come back, she’s not “trapped” or “stuck” to the same extent she was before..?

Then there’s Mitchell. Ahh, Mitchell.

You are WELCOME.
He’s the vampire of the set. The rules for vampires in the Being Human world are:
a) They can’t be seen in things which involve silver, so no mirrors, no showing up on CCTV, and they can’t be seen in photos or on camera;
b) They’re immortal and don’t age beyond the day they were “recruited”;
c) They don’t appear to have any extraordinary strength, but do have a heightened sense of smell – at least, they can smell if someone’s a werewolf or not;
d) Sunlight bothers them – they prefer to avoid it, but they don’t catch fire or anything dramatic;
e) They have fangs, which appear when they want to feed – their eyes also turn solid black at this point, which is a neat and creepy effect;
And f) the blood has to be straight from the vein, bagged blood doesn’t work to satisfy their hunger.

Now, the urge for blood in vampires is played in this series as more of an addiction; vampires get lost in their thirst, get withdrawal symptoms when they stop feeding, the usual. As Whitehouse describes it:
“The analogy we use for blood in Being Human is drugs. We're saying the hunger […] for blood is psychological. Mitchell will discuss it further in ep 6 [of series 1], but essentially the craving is something he could in theory overcome. I always thought this was an interesting way of approaching it, as it meant Mitchell could renounce blood without starving to death, but it allowed enough struggle to make the battle interesting.”

This actually works pretty well – except for one detail that’s always bothered me. Our Mitchell is “on the wagon” and, apart from a few plot-significant slip-ups, he’s not drinking human blood. Okay so far. What I think has never worked is the fact that, once the initial “withdrawal” period is over, there appear to be no physical effects whatsoever on the abstaining vampire. So, we’ve got a type of vampire that’s supernatural enough to be immortal, doesn’t age, and can’t be seen in mirrors – why wouldn’t there be more to the whole blood-drinking thing than just the desire? If it were me writing this show, I would’ve had vampires as slightly-more-than-human strong and fast; and when a vampire stops drinking blood this speed and strength stops as well, whilst the vampire also starts ageing again. For me, it should be the blood that keeps them immortal, helps them heal and gives them the edge over humans; take this away and the abilities should go too. I would also make vampires more sensitive to sunlight if they stop feeding on humans, as they’re less strong and less resilient over all due to the consequences of stopping feeding. Having zero changes just seems like a cheat to me somehow, always has.

Moving on to the third series and the vampire/blood thing has suddenly become pretty inconsistent. In episode two we meet Adam, the teenaged-vampire.

As an aside the casting was just awful here: no offence to the chap personally, but Craig Roberts’ acting is …. not good. He had zero timing, was apparently unable to emote either vocally or physically and overall his performance just grated. Then there were Mark Lewis Jones and Melanie Walters. They were clearly hamming it up and whilst I’m sure this was a very enjoyable time for them, their over-the-top, scenery-chewing style made the episode feel like a bad joke. In terms of the characters, Adam was so lightly done, an absolute non-event. He’s meant to be in his forties, forever trapped in the body of a teenager, and yet the best way this complexity could best be demonstrated through the show, apparently, was to have Adam say to George “you’re just a kid”. Wow. Great writing there, huh?

Now, go and watch
Interview with the Vampire. See Kirsten Dunst’s performance***? See how excellent that was? Makes you really appreciate the frustration of an adult mind in a childish body and the way this frustration changes to rage and warps the personality, doesn’t it? Now compare it to the character of Adam. Clearly the writers of Being Human thought, “Cool, we’ll have a teen vampire and give him an on-line spin-off show in a school to tap into the Skins market and it’ll be awesome! What’s that? Character development and considering the effects of a developing mind trapped in a teenaged body, you say? Naah, we’ll just have him obsessed with tits and sex and stuff and it’ll be hilarious. Yeah!” The character of Adam felt utterly trite and the episode as a whole felt infantile as a result.

Back to the blood thing. Adam’s been feeding on his parents for his whole existence as a vampire – but his mum has already died and in the course of the episode his father dies, leaving Adam without guidance and without a food supply. Annie, George and Nina take him in to try to help him; Adam starts going through withdrawal; the gang ask Mitchell what to do and Mitchell tells them, in no uncertain terms, that Adam needs to feed. Needs to. Mitchell also refuses to help and won’t have him in the house as he can’t have another “addict” around mucking up his own recovery – which is an epically jerk move, because after all Mitchell had help from another vampire with getting “clean” and in the first series he tries to help Lauren, the girl he made into a vampire. So apparently the message here is, Mitchell’s not interested in giving someone a hand unless they’re sexually attractive to him.

