I’m a sucker for any TV show that takes the time to show me that it’s interested in establishing mood over plot. Bedlam’s first two episodes may not be especially impressive in terms of character development or even in terms of delivering great atmosphere. But its creators do take the time to establish the show as one driven primarily by setting and not characters.
Bedlam’s protagonists, as they’re established in “Cohabitants,” the series premiere, and then cursorily fleshed out in “Driven,” are either unsympathetic or uninteresting. Still, what gets me modestly worked-up about the show is the way that the show’s creators ostentatiously try to emphasize its eponymous haunted setting in such a way that it’s almost a character unto itself. Bedlam’s creators may not deliver the chills that they try to in the first two episodes. But they at least have got their priorities right.
In “Cohabitants,” the better of the first two Bedlam episodes, we learn that Bedlam Heights is a luxury condominium complex and former insane asylum. While I’m not quite sure how that could work logistically (Aren’t asylums typically built so that they’re far away from residential areas? Is the rent at Bedlam Heights super-cheap? What’s the deal here?), that doesn’t really matter.
A big part of what I like about “Cohabitants” is its zeal to just get the show started and moving forward. In the first scene, we meet Jed, one of Bedlam’s residents, as a seemingly mild-mannered driver picks him up on the road. Jed tells the driver that he’s dead but predictably not in the “I’m going to kill you” sense but rather in an “I’m trying to inform you that you are a ghost and you have recently died” kind of way. Jed’s part ghost hunter, part exorcist and the place that he’s currently exorcising is Bedlam Heights. This establishing scene is blissfully direct, even if there isn’t anything especially scary about seeing a black-eyed ghost shriek and howl in fast-motion until Jed, the show’s Byronic boy toy, puts his spirit to rest. The scene is right in theory, in other words, but the execution could stand a little work.
That’s basically the first two episodes of Bedlam in a nutshell: nice ideas but poor execution. I’ll go to the mat for the premise behind the ghost of the week in “Driven” and even some of the scenes in which he’s established, especially the pre-credits cold opening. But more often than not, the show’s just not as scary or as entertaining as it should be because, well, I have to care about the people that are being haunted.
The residents of Bedlam Heights are either obnoxious or stick figure-like character types with little meat defining their bare bones. Molly is a walking doormat and has a crush on Ryan, as she explains to Kate. Kate then proceeds to seduce Ryan in “Cohabitants,” and immediately regrets her decision, claiming it was a mistake, and leaving poor Ryan seriously confused. Ryan is a whiny, bland, asexually adenoidal but fairly well-dressed nerd who, in “Driven,” exorcises his own demons by explaining how badly he wants the man that killed his brother James to stay in prison. This thoughtful concluding moment suggests that perhaps we just need more time to get to know the show’s characters. But damn, with the exception of the way Ryan is marginally developed as a character in “Driven,” there just really isn’t that much to like here.
And in a sense, you can say the same thing about the ghosts that populate Bedlam Heights, though I wouldn’t complain about that as much. I don’t need to know everything about who or what is haunting the apartment complex because they’re just foils for the show’s main characters. They should be fairly prominent parts of the show and they are but thankfully, they’re never more well-developed than the show’s main cast.
More than anything else, I’m glad to see episode director John Strickland support the show’s writers in their attempt to make “Cohabitants” as no-nonsense as possible. Scenes like the one where Kate is closing up shop for the night and is about to leave her office when all of a sudden the ghost of the week appears and starts lurking around her have a lot of great set-up. When Ryan jumps out of nowhere, I knew to expect a false start jump scare but I still found the scene effective, save for the sopping-wet dead boy in the corner. I also love the relatively languid tracking shots we get throughout “Cohabitants” of our protags’ shared apartment and I especially like the pacing of the scene where Ryan and Kate are necking in their bathroom while Sopping-Wet Dead Boy (SWDB) sends torrents of lime-green water down the walls and scrawls “Drown” on the bathroom mirror. Apparently, even ghosts can get creatively stymied every now and then.
So while I can absolutely see why people might be turned off by how cheesy Bedlam can be, I think people should give it a shot anyway. For every lurid and frankly rather stupid detail, like the tire skidmarks that mysteriously show up everywhere throughout “Driven,” there’s one or two basic but effective details that make the show worth watching. I’m rather partial to this one opening shot of Leah, a one-off character in “Driven,” at the beginning of the show’s second episode. She’s standing alone under a single halogen light and calling out to see if there’s anyone else with her in the pitch black parking garage. From that scene on, the show’s creators really hooked me, in spite of everything else that was wrong with “Driven.”
If you can ignore the fact that Strickland rarely knows how to end a scene on a high note, you’ll find that he does do some things right. I like the first shot of Kate being dragged back under water in her own tub by SWDB in “Cohabitants.” The shot of Kate being dragged down into the tub, as shot from above the basin in medium close-up, is quite good. At that moment, we can’t tell whose hand is dragging her under, her own or the ghost’s. That shaky air of ambiguity is soon dispersed once we see Kate’s hand, shown in extreme close-up, grasping at the tub’s rim just as a second hand comically flops on top of hers and drags her back into the tub. Bedlam’s got promise but boy, can it be rough-going sometimes.