TV Review: BEING HUMAN (USA) 1.1, "There Goes The Neighborhood: Part 1"

The British are coming... and they have television formats. The UK's been a prolific exporter of hit reality/gameshow formats since the turn-of-the millennium, but just recently many British drama premises are finding a home in the US. A remake of underclass drama Shameless debuted on Showtime a few weeks ago, Torchwood's become an Anglo-American co-production for Starz, an Americanized version of teen-drama Skins launched on MTV this week, and now BBC3's supernatural comedy-drama Being Human has been adapted by a Canadian production company for Syfy. Being Human's zany, high-concept premise remains intact: a handsome vampire called Aidan (Sam Witwer) and an affable werewolf called Josh (Sam Hungtington) resolve to live ordinary lives (or "be human") by moving into a house together, only to find they're sharing tenancy with chatterbox Sally (Meaghan Rath), the ghost of a girl who previously lived there with her fiancé. Almost identical to its UK counterpart, Aidan and Josh work as hospital orderlies at a local hospital; they discover an unused basement area Josh can use to safely transform during a Full Moon; and Aidan clashes with his vampire mentor Bishop (Mark Pellegrino), who acts as a Mephistopholes-like figure trying to lure Aidan back into bloodthirsty ways. It's undoubtedly a shame English-language shows have to be remade for American audiences -- officially for reasons of incomprehensible accents and colloquialisms, but unofficially so the adapters have greater creative control over the property and can deliver more episodes with better production values. I can understand and sympathize with both sides of the remake argument, and in the case of Being Human I always thought American money and expertise with the genre might actually deliver something superior to the BBC original. The good news is that Being Human USA isn't a horrific, dispiriting debacle. On the evidence of its first episode, it feels loyal and developed with care, while the US writers had the benefit of hindsight to adjust their premiere into a snappier amalgam of its predecessor's first year. Of particular note, this episode ends on an exciting cliffhanger that wasn't used until much later in the original's run. Other minor changes feel a little strange (like having Josh's sister replace what should be his girlfriend Nina's role in this episode), but obviously the US version is going to be widening the scope of the three lead's lives because they have more episodes to fill. Predictably, this version's production values are mostly an improvement on the low-budget original. The wispy special effects for Sally's ghostly disappearances were an especially nice touch, although the CGI-enhanced transformation of Josh into a werewolf doesn't look anywhere near as painful as the original's canny use of animatronics. A good example of limited money necessitating old-school techniques that actually carry more realism. That said, I'm willing to bet the remake's fully-transformed werewolf makes the BBC's man-wearing-an-alsation's-head costume look even sillier than usual. But it's the cast of characters that will hold the key to success. The UK version knew it didn't have huge resources to distract audiences with eye-candy, so had to rely on characterisation, tone and plot to keep people invested in Being Human's story. However, let's not overestimate the original, which had its own share of storytelling problems: many episodes can have 15-minutes of fat sliced off, and it only occasionally felt convincing when it tackled the idea of a vampire subculture. Both are problems the US version already seems to have a firmer handle on. As expected, the US version's weaknesses are largely related to character, casting and tone. Sam Witwer is the physical epitome of vampire clichés (hunky, high-cheekboned, great hair, muscular), and lacks the sense of ordinariness that Aidan Turner brought to the role. You could argue that's an improvement, as it's easier to see Witwer's version as someone more "alien" to the affairs of mankind, and you might be right. But it's a shame they couldn€™t have found a way to give Witwer an otherworldy feel without relying so much on a Twilight-esque visage. Sam Huntington (Superman Returns), like his British counterpart Russell Tovey, is the show's most successful element, and he fortunately lacks Tovey's tendency to overact in the manner of a 10-year-old boy reciting lines from a school play. Huntington's instantly likeable and has a good rapport with Witwer, making him standout from this premiere as a key reason to keep watching. The only weakness is that he lacks Tovey's indubitable sense of theatricality, which often turned dramatic scenes into thrilling spectacles of high drama and emotion. As a comparison here, when Tovey's about to transform into a werewolf it always feels very realistic, extremely painful, and a frightening proposition. Huntington gets stomach ache and gawps at a CGI hand-to-paw transformation. Meaghan Rath has the troublesome role of Sally, the ghost character who spits opinion in the UK and gives the writers regular headaches because of her physical limitations. Rath certainly delivered the upbeat, playful and voluble nature of Lenora Crichlow's performance in the BBC version, but she hasn't manage to click with her co-stars yet. A warmth didn't come through from her, meaning the episode ended with you attached to the idea of Josh/Aidan living with a chatty ghost, instead of three supernatural beings living together. Still, there's plenty of time for the triptych to find a compelling bond as twentysomething friends afflicted with abnormal conditions. In a supporting role is Mark Pellegrino (Supernatural, Lost), playing vampire leader Bishop and overcoming an unnecessary blonde wig. I thought he was the only character to effortlessly eclipse his British equivalent Herrick, played by Jason Watkins, who always felt like a non-threatening joke to me. Pellegrino managed to bring a similar sense of quirkiness to Bishop, but with a more plausible physical threat and hundred-yard stare. Overall, in some ways Being Human is the Americanization fans feared (time-lapsed shots of an urban skyline buffer nearly every scene, swathes of the episode come smothered in guitar-heavy pop songs, the actors are all sexier versions of the British cast, it doesn't feel as dark, risqué, or funny), but it's also faithful to the premise and shows equal potential on its own terms. If I had zero knowledge of the BBC series, with its riskier tone and better chemistry between the trio, I'd happily be recommending this to friends. Even if vampires are in serious danger of sending people to sleep through media overexposure.
WRITERS: Jeremy Carver & Anna Fricke DIRECTOR: Adam Kane CAST: Sam Witwer, Sam Huntington, Meaghan Rath, Mark Pellegrino, Sarah Allen & Alison Louder TRANSMISSION: 17 January 2011, Syfy, 9/8c
I will continue reviewing Being Human USA at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.

Dan Owen hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.