The episode meanders on, with everyone and his dog insisting that Adam needs to drink blood or there will be consequences; yet once Adam chooses not to live with other vampires and instead to try and stay “clean”, he’s apparently fine. Uhh, what? What happened to the withdrawal symptoms? If it’s as easy as that, what does that imply about Mitchell’s difficulty with staying off blood? Why was the lack of blood making Adam weak and sick one minute, then he’s fine the next? Where is the damned sense?! Anyway, by the end of the episode Adam’s sodding off to internet spin-off land and we don’t need to trouble ourselves with him again.

Back to Mitchell.

Mmmm. Mitchell...
Last series, for reasons to do with vengeance against all humanity in ways that didn’t make a lot of sense at the time and make even less sense now I come to reconsider them but hey, it looked cool and added drama, Mitchell was involved in the killing of an entire train carriage of people****. This is a heavy influence on the plot of series 3; Mitchell ended up meeting a fan (we’ll get to that later, too) who had a book full of press clippings to do with this multiple murder. Mitchell ended up killing fanboy – and, for some baffling reason, kept the Big Book of Incriminating Evidence and hid it in the house he shares with Annie, George and Nina.

So, to review, a vampire living with people who know he is a vampire is hiding a book full of clippings that refer to a very bloody mass homicide and keeps sneaking up to the attic, when his housemates can hear him going there, to look at the book on a pretty regular basis. Now in your common-or-garden household, finding out your housemate had a book of cuttings to do with a grisly and violent murder would be creepy enough. If, however, your housemate is a vampire, and you know this for a fact, then is it just me or is that pretty much a flashing neon sign saying “I did this! Me! It was me!!”..? Naturally enough, this book is found and used against Mitchell by Herrick (yep, I’ll get to him, too), his enemy from series 1 who happens to be currently crazy and living in their attic, in a kind of upside-down version of the time
Spike was nuts and living in the school basement. Herrick gives this book to Nina, who now hates Mitchell for some reason. Nina makes the obvious connection and calls the police, leaving an anonymous message on the train-massacre hotline. A police officer turns up to investigate the tip (do they really send police officers to investigate every anonymous tip they get on these hotlines?) and comes inside to chat to Mitchell. Whilst there, the officer runs into Herrick upstairs; Herrick shows the investigating officer the book; the officer tries to take it and is caught by Mitchell, who takes it back. Whilst having such a book is not illegal, it is pretty damn suspicious.

So, why would someone who’s lasted more than a century as a vampire be stupid enough to leave evidence like that around?! Mitchell finally gets around to burning it after the police officer has seen it – which, really, just makes it all the more dubious. I mean, you tell the suspicious police officer that there’s no crime in having the book of cuttings, then you dispose of the evidence as soon as she’s gone…It doesn’t add up to “innocent”, really, does it?

Now. The zombie.

At the end of series 2, Annie goes to purgatory – at the start of series 3, Mitchell manages to get there and get her back. It was pretty well done and a nice dramatic touch, but I have an issue with that, too: namely, that Annie is being essentially tortured and is suffering. She wasn’t a bad person, she’s done nothing especially wrong, and yet it seems like she’s being punished and will be sent to hell. Then, at the end of the episode Annie is told that she was in the “wrong” purgatory for her: as she went through someone else’s door, she ended up in someone else’s afterlife. Okay, that makes sense. However, when Mitchell goes through someone else’s door in order to get into the afterlife to find Annie, he ends up in his purgatory. So how does that work? Unless we’re meant to interpret it as those in the afterlife wanted to make Annie suffer so she’d ask her friends for help and so Mitchell would come to find her and they could give him the message/threat about him being killed by a werewolf. Except, as we saw in series 1 and 2, those in the afterlife can communicate with those in the living world through televisions and radios. So there’s no obvious reason to gamble on the fact Mitchell might risk the afterlife to try and get Annie back. It’s just senseless.

Anyhoo, Mitchell gets Annie back and they both cross over into the living world again. In episode 3 we meet the “zombie”: one of a few people who died at the time Annie and Mitchell were leaving the afterlife. Apparently, as Annie and Mitchell were crossing back it’s supposed to have blocked the souls of the dead from moving on, which somehow made them zombies (except they don’t want brains and still have their living personality, but their bodies are rotting). This is seriously problematic: hundreds if not thousands of people must have died at the same time; why is it that only a small handful in Barry ended up becoming zombies? If it’s a proximity thing that makes a kind of sense – Mitchell crossed over in the hospital. However, suggesting that the “other side” is tied to physical locations with such precision seems…odd. Like obvious lazy storytelling.

