Wednesday, 13 January 2010

One Third Human

Now that Doctor Who has been dispatched, at least for the moment, I am going to need to find an alternative TV show to pick to pieces every week, in my continuing quest to crack the shell of frantic idiocy that apparently surrounds almost all British TV at the moment, and attempt to feast on the goo inside that everyone keeps telling me is there, and tastes delicious.

Being Human - which started its second season on Sunday night - seems like a logical choice. Gooder and I caught the pilot when it was broadcast, and both of us were fairly impressed. Gooder didn't really watch the first season (I think he found the various cast changes and other alterations more problematic than I did), so I summed it up for him thus: it's what Doctor Who thinks it is. Or, given the amount of shagging and blood and what at least appears to be the first ever example of a contractual obligation to the BBC requiring you show your arse in at least 70% of episodes, it might be fairer to say it's what Torchwood thought it was (or perhaps thinks it is, I'm hearing ugly rumors that now its proved it isn't invariably shit, it'll get another chance to sear out our eyeballs with another few months of unrelenting hideousness).

The comparisons are obvious. Both shows work on the principle of alternating between light-hearted comedy and dark drama, except that Being Human pulls that off (mostly, at least). Both shows are frequently pretty frenetic, dashing from one scene to the next with breathless enthusiasm; the difference being that Being Human can do this whilst actually making some sense.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Being Human actually manages what RTD constantly tells us Doctor Who was doing and demonstrably wasn't: making it all about the characters.

My opinions of RTD's grasp of characterisation is doubtless well-known. He even admits in the latest edition of The Writer's Tale [1] that he paints characters with "broad brushstrokes", but unsurprisingly this doesn't in any way go far enough. The truth is he doesn't create characters at all, he simply writes down two moods, and has them stagger from one to the other and back again like a drunk between a bar and a urinal. The Doctor is either madcap, or brooding. Rose is either having fun, or moping self-indulgently. Donna is either shouting stroppily, or pluckily proving her worth [2]. And that's all you get.

Being Human works differently. For a start, there's a clear and very workable metaphor in there. Just as Buffy was about surviving high school (one of the most obvious reasons why it lost it's way in the later, post-graduation seasons), Being Human is about how to fit in when you know you're secretly a freak. More importantly, though, Toby Whithouse has managed to create three characters with their own unique freakiness (one vampire, one ghost, and one werewolf), defined what makes each of them who they are, and then let them develop naturally. There's no deafening orchestral swell when we need to be told that now the Doctor is sad, instead you get to watch lapsed Jewish werewolf George trying to balance his desire to deny what he is, and to understand it so it can be overcome, whilst trying to decide if his vampiric best friend is helping by providing comfort and counsel, or making things worse by matching George's bloodlust with his own.

In fact, it is George that is by far the best character in the show. Probably the best werewolf character ever written for TV, too (Oz's laconic humor notwithstanding), though since I never watched Wolf Lake* I might be wrong, and also don't have too big a pool to draw from. Certainly, he deviates far further from type than either the vampire of the ghost do (not that either of them can be called bad characters, either). Using "the beast inside" to propel storylines isn't particularly imaginative (turns out it can mean wanting to be violent or wanting to shag; who knew?) but what George unique is that the focus is not on what happens each full moon, nor on endless conversations about how he's dangerous. It's all about how he's "dealt" with the situation by totally retreating into a state somewhere between OCD and total repressive denial, all facial ticks and squeaky voiced outrage. He's not controlling the wolf (indeed, he can't control the wolf), he's trying to control everything else instead.

Which doesn't work, of course. His constant attempt to repress any real emotion simply means he constantly leaks bitterness and petulance, staining everything with his low-level bitchiness. He can't see it, because his obsession with his internal battle leaves him blind to everything else, but it just keeps happening. And if someone points it out, or if things get so bad it even penetrates his head, he'll do everything he can to help (and he can be pretty observant when he needs to be), but once that's over, it's back to sitting in the corner squeaking to himself.

At least, that's how George was in Season 1 (and if you haven't watched it yet, I would suggest skipping the rest of this post). At the end of that first run, though, George allowed himself to murder local vampire chief Herrick whilst in his wolf form, so as to save his friends. During this confrontation, he also managed to scratch his girlfriend Nina, turning her into a werewolf too, a fact of which he was unaware.

And now a whole new bundle of lunacy kicks off.

In truth, the first episode of the new season was generally a bit of a disappointment. The tone was all over the place; that ability to mix comedy and drama has apparently gotten a bit rusty in the interim. Moreover, it doesn't really give Annie and Mitchell anything to do. Mitchell is reduced to sitting around sulking because all the competing urges, duties and enmities of the first season have been resolved, and now that Annie has conquered her fear and betrayal following her murder at her former fiance's hands, she doesn't really have any drive, and having her apply for a job as a barmaid isn't really going to cut it (though having her bring out a tray of tea for her neighbours at the end of the episode was a lovely character moment). Since the focus of this episode (unsurprisingly) was George, I guess it doesn't matter too much just yet, but it's frustrating to see them spinning their wheels nonetheless.

