Should Being Human fans give the US version a chance?

Feature Caroline Preece 11 Jan 2013 - 07:01

As it heads into its third season, Caroline weighs up what Syfy's Being Human remake has to offer fans of the BBC3 original...

This feature contains Being Human spoilers.

With Being Human making its anticipated return to BBC3 this month, it’s safe to say that absolutely no one knows what to expect from series five. Mitchell, George, Annie and Nina have all departed from Honolulu Heights, leaving new residents Hal, Tom and Alex to forge their own path this year. But, hang on, the original four are still alive, albeit all the way over in the American version of the series, and under the slightly different names of Aidan, Josh, Sally and Nora. Now that we’ve waved goodbye to the original cast, is it time for nostalgic viewers to give Being Human US another chance?

When Syfy announced it would be taking the beloved and refreshingly original show and remaking it for US audiences, people were quite understandably a bit miffed. The news came amidst a flurry of worrying rehash announcements, with Skins, The Inbetweeners etc. all having been and gone at this point, so it’s not surprising that fans of Toby Whithouse’s brilliant dramedy wrote the show off before it had even started filming. Some tuned in for the pilot, however, and were greeted with some of their worst assumptions.

Watching the first instalments of both versions (which this writer did for research purposes) one after another, it’s striking how similar they are. The story beats are all there, with the same ideas and characters introduced for the same purposes, but the Syfy version has one crucial difference – it’s twice as long. Yes, the debate over whether America’s standard practice of creating twenty-two-episode seasons is worse or better than the UK’s streamlined six-eight episode series can be applied here, with Being Human US’ first season extended from six episodes to thirteen. 

The first episode, therefore, had two parts to it, and the story took twice as long to get from start to finish. But here’s my argument: Being Human actually benefits from the extra time. Throwaway lines and potential storylines are given the room to actually happen in the US version, with all four regular characters fleshed out and explained in front of us instead of just in our imaginations. It’s a matter of personal taste whether you prefer things to be spelled out or left for the audience to decide, but Being Human doesn’t do much for the sake of it.

Plot lines created from the UK version’s ideas are used to create new stories for their own show, most of which have been pretty great. The story of Bernie and Mitchell’s tangled friendship was one of the more memorable of the first series, so it was obviously recreated for the remake. But this time the friendship and snuff DVD happened in one episode, the paedophile story and ultimate vampire turn happened in another, and a third episode extended the story for a whole new adventure. In this version, Rebecca is actually the one who turns Bernie, and wants to create a little undead family with Aidan. Obviously things don’t work out that way, and Aidan is forced to stake the child before he hurts anyone

This isn’t necessarily more or less traumatic and character destructive than the first version in which Mitchell turns Bernie and gives him back to his mother, but it takes the final moment of the episode in which the boy ominously states “I’m hungry”, and creates a wonderful ‘what if’ story. We also get to meet Nora’s abusive ex-boyfriend, a strangely undeveloped plot in the UK version, and see how George/Josh might have reacted to the situation. Annie/Sally’s abusive fiancé killed her in both versions, but with thirteen episodes to play with, we see history repeat itself with the new girlfriend and Sally get more and more ruthless in her search for justice. 

It’s very strange, as a die-hard fan of the UK series, to be watching different interpretations of the same characters while the original incarnations are still living, breathing characters developing on another channel. While the first season of Syfy’s show was airing, I was also watching series three on BBC3. It caused a strange mix of nostalgia and curiosity, and audiences could feel like they knew who these people were, but not where they might be going. You could argue that the remake culture we live in right now capitalises on people’s general disposition to things that have one foot in the familiar, and one in the new, and Being Human demonstrates this more than any other show.

At first, everyone assumed Being Human US would be cancelled after its first season, and then maybe those who had enjoyed it would be compelled to check out the original that was showing on BBC America. But that’s not what happened, as the series was a roaring success for a network in need of a hit. It became one of their most-watched scripted shows, and they even managed to court the elusive female audience with fifty-two percent of their viewership during season two. This was previously unheard of for the channel, and should be celebrated. It’s now heading into its third season, and will soon exceed the episode count of the original while holding on to the same characters.

So is it possible for geek audiences interested in the central concept to enjoy both shows simultaneously? Well, you can argue that no-one had to. After Mitchell, George and Nina left between series three and four, was it even the same show? Personally, I missed those characters (having never been too fond of Annie) so much that I sought a weird kind of solace in the new version, back when George and Mitchell were friends, in the original house, and back when the three of them were mainly concerned with cultivating a sense of normality. I enjoyed seeing the guys meet Annie, and watching George and Nina begin their relationship all over again. 

But it soon became clear that executive producers Jeremy Carver and Anna Fricke weren’t interested in copying the original, and things started veering off in strange and unfamiliar directions. It’s worth noting that Nina and Nora (her US equivalent) were pregnant with George/Josh’s werewolf spawn at the same time and, while we now know that Nina’s baby was born and formed the catalyst for series four’s story arc, Nora lost her child during a full moon. She had become pregnant before she was a werewolf, and thus the baby essentially transformed inside of a human woman.

Like Nora, Aidan was probably the least similar of the group at first glance. He wasn’t as witty as Mitchell, nor was he as brooding, but there was a bigger sense of imminent danger, making more of the addict analogy. People commented on Witwer’s inability (Aidan is, at times, not dissimilar from his role in Smallville) to portray the same character, so maybe the show’s writers adapted the story to the actor’s strengths, but things soon turned nasty and never went back. A lot was made of the Box Tunnel massacre, which ultimately led to Mitchell’s death, but it’s arguable that Aidan has done a lot worse in his time.

There have been moments when the UK show has made me uncomfortable, sure, but the US version has crossed over my personal line more than once. These moments usually come from Aidan’s story which, as a result of him hanging out with his vampire buddies more than his housemates, often embody the true meaning of ‘morally troubling.’ During the second season, for example, Aidan has descended so far that he’s prepared (without hesitation or remorse) to pick up two innocent women for his recently flayed (as punishment from the old ones) vampire friend to feed on. 

What followed was one of the most visually (and morally) disturbing sequences I’ve seen from a show not airing on a cable network like HBO or Showtime. It felt like something that belonged on True Blood, not this harmless remake of a relatively harmless BBC3 show that I’d been watching largely out of habit. It made me sit up and take notice, at least, and I started to think of how different these two series had ultimately become. As mentioned, things that took fifty-minutes to start, explore and resolve in the UK version were now given two or three weeks to fester, and this just gave the writers more time to get under our skin.

Even Sally has been given her own storyline, with one of the main criticisms of the BBC show centred on Annie’s lack of anything to do for most of her run. Possessing humans against their will, shredding ghosts without her knowledge and turning into a fully-fledged reaper in season two, she’s actually been given storylines that don’t have anything to do with her housemates and has developed into a completely different character as a result. In general the three of them don’t seem to like each other as much as their British counterparts, making it more like a marriage of convenience, and I can’t imagine a heartfelt final scene like that between Mitchell and George in the series three finale.

With the remake having essentially left behind its inspiration and the original sporting brand new characters, all these two shows really share right now is a name. It’s something to celebrate when, in a world where remakes are often commissioned but rarely enjoyed, two equally viable interpretations of the same show co-exist. If the Being Human franchise has taught me anything it’s that, just because you watch one, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the other as well.

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