Being Human, US and UK versionsBy
I am a big fan of Being Human, the US version, that recently appeared on SyFy.
It’s a wonderful “what if.”
What if there was a vampire, werewolf, and a ghost living in a house together? I have to say that my initial response was puzzlement. As in, “um, er, I don’t know. What would happen if they lived together?”
Some part of the show comes from how well the producers work out the “what if” in a manner that satisfies my sense of the plausible and takes me places I never would have guessed. Being Human works a productive balance between “oh, that makes sense to me” and “wow, how interesting!”
The new media consumer is especially fond of things that satisfy a sense of the plausible and the possible. (We get to keep a foot in the familiar and one in the new.) Managing both is key…and difficult. (I was able to predict the death of The Good Guys early because it was clear it could not find this balance.)
When Pam got me Apple TV for my recent birthday, I was thrilled to see that it contained BBC America and that this contained Being Human, the UK version.
What a delicious opportunity to consume what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia,” one story told in more than a single form. (I know someone is going to object that both shows are TV and this is not transmedia. Saying that British and American TV are the same medium is like saying British and American football are the same game.) This transmedia opportunity is sweetened by the fact that the media in question are transatlantic. With their special relationship, the UK and US continue to be, for certain purposes, variations on a theme. How interesting then to see what these two cultures would do with the same cultural artifact.
The first thing to notice is a bit stunning. In the old regime, the American version of a transatlantic exercise would feature actors who were more beautiful and less talented. This is NOT what is happened in the case of Being Human. The UK actors are better looking and the US actors might actually be the better actors. (They may be tied on the acting question.)
This tells us that American TV is getting better or at least ballsier. Not to lead with beauty, or (to think of this as the trade-off it probably it was) to go with talent even when it costs you beauty, that’s a big shift for an American culture producer.
The second point is harder to assess. Being Human uses diversity to propel itself out of genre. By this time, we have a pretty good idea of what and who vampires are. Indeed, the genre is starting to congeal and now takes quite deliberate innovations (True Blood) to sustain life (all puns intended). Ghosts too. As a culture we have gone from having no idea what a ghost is to having a pretty clear script. (Blame Whoopi) Goldberg. Werewolves, not so much.
So Being Human has a built-in “refresh” feature. Just as we are beginning to think “been there, done that” about any one of the subgenres, we are obliged to follow the story line as it crosses these subgenres. Or, less abstractly, just as we are thinking “vampires, yawn” we are obliged to watch a vampire interact with a werewolf and then a ghost. New life returns to the vampire. (ditto). And definition comes to the werewolf.
In effect, Being Human is an interesting and successful TV series because it is not the product of the grammar that comes from genre. It is interesting and successful because it contains a grammar that helps it escape genre. It is not generated but generative. Being Human contains the secret that characterizes all the culture we care about these days. It is both familiar and unpredictable, both from genre and beyond genre.