The biggest problem with BBC America's latest import series, Demons, is that no one in it seems to really buy what they're selling. The show itself is harmless enough - a teenage boy discovers a secret, special destiny and gets to fight monsters and stuff - but everything surrounding it feels so by the motions that it ends up feeling designed by committee. British TV is usually known for its uniquely strong authorial voices, one of the biggest virtues of having short episode orders and stories that aren't designed to go on and on and on, which makes it even stranger that Demons feels so much like a show that was conceived of by some British execs shrugging their shoulders while filling out Mad Libs. That gives the whole thing a listless quality, making it even odder that the show was given the prime real estate of appearing after David Tennant's final appearance as the Tenth Doctor, the closest thing BBC America has to prime real estate.
For long portions of its running time, Demons seems mostly designed as a vehicle to show off how Christian Cooke looks without his shirt on. As teenage heartthrob material, Cooke probably has what it takes, but as the center of a show about teenagers battling the undead, he's a little too slack-jawed with disbelief at what he's seeing. He'd be better off expressing more incredulity or wonderment or just about anything, but instead, he goes for shirtless fascination, and that ends up making him kind of a void at the show's center. And this is definitely a show that needs someone charismatic at the center to even have a prayer of working.
The problem with Demons is that it's ripping off dozens of other entertainments that have the same basic premise without ever finding a way to put its own spin on the material or execute the theft with some sort of panache. Just from describing the general thrust of the show - teenager fights monsters - you can probably fill in most of the rest. Does he have a grizzled mentor who clues him in to the secret nature of the true world of darkness and pain? Absolutely. A single parent with the other, missing parent surrounded by mystery? Of course. Strained jargon designed to make the world feel quirky and alive? You bet your half-life! A loyal best friend, who's a quirky girl who's also secretly in love with our oft-shirtless hero? It was practically mandated by the premise, no? Demons should have a constant running sidebar that features annotations of all of the things the series is ripping off. Much of the series exposition is undertaken in a library, for God's sakes (though the show at least has the decency to pretend it's being original by calling it "the stacks").
I write this article as part of a New Year's resolution to pay more attention to series from across the pond, especially after so many of you were irritated by how few British series featured in our list of best shows and episodes of the decade last year. To that end, I'm going to look at the big BBC America premieres (like this one) and some of the shows that are released here on DVD. Legal British TV availability in the U.S. is sporadic, at best, relying on whichever series your local PBS station picks up for import, whatever BBC America decides will appeal to U.S. citizens and the few series the network thinks it can manage to sell on DVD. This is too bad, because the best of British TV attains a straightforward purity and momentum the best of American TV can't really match. All American series - even the cable ones with shorter seasons - have a more meandering nature than British series. British shows are often interested in an almost singleminded focus on plot and character to the exclusion of all else, while American series are often more interested in building worlds. Obviously, this isn't the case all of the time, but it works as a general sense of how the two industries differ.
So while the American version of Prime Suspect (coming to NBC this fall!) seems almost destined to turn into just another cop show, the British version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which this pretty much is) loses out. You can see where an American show might be able to turn this rather generic premise and set of characters into a fascinating world, figure out a way to evolve to address the weaknesses in the premise and cast. As a matter of fact, we already pretty much have a show that did this. It's called Supernatural, it's on the CW, and it overcame some early hiccups to play to both of its actors' limited strengths and come up with a convincing world and mythology that presses beyond the generic setup of the pilot. For all of the strengths of the British model, for all of the ways that there's really nothing like the purity of the experience of watching one of the BBC's best series, the reason I tend to prefer the American model is simply for this very reason: American shows can grow and change. They can evolve, create whole universes for their characters to play in. World-building fascinates me. And British shows rarely, if ever, have the room to do that, especially in such limited constraints. Even the ones that have well-developed worlds mostly have to suggest those worlds, rather than actually show them. There's just no time. (See: The Office.) (Also, the British love sketch comedy way, way, WAY more than I will ever love it, which leaves me at something of a loss.)
So that leaves something like Demons, which mostly has to coast off of other mythologies and series. Luke (our aforementioned lead) can't be just a kid who ends up hunting monsters. He has to be the offspring of Abraham Van Helsing himself. And the mysterious, sexy woman who becomes the newest part of his inner circle has to be Mina Harker, of course. Not helping matters is the fact that everyone in the cast doesn't seem to really view this material as something worth engaging with. There's a whole sequence near the end where Mackenzie Crook, as a monster with a hideous, fake-beak nose, monologues about his evil plans, and the actor, who's a lot of fun, really, just seems to be phoning it in, waiting for his shot at another Hollywood blockbuster. Similarly, many of the regulars just seem to be cashing a paycheck.
The two exceptions here are Philip Glenister as mentor Rupert Galvin, who apparently only took the role to work on his American accent (if Wikipedia is to be believed). Glenister's accent is pretty bad, all things considered, but he sinks his teeth into the menace required to make both his character and the show's universe believable. Similarly, Holly Grainger, as Luke's best friend and destined love interest Ruby, mostly realizes she's been handed the thankless role of spunky best friend and runs with it. She's not great, but she's the only one here who really seems to believe the whole show is worth investing any amount of talent in.
That's what ultimately does Demons in. For all of the reasons the British system ends up making utterly generic shows like this one feel even more generic than they need to, the show could probably get by if everyone involved just invested the material with some of the sense of spirit and verve the show needs to work. As a series about teenagers fighting monsters, it's literally just like every other series about teenagers fighting monsters. But as a show about these particular actors playing characters fighting the world's baddies, it could have been fun. Instead, it's tired, sadly, sorely uninteresting.
- Maybe the British agreed? Despite the fact that the show debuted with rather large numbers, the series will not be returning for a second series, largely due to the fact that Glenister decided he didn't want to come back for another go. I'll just pretend that everyone over there realized this was warmed-over trash, rather than acknowledge the reality.
- Also, is Glenister working on his American accent because he's trying to get cast over here? Hollywood is almost certainly going to misuse what makes him a compelling presence, but more power to him.