I watched the opening episode on Being Human on SyFy this week.
The fun thing about science and fantasy fiction is that you never know which of the assumptions that govern your world will be reconstituted in the present one. And even once you’ve spotted the difference(s), it’s still hard to anticipate what differences the difference(s) will make.
This is distinctly the pleasure of Being Human. You can’t guess, beyond the obvious things, how vampires, werewolves and ghosts will coexist, and its fun to wait to see this play out. The ghost (and the actress who plays her, Meaghan Rath) is especially interesting because she is still figuring out how to be a ghost and divides her time, in the meanwhile, between being a busy body around the house, and wailing, properly, at the sheer injustice of her fate.
Shake well. Repeat as necessary.
Putting a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a house is interesting. Putting this vampire, werewolf and ghost even more so. It’s not that this has ever been for me a matter of burning curiosity, as in “I wonder what would happen if…” But it makes a diverting pretext on which to sharpen on our wits.
Because we don’t just sit there. We are Jenkinsians. We are hunting and gathering the simple where, what, and who. We are also working out the back stories. (It turns out the werewolf is Jewish and that woman we thought was his girlfriend is actually his sister. To know something about this family makes what we may think about his identity as a werewolf richer and more interesting. I mean, otherwise, he’s just a one trick pony, er, werewolf.) And we are performing a kind of cultural Sudoku. If this is true, and this is true, we tell ourselves, then this is probably true.
The cultural participant, the Jenkinsian observer, is looking for 5 things:
1) What are the differences that create this little world? (And have they been well chosen?)
2) What differences do these differences make? (How will this play out? I will want to be rewarded for my perspicuity, what there is of that. And I will want to be rewarded by developments I couldn’t possibly anticipate, that will thrill me in the unfolding.)
3) What is the field of possibility? (What am I given as background and back story? And what can I do with them? How rich and engaging a field is this?)
4) What can I assume, reliably and speculatively? (Given what I am given and can surmise from questions 1, 2 and 3, what is my own invented Being Human. This is where the cultural Sudoku comes in.)
5) Has the world been successfully jumbled? Have things been brought into collisions that are normally kept asunder, and does their combination deliver present, and promise future, interesting, outcomes?
6) Oh, there’s a 6th. I think we are looking at each of these characters and asking "what would it be like to be like that?"
This is the unofficial viewer’s guide with which I watch Being Human and probably any show. We are active viewers, digging, poaching, reworking, creating, empathizing, as we go.
Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The MIT Press.
Post script: I hope Henry, my esteemed colleague, will forgive me taking liberty with his ideas and his name. This idea was buzzing around in my head, and I had a 50 minutes to turn it into words on the train.