Being Human debuts tonight on SyFy at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Matt Zoller Seitz, in this year’s Movie Club feature at Slate.com, explained that the films of 2010 had him rethinking his prejudices about Hollywood remakes. In particular, he was impressed by how much he enjoyed the Let The Right One In remake, Let Me In, a film that took the same basic storyline, characters, and set-up of the Swedish film (since, indeed, both were based on the same novel) and created something that was interested in different things, that played up new moments and items, that found its own things to say about the basic idea of a young vampire and the boy who falls for her. Seitz’s argument was that we might start thinking of remakes as cover versions. No one terribly objects when a band covers someone else’s song because it likes that song so much, and indeed, there are many covers that are almost universally accepted as better than the original versions. Why can’t the same be true of film remakes?
Well, in a time where seemingly every British, Australian, or Canadian show with a vaguely interesting premise is getting remade for the American audience, we might as well start asking that question of television remakes, too. Just eight days ago, we saw an interesting remake of the British series Shameless, one that is struggling a bit to get on its own two feet, but one that is clearly finding lots of fun in adapting the series it’s based on. Tonight, remakes of both Being Human and Skins launch, and the similarities between the two are so striking that if we had a system that easily allowed for posting dual reviews of TV shows, I’d just write one piece for the both of ‘em. They’re both promising. They both have moments when they seem like they’re finding their footing and escaping their parent series. They both struggle with moments that are pretty much shot-for-shot remakes. They’re both shot in Canada. And so on.
Being Human, of course, is about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost who live together in an apartment. On paper, this sounds kind of terrible, but as executed, it’s surprisingly entertaining, with a fun sense of how these “monsters” might actually exist in a world that was unaware of them. The original series had a surprisingly light touch for the subject matter. Sure, it had the requisite pseudo-scary moments and the not-too-complicated mythology that’s the hallmark of shows like this, but it also had some fun banter between the three leads. (It’s here I’ll mention that I’ve only seen the first season of the original, though the producers of the U.S. version have also limited themselves to only those six episodes, choosing to completely avoid further information on where the original went to better differentiate themselves when the time comes.) Because this is the U.S. and goofy banter with a hefty side of mythology is one of those things we do pretty well, that’s what the producers of the new version—led by Jeremy Carver and Anna Fricke—have chosen to emphasize. It works better than it has any right to.
The reason it does has a lot to do with the cast the new series has assembled. They’re similar enough to their British counterparts to not constantly leave you wondering what the producers were thinking in casting them, but different enough to make their own mark on the material, something that comes particularly in handy when the episode is borrowing plot elements or moments wholesale. Of the central trio, the weakest link is probably Meaghan Rath as new ghost Sally, though this seems to have less to do with Rath herself (who is fun and bubbly most of the time) and more to do with the fact that the writers often seem to have next to no idea of what to do with her. (This feeling crept up in the original, too, but it’s stronger here.) That leaves Sam Witwer as vampire Aidan and Sam Huntington as werewolf Josh to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the episodes SyFy sent out (three in number), and the two prove more than capable of doing so.
To a real degree, a show like this lives or dies based on chemistry between the actors. The mythology here is pretty standard stuff, with few twists on the usual vampire, werewolf, or ghost stories, so that means that the character relationships become incredibly important. And Witwer and Huntington nail the sense of two people who are almost completely dependent on each other but would never admit it. Josh is the closest thing Aidan has to a tether to the world of humanity, a world he desperately tries to avoid fucking up (usually failing). Aidan’s the guy who’s there when Josh needs someone to make sure he won’t go around killing people while wolfed out. In between the jokes and jabs the two guys toss at each other, there’s a real sense of the deep friendship that’s formed between the two. There’d be less of a hook to sell the series on if it wasn’t about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost, but with these actors, it would still at least be watchable if it was just about normal twentysomethings. Toss in the always fun Mark Pellegrino as Aidan’s former vampire pal, now nemesis, and you have a really solid central cast.
There’s a certain sense of cheap, basic cable-ness creeping around the edges of the episodes, particularly the ones after tonight’s pilot. A lot of things are shot in close-up, and some of the day players don’t measure up to the regular cast, particularly a ghost friend Sally makes in episode three. Also, while tonight’s pilot ends on a thrilling and exciting cliffhanger that should leave most viewers wanting to see next week’s episode, next week’s episode spends a lot of time dithering around on stuff that just doesn’t matter, slowly letting out much of the tension built up in this one. The third episode does some to right this (particularly in regards to how unable Aidan is to operate in the world without making it a worse place), but the first episode is easily the best of those sent out by SyFy, and that’s rarely a good sign. Finally, if you’ve seen the original, there’s perhaps not a pressing need to check this version out until further down the road, when the producers are forced to improvise more heavily instead of relying on the originals, though this version already has a stronger sense of its own identity than many of the other remakes this season, perhaps because the original’s producers aren’t consulting on this version. (Fricke and Carver make a good team; she got most of her experience on banter-heavy dramedies, while Carver came up on genre programs like Supernatural.)
But there’s a kind of excitement a show like this needs to have that Being Human has present somewhere in its DNA. It may just be that the central premise is so easy to pull off without too much effort that any version of the show will end up at least being somewhat enjoyable (like similar British transplant The Office, which has been successful in many countries). It may be that the cast is so much fun that you’ll sit through the rough patches to see what they’ll do next. Or it might just be that there’s still something exciting about seeing vampires, werewolves, and ghosts trying to fight their essential natures. But if this is a cover version of the original series, then it’s one that’s mostly faithful but one that has its fair share of fun curlicues around the edges. The notes are all the same, but the instruments playing them are just different enough to make it enjoyable.
- We're adding this show, and Scott Von Doviak will take over for me starting next week. The grade's for the pilot only.