Then we hit one of this series’ hallmarks: wild inconsistencies. When we first see Sasha, the zombie, her speech is slurred and so bad that she can barely be understood – I think we’re meant to laugh at this, because it turns out she was drunk (how?) and her diction is fine once she’s sober in the morning. But we’re not talking drunk-slurred, we’re talking full-on, near-incomprehensible, has-to-use-gestures-as-well-as-words-to-be-understood, mouth-rotting type of speech. The difference is too exaggerated – to be fair, that could be down to yet another terrible actor, it’s hard to tell. Either way, although I’m guessing the intention was to play with people’s expectations of a zombie and to reveal “ha ha, just kidding, she was drunk all along”, it doesn’t really work.

There’s also the issue of the other people who became zombies, who were experimented on (read “tortured”) until they were eventually burned.
By hospital workers.
In the UK.
Last time I checked, we weren’t actually living in Hitler’s Fascist Fun-Time Playhouse and, should people come back from the dead, torturing a screaming, pleading person to the point of breakdown is probably not what your average surgeon or nurse would do. Just sayin’. They probably weed those types out in the interview process.

The plot gets worse when Annie decides to take Sasha on a girls’ night out with her and Nina. I know that Sasha’s “make-over” appearance is supposed to be bad, but it isn’t funny it just feels like an over-played hand; and there’s no way in hell someone looking like that could walk down the street and get into a club without comment. Sasha then has a snog with some guy; he’s kissing her for a bet because she looks such a mess. However, there’s bets, and then there’s someone looking and smelling like the rotting corpse they are. I just don’t buy her on a night out without people screaming and calling an ambulance, possibly the army.

Sasha’s body then gets rotten enough that she can’t walk around anymore and eventually her door appears and she can cross over. But how does a zombie, which is already dead, “die” enough for the door to appear? Why would her body just go all at once and start breaking? Shouldn’t pieces have started dropping off her first? Again, lack of sense. I’m guessing that the writers just thought it would be fun to play with common expectations of a zombie and couldn’t be bothered putting in the donkey-work of actually writing a script that made sense in the rules of their universe.

Speaking of which: Herrick. At the end of series 1, George, in wolf form, ends up tearing Herrick apart, thus killing him. At the end of series 2 we see two vampires, one of whom Herrick recruited, using their blood to resurrect Herrick. Which is just…yeah. I mean for a start, physically how?! His body was torn to pieces and probably a bit eaten by a werewolf. What’s left to resurrect?! One of the original motifs of this show was that it was a bit more “real”: it wasn’t your True Blood with vampires with super-speed and super-strength, burning in sunlight and able to fly if they were powerful enough; it wasn’t like Buffy, with demons and gods and monsters-of-the-week; the creator, Toby Whitehouse, wanted a show that was closer to physics as we know it. Toby said, “One thing I've always insisted on with this show is that it's taking place in our world.” -
The resurrection of Herrick was the first sign of this ethos completely derailing, and the use of zombies pushed it over the edge.

So now Herrick’s back and living in the same house as the protagonists and has amnesia for some reason and is refusing to drink blood. He is still pretty evil, though, and saying really close-to-the-mark things as well as having the sense to show the Big Book of Murder Victims to Nina, so you have to wonder if he’s faking the amnesia. As Mitchell says that even Herrick would’ve slipped up and shown a crack in the façade if he was faking it, though, I honestly don’t know if it’s just sloppy writing; if it’s meant to show that Herrick has always been a nasty piece of work and the vampire thing is just incidental; or if it’s intended as Herrick just being that good at faking it and manipulating people.

Sticking with the vampires for one last point, there’s Graham. A total fanboy who shows up dressed as Mitchell (how did he know what Mitchell would be wearing that day? Mitch has a style, sure, but it’s not like he’s Batman with one set outfit), he says he’s visiting all the big-name vamps and Mitchell is on his list. Basically, it’s uncomfortably derivative of that so-so episode of Supernatural where
Sam and Dean find themselves at a Supernatural convention.

This picture is totally relevant to my point.

This is vital to my argument.

This is important too.
Graham’s entire character seems to have been drafted in about five minutes and his script written by drunks who just wanted to wrap things up and get back to the pub. His apparent entire raison d’etre in terms of the show was to provide the plot-prop Big Book of Incriminating Evidence, so Mitchell could keep it and have it used against him by Herrick. Again, lazy, lazy storytelling.

