A friend in the music industry once told me that the purpose of a cover is to pay tribute to the original recording not by recreating what was special about it -- after all, we have the original recording for that -- but by taking the essence of the song someplace new, someplace equally special, evoking new possibilities from the song's component elements. A cover that doesn't do that -- one that merely replicates beauty of the original -- has no reason to exist.
And so with a new version of a classic television series. Does Being Human, recreated by Syfy, have a reason to exist? The answer, thankfully, is yes.
The Dangers of Transatlantic Adaptation
I hesitated to load up my screener copy of the Being Human pilot (Jan. 17, 2011 on Syfy) precisely because I feared the answer would be no. As a big fan of the UK Being Human, I was concerned that the ideal rapport among actors and between the actors and writers achieved by the UK series would be inimitable, and that the North American version (it's a joint Canadian-U.S. effort filmed in Montreal) would be a wooden, soulless recapitulation -- a lurching, empty zombie of a TV series.
These fears were not groundless: many great British series have foundered on our rocky shores. The prototype is the U.S. version of Steven Moffat's sitcom Coupling, an attempt at simple duplication that famously became an instant, abject failure; but there have plenty of cases specific to sci-fi / fantasy.
There had to be a reason that the universal response from everyone I told about the North American redux of Being Human was: Why? Why adapt it -- why not just show it? Are British vampires and werewolves so alien, their traits and habits so peculiar to that big, damp, foggy island that Americans simply can't relate to them? (On the contrary -- as any Hammer Films fan knows, Brits make the best vampires.)
But "Why don't the Americans just watch the UK version?" isn't the right question, because television is supposed to tell us about ourselves. Whether it's Sanford & Son, Queer as Folk, or The Office, American versions of British hits are made not because Americans are too parochial to "get" British shows, but because TV programs engage by starting with the familiar and pushing outward.
Shape and Substance
The existence of a show like Law & Order: UK proves that this is not just a function of stateside provincialism. The Brits will watch the American incarnations, but even better is the same concept repositioned in British situations, not just with British actors but with British characters. Just as James Kirk was, fundamentally, a 1966 American cruising through alien future skies, a John Wayne with a ray gun, so too do audiences look for their own ilk no matter how fantastical the situation -- even themselves reimagined as a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, themselves through the looking glass.
The more proper question is, then, something else: namely, "Does the Syfy version have a reason to exist?" Does it transcribe, or does it take the concept behind the show to someplace new and special? Are these characters replicants, or real flesh and blood who act not on their doppelgangers' motivations, but rather on motivations of their own? Do they -- does this show -- have a soul of its own?
I have already answered in the affirmative, because it is clear from the first three episodes that the basic structure of the show has been enfleshed by new characters that, placed in the same situation as their British counterparts, have their own needs and responses. That is the nature of the failure of the U.S. Coupling and the success of the adapted Queer as Folk and The Office: an evocative premise can be evoked in countless ways, each potentially as valid as the other.
A Yearning for Normality
It's the strength of the show's premise that allows for the viability of multiple reinventions -- a tribute to the show's original creator, Toby Whithouse. The foundation remains the same: a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost set up housekeeping together, confronting demons that are not supernatural but emotional -- addiction, rage, isolation -- by enforcing for themselves a normal life, circumscribing and smoothing their ragged, fringe existences.
This effort is complicated not only by their supernatural transformations but by the underground social structures of those who, similarly afflicted, see themselves as monsters, ejected by and rejecting humankind. In particular, the vampire community is hostile not only toward mortals but toward other supernaturals as well. The housemates, out of principle, reject their identities as outsiders by bonding with each other and deliberately, doggedly, living the lives of mortals -- despite the difficulties their conditions create in doing so.
In this case the three housemates live in Boston. They are Aidan (Sam Witwer), the comely vampire who wants to swear off the objectifying act of drinking blood from live humans; Josh (Sam Huntington), the former med student whose life was transformed by a werewolf attack, driving him to brusquely cut himself off from his family and friends; and Sally (Meaghan Rath), a ghost who has been trapped in the house where she died and in the love for her fiancé that she conveyed with her unsullied into the afterlife. Aidan and Josh are best friends and work together in the neighborhood hospital.
Similarities and Differences
Also in their orbit are Bishop (Mark Pellegrino), who leads the local vampire community and camouflages their existence through his connections as a cop; Rebecca (Sarah Allen), recently turned into a vampire, to her dismay; and Danny (Gianpaolo Venuta), Sally's fiancé and the boys' plumbing-inept landlord.
Fans of the British series will recognize certain basic plot elements in those descriptions, and indeed there are a few moments imported from the British version -- in one of two cases, more or less shot for shot. These situational moments reinforce the premise (as when Aidan, assuring Josh that a vampire-related death would not expose them, looks down the hospital corridor to the police working the crime, one of whom is Bishop). But even these moments play differently because of the nature of the characters. In fact every scene of the Syfy Being Human is shaped by these three excellent actors driving the show according to the nature of their characters, rather than being shoved around by the invisible hands of actors and writers far away whose work is long committed to digital memory.
The differences are promising. Pellegrino's Bishop is grimmer and darker than his sly, smiling, but equally Machiavellian British counterpart Herrick (Jason Watkins): his face-off with Aidan carries more heft as a consequence. Josh's burned bridges have been anthropomorphized as his estranged sister Emily (Alison Louder). And so on.
Being Human is good because it's a strong idea brought to life by outstanding writing, performances, and production values -- just like its British brother.