TV Review: BECOMING HUMAN; for whom the school bell tolls

After the success of webseries Becoming Human (which attracted 1.5 million hits online), BBC3 were encouraged to stitch the eight episodes together into one 50-minute special that aired last night -- premiering the story's conclusion in the process. But I'm sure this was the Beeb's intention from the start, considering the production standards of the webisodes, and its clear intention to become a full-blooded TV spin-off to Being Human. Becoming Human has largely the same premise as its parent series, only with adolescent characters and a few gender swaps. If Being Human's high-concept logline was "a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost share a house together", Becoming Human wonders what would happen if a vampire, a werewolf and ghost went to school together. Continuing the story of Adam (Craig Roberts) from Being Human's "Adam's Family", the 46-year-old vampire trapped in the body of a 17-year-old enrolls at a Sixth Form and almost immediately meets werewolf-in-denial called Christa (Leila Mimmack), before they both realize a chubby classmate called Matt (Josh Brown) is actually a ghost who needs helping solving his own murder in order to crossover to "the other side". Created by Being Human's mastermind Toby Whithouse, and written by his regular co-writers Brian Dooley, Jamie Mathieson and John Jackson, Becoming Human kept the quality fairly high. It certainly felt like it exists in the same universe as Mitchell, George and Annie, but with a more lighthearted Scooby Doo approach -- which is an agreeable if predictable approach to take. However, knowing what Misfits achieved when it mixed British teenagers with supernatural elements, I must admit it came as a disappointment Becoming Human isn't as sexy, stylish, acerbic, and compelling as that award-winning series. Skins-meets-Being Human would have been a phenomenal sight to behold, but instead the tone's more Grange Hill-does-Being Human. For that reason, Becoming Human felt like an opportunity missed; particularly as putting these three characters/creatures into a school environment arguably trumps Being Human's dependence on a suburban home and hospital. Vampires, werewolves and ghosts also speak to different aspects of teenage life very well: lust for sex (vampires), struggles with puberty (werewolves), and feelings of social exclusion (ghosts), so on that level Becoming Human has more appealing subtext.

I liked Craig Roberts' performance in "Adam's Family", but he looked more comfortable as the lead instead of a guest-star, and didn't mumble his words so much. Roberts is a flourishing young actor (you can currently see him in Richard Ayoade's acclaimed Submarine), and he certainly appears to have "eerie, prodigious teen" characters down pat. It helps that there's something a little unsettling in his pie-faced expressions and wise-beyond-his-years demeanour. That's a skill he puts to great use with Adam (a middle-aged man mixing with school kids -- uh, but in a good way) and there were some amusing moments when it became clear Adam's only reference points for teenagers are stuck in the '80s. It's not really explained where Adam's living or why he's decided to go back to school, but these are questions to be explained in the future, if BBC3 commission more episodes. There's good support from Leila Mimmack as the she-wolf who'd rather not face up to her condition, hiding the scars of her werewolf attack from prying eyes in the girl's changing room. Mimmack's pretty, but more importantly she carries that distinctive air of a social pariah drifting through her school days. She's the slightly odd girl at school who hid behind large scarves and long coats, while her popular peers were applying blusher in the cloakroom mirror so the boys would notice them. Josh Brown has the most clich├ęd character in ghostly Matt -- "the fat kid at school" archetype, treated as something of a joke throughout (he has an obsession with eggs.) The story even wandered into an uncomfortable flashback where Matt's shown to have spied on girls getting changed shortly before he was drowned in a toilet, where the moment's played in a peculiar fashion. We're supposed to take comfort in the fact Matt was actually noticing the true beauty of "angel" Christa (so, NOT perving), although he's seen peering through a grate in the wall like Norman Bates in a Porky's movie. Still, Brown just about made the character palatable, if only because Matt's so sensitive and physically unthreatening. Given the fact this special episode is actually eight bite-sized webisodes glued together, Becoming Human was occasionally ragged around the edges, but it held together quite well all things considered. At least its format meant that every seven minutes delivered a mini-climax, of sorts, and the overall mystery unfolded quite nicely. There weren't too many suspects to consider as Matt's killer (popular girl Brandy Mulligan, PE teacher Mr Swan, tutor Mr Roe?), but despite limited choices, it was fun predicting the outcome, and the culprit didn't disappointment when revealed. Overall, Becoming Human was an unusual but fun treat for Being Human fans, although I can imagine some of the show's older audience won't find this spin-off particularly alluring. A part of me wishes the BBC would invest in a more original idea, rather than try to transform Being Human into a franchise (first an American remake, now an online spin-off -- is there a cartoon planned?) The groundwork's been laid for a full TV series to be commissioned, and I wouldn't say one isn't deserved. There's potential in this basic idea, even if it's ultimately a lazy tweak on the original show's concept. I just hope the writers make it funnier and edgier if it returns, because there were times here when Becoming Human didn't really feel deserving of a primetime BBC3 timeslot.
WRITERS: Brian Dooley, Jamie Mathieson & John Jackson DIRECTOR: Alex Kalymnios CAST: Craig Roberts, Leila Mimmack, Josh Brown, Josh Cole, Simon Ludders, Emma Rigby & John Boyega TRANSMISSION: 20 March 2011, BBC Three, 9PM
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