Now for George. In episode 6, Mitchell is obsessively flicking through a paper for mentions of the train massacre – maybe he wants to replace the book of cuttings he burned, who knows. Annie catches him and thinks he’s freaked out because he’s found a death notice for George Sands Senior, our George’s father.

Wait, what? Local papers only carry notices for local deaths. As George ran away from his family to hide the fact he’s a werewolf, why is he living in the same area as his family? In the pilot episode, George runs into his ex-fiancé at the hospital where he works in Bristol. The location just seems jarring – despite reading about his father’s death just that morning, George has enough time to get dressed and make the funeral, so his family have to be living close to Barry.

Is it just me, or if you were trying to hide from your loved ones would you not move just a little bit further away than the same freaking town?! That also undermines why George was in Bristol – just the other side of the Bristol Channel doesn’t seem far enough away for George to have fled in the first instance.

It gets worse. From the moment we first meet George and Mitchell they have a clear bond that’s got a foundation in months if not years of friendship. There’s trust and mutual reliance there, that needs to have been built up over time.

Yet now characters are saying that George has been a werewolf for three years and ran away from his family three years ago. So with the show being in its third year, surely that means George would’ve become a werewolf shortly before the timeline of the pilot episode – so when did he and Mitchell find time to become such good buddies? The timing just seems off to me.

Then we have George’s dad, who it seems is a ghost – but it later turns out that he’d actually faked his death and was still alive. It’s a telling indicator of how ghosts are represented in this series, that you cannot tell if someone is alive or dead unless they let you know themselves. Shoddy, shoddy writing. By the end of the episode, George Senior is back with George’s mum, who was dating an absolute prick of a man for no discernable reason but left him when George Senior punched him. Because that’s what we all want, right ladies? A man who punches his way out of trouble. Also, despite faking his death and lying to officials in a way that involved a police officer, there are no legal ramifications for George Senior admitting he’s actually still alive. Presumably Prick Guy, despite having all the motive in the world, isn’t going to turn them in and no one gets in trouble.

Also they presume George Junior left because he developed a mental illness, which is actually well done and really worked in the context of the show.

Now, to be fair episode 7 was amazing and fantastic viewing. It’s pretty clear the writers had some great ideas for the series, but they’ve got padded out with loads of filler. Overall, I am not impressed with this series. Bad form, Being Human. Bad form.

*Yes, I know this will have been influenced by the budget, but still.

**Budget again, right?

***Yeah, I wonder why she stopped bothering to act, too.

****One carriage, that’s right. No, I’ve never seen a train with just one carriage, either.


Following the (brilliant) finale, I have a couple further points. Now I loved the finale and yes, I cried; but I still have to take issue with it. Or more precisely, the hook they put in for series 4 (which has been given the go-ahead). If you haven't seen the finale and don't want me to ruin an element of it for you, stop reading.

For those of you still with me, my problem is thus:
We're introduced to Wyndham (played by an actor you may remember from an episode of Spaced - clever boy) who is 1,000 years old and clearly someone to be reckoned with - Mitchell's terrified of him and Wyndham certainly talks the talk. He outlines his plan for vampire world-domination and George tells him, "You've got a fight on your hands". It makes for a great ending and a strong visual, nicely staged. However, I can't help but think, if Wyndham is 1,000 years old, able to enter a house without invitation, issues threats about crucifying people that fellow vampires seem assured he can deliver on - then you know what should happen immediately after George issues this threat? Let me tell you how it should go.

Wyndham should casually step forward, rip out George's heart, do something to banish or confine Annie, then call his heavies in so they can all cart Nina off. Wyndham expressed an interest in what, exactly, the off-spring of two werewolves would turn out to be, so it makes sense for him to take her and keep her alive until after the birth. The others he'd kill.

I mean seriously, now, a 1,000 year old vampire and he's going to be threatened by a werewolf in his twenties?! As if! Wyndham shouldn't be issuing threats or anything, either - why leave your enemies alive to plot against you?

Alas, I know this isn't how series 4 will play out. Instead, Wyndham will make dire warnings, give visceral descriptions of the things he could do, but isn't actually doing, and then leave, setting up the series for the housemates planning how to deal with the increasing threat from vampires. ARGH. This is such a repeated motif in movies/books/television shows dealing with vampires - they didn't get to a great age by pussy-footing around their enemies, they got there by killing people. Lots of people. In really nasty ways.

Man up, BBC Three. I say, open series 4 with the brutal murder of George, then have the remaining episodes dealing with Annie trying to find a way to rescue Nina from the vampires before Nina gives birth. That, my friends, would be great and original drama. Call me, Whitehouse. We can script this.

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