George, though. George is going from strength to strength. Which is not to say he is becoming more likeable. Quite the opposite. There were multiple moments on Sunday when I would have quite happily slapped him (last year that only happened once per episode). But infecting Nina was a stroke of writing genius, as was her deciding not to tell him. On the one hand, she can't bear to touch him, and on the other, she won't leave, because now she knows what's lurking in the bushes out there she can't handle life alone. It's a clear metaphor for those miserable relationships in which one person is obviously not remotely interested in actually being there any more but is too afraid of being alone to leave, and the other one is still very much into the relationship but horribly aware they're nothing but a glorified hot water bottle, and faced with this grim new dynamic, George strays.

All of that on its own would work just fine, probably. But this is being human, so there's another level to it all. George doesn't cheat on Nina with just anyone, he goes for a lunatic vampire named Daisy (who annoyed the crap out of me, but since she drove the story forward so well I'll cut her some slack). In-between seducing uptight werewolves, Daisy is struggling to expunge what remains of her humanity, in a brilliant mirror image of George's struggle, and which leads to her suggesting George embrace his supernatural side. Before, he's never really wanted to hear that, but right now it stands in marked contrast to Nina's obvious disgust, and so George is now more receptive to the idea than he has been in the past.

In that sense, George is not only getting the red-hot sex action he isn't from Nina [3], he's getting comfort from her as well, in the sickest and most twisted way possible. Ultimately
it's not that George was horny (or not just that), it's that George desperately needs Nina to tell him it's OK that he murdered Herrick. Obviously the werewolf/supernatural issues are mixed in, but I think for George the key issue is that he murdered someone, Nina watched him murder someone, and somehow the result is that Nina is the one who needs to be told everything is going to be OK. George turning round the perfume conversation was classic projection/distraction, but I think part of it was also that he resents the fact that he discovered Mitchell and Nina having an actual conversation. All George is getting from Mitchell is vampire sulking, but apparently Nina can get council and sympathy. Add in how chatty Annie and Nina seem to be, and it could very well look from George's perspective that he's suddenly been shut out. Mitchell even partially confirms this later in the episode by implying to Nina that it is important they help her through this, because none of them have ever had that before; this he says in front of his best friend who is now a murderer and has essentially been left alone to process it all by himself.

Daisy, though. Daisy is helping. On the most basic level he would never have met her had he not killed Herrick, and the plus points of their meeting are pretty obvious. On another level, though, her "accept who you are" line has come at exactly the right time for him. It simultaneously reminds him why he needed to kill Herrick, and it lessens the guilt over the deed itself. Moreover, he gets to spend some time helping Daisy deal with those parts of her that remain human (the exact opposite to what Annie was doing with Nina), and in the process reinforce his own. And, as a corollary to all that, it means that in George's head what he's doing with Daisy actually is the same thing as what Nina is doing with Mitchell, or at least that the two are so closely connected the fact Mitchell and Nina are confiding in each other actually provides evidence they're sleeping together.

It's brilliantly complex (to the point where I didn't mind that most of the issues above were explicitly pointed out by the characters themselves), and excellently written (though I continue to think Russell Tovey is a fairly overrated actor). And, even better, all of the above was only one part of the whole episode. I haven't even touched on the building plot of Professor Jaggart and his supremely creepy right-hand man, Kemp. That's the way to kick off a season's story arc. None of this bollocks with inaccurate prophecies or non-specific foreboding portents. Our heroes don't even realise they've been targeted by whomever (or whatever) Jaggart is, or that he has a nasty habit of slinging werewolves into hyperbaric chambers and letting them bleed to death.

So, yeah. A bit of a mess, but a massively fascinating one. I'm certainly curious to see where they go from here.


[1] Is he referencing Chaucer here? If it was anyone else I'd assume not, but if there's any writer out there now who would compare themselves to Chaucer under the cloak of "irony", it's RTD. We should probably be grateful he didn't call it A Midsummer Night's Making Shit Up.

[2] That last one is particularly irksome. Doubtless this has much to do with RTD's total inability to realise when he's done something to death, but there's a limit to how many times you can tell an audience that working class people can also be noble (it's her fucking surname, for God's sake) before it becomes clear it isn't those watching with the issue, it's you. Remember Mitchell and Webb's Good Samaritan sketch? It's that.

[3] Ordinarily the idea that someone would stray just because the sexy times have died down would make it very hard for me to sympathise with someone. In George's case things are at least a little different. The fireworks with Nina haven't petered out as they often tend to in relationships, they've been deliberately withdrawn for reasons unknown just at the point where your average relationship graduates from "I'm having sex with someone new!!!" to "Let's see what happens when I do this!". I'm not suggesting this excuses George's behaviour, simply that it makes what he did perhaps slightly less hideous.


Chemie said...

The rather stereotypical ominous scientist wasn't a form of 'non-specific foreboding portent'? We don't know what he wants to do, just that he's a very naughty man who likes ex(im)ploding werewolves slowly.

Being Human has always seemed a rather lacklustre addition to the horror/drama/buffy-wannabe/ pantheon to me. Much more fun are Glee and Breaking Bad. Or if it has to be British you made a serious mistake missing Misfits and Cast Offs.

Gooder said...

I'll start by agreeing Glee is so far very good and I look foward to the watching the rest.

And I am hearing good things about Misfits but haven't caught it yet.

I guess I'm just not inspired to watch Being Human in the ends since it's covering ground I've already seen so much before (from Buffy to Ultraviolet and back)

For me I think Buffy continued to work well after the end of high school since it became about how hard it is to find your place in the world beyond school and how it still takes a few years after you leave for you really to become ther person you are.

On a third nit-picky point I wouldn't say Donna was working class, not judging from her where her family lived - looked throughly middle class to me!

SpaceSquid said...

"The rather stereotypical ominous scientist wasn't a form of 'non-specific foreboding portent'?"

Not in sense I was using the word "portent". There's a signficant difference between watching a mystery unravel and being specifically told what's going to happen in the vaguest way possible. Unknown is not the same as non-specific.

On the other hand, I suppose you could argue that the flat raid counts as a "portent" by the word's broadest definition, insofar as it clearly implies something is going to happen later. By that definition, though, any scene in fiction in which a villain appears without actively either attacking or being defeated would constitute a portent, so I'm not sure what use the term would be anymore.

"Or if it has to be British you made a serious mistake missing Misfits and Cast Offs."

Yeah, I've been told that. Will have to chase them down at some point.

jamie said...

I didn't get too far into this for fear of spoilers, but around the time I bailed on the article I noticed the Wolf Creek reference. I haven't seen it myself, but it is not a film about werewolves, rather backpackers being held captive by a serial killer in the Australian outback.

Chemie said...

Well you only have 2 days to watch Misfits on channel4 OD. Otherwise you are at the mercy of repeats!

'There's only one thing young ladies should be inserting in themselves ...and that's knowledge.'

SpaceSquid said...

"For me I think Buffy continued to work well after the end of high school since it became about how hard it is to find your place in the world beyond school and how it still takes a few years after you leave for you really to become ther person you are."

Fair enough. I wasn't unaware of that angle, I just don't think it worked so well.

"On a third nit-picky point I wouldn't say Donna was working class, not judging from her where her family lived - looked throughly middle class to me!"

Your class is not your home, though. Maybe Donna's father had more money.

"I haven't seen it myself, but it is not a film about werewolves, rather backpackers being held captive by a serial killer in the Australian outback. "

Shit. I meant Wolf Lake, which is a TV series about werewolves. I don't know what I was thinking; I've seen Wolf Creek.

Gooder said...

Well I didn't pick up anything that implied she was working class so the fact her family clearly lived in a middle class suburb kinda implies that was what the family was, unless you're just going with loud and gobby = working class!

Gooder said...

Oh and Once More With Felling, The Body and Hush - probably Buffy's best episodes all came after they left School!

SpaceSquid said...

"unless you're just going with loud and gobby = working class!"

Not at all. The relevant equation is that loud and gobby = stereotypical portrayal of working class.

Her grandfather is certainly working class, though I grant that as an isolated character her mother probably isn't. I think the four reasons I marked her out as working class were a) how Tate played her, b) her constant string of low-grade jobs, c) her mother repeatedly arguing that a constant string of low-grade jobs was all she could ever aspire towards given who she was, and d) the Doctor noting in The Runaway Bride that she isn't all that smart, by which I assumed he meant educated (again, this is not me arguing that working class people are not educated, simply that brave and noble but not necessarily well-educated is another lazy portrayal of working class people, and RTD is all about lazy portrayals). There was also the moments in "Turn Left" where she went out on the lash and played it as the most chavvy of chavvy chavs, and when she went off to that swanky hotel and made a big show of being impressed; it was pretty close to Eliza Doolittle territory.

I'm happy to confess it isn't an airtight case, and that it is far easier to pin down Rose, for example, as clearly working class. In fact, I suppose you could even stretch it to arguing that the idea with Donna isn't that she's working class (and thus RTD thinks the audience will dislike her and he will show she's lovely and we will learn our lesson) so much as she's slumming at the bottom of the middle class pile (and thus RTD thinks the audience will dislike her and he will show she's lovely and we will learn our lesson). Same trick, slightly different approach.

"Oh and Once More With Felling, The Body and Hush"

There is quite simply no way Once More With Feeling is in the top three Buffy episodes. I doubt it would grace my top ten. It's certainly one of the most well-crafted episodes, and I enjoy it a great deal, It isn't up there with the absolute greats, though.

The other two I will grant you. Of course, even with OMWF included, that's one truly great episode per year from a show that for at least two seasons (the second and third) was knocking it out of the park every other week at least. It's like when bands release a debut album that you love, release the lead single from the next album that's more awesome than anything on their first, and then the new album turns out to be absolute shit. I always wondered why that happened so often...