The Possibilities of Being Human
After viewing the two-part premiere of the new Syfy series Being Human, the show is shaping up to be a lot more interesting than first appearances and teaser trailers might have suggested. The premise alone – “A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost share a townhouse in Boston, where they try to live like humans.” – could just as easily have played out as a paranormal Seinfeld or another iteration of Twilight/Vampire Diaries melodrama. Instead, we seem to be getting a deeper, more complex show in the vein of Battlestar Galactica – not just a fun show with science fiction trappings, but a meditation on human nature, humanity, and human identity.
Being Human opens with a fascinating juxtaposition: the cliché that making mistakes is only human, and three protagonists who aren’t human. Worse than that, vampires and werewolves fall into one of the narrowest categories in fiction, predators of humans, a category that defies the natural order we otherwise experience in our world. It doesn’t take long for Aidan to succumb to the temptation to feed, and Josh to find himself unable to control his transformation even when it endangers someone he loves. How can these characters hope to make their way in a society made up of their prey?
In theology, and sometimes philosophy, a unique defining feature of humanity is said to be the presence of a soul. This makes the design of Being Human’s three protagonists all the more interesting, because of the three different angles they present. Aidan, the vampire, has no soul. Sally, the ghost, is now only a soul. And Josh, the werewolf, is both: a regular soul most of the time, except the one night a month he becomes an uncontrollable monster. Does this make them inhuman, or just not-human? Or can they choose to be human despite their nature?
The show puts a new twist on old stories another way, too. It’s long been a theme of fiction to explore what it means to be human through the stories of characters who aren’t human but yearn to be. The Wizard of Oz famously plays with this theme using the Scarecrow, the Tin-man, and the Cowardly Lion. The robotic character Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation explored the nature of artificial intelligence to great acclaim. And on Syfy’s own Battlestar Galactica, the identity crises of the skinjob Cylons ran throughout the series.
In Being Human, by contrast, the three protagonists are distinguished by the fact that while they’re not human now, they used to be. All three of them have vivid, distinct memories of a normal, fully human life before they became what they are now. This puts them in the fascinating position not of simply trying to be human, but to regain something they’ve lost. That dynamic will be very intriguing to watch.
These are the sorts of themes which are rarely addressed in broadcast network primetime fare. Like Battlestar Galactica, which probably benefitted greatly from not being bound to the expectations and preconceptions of the suits at NBC, it looks like Being Human may be another series that will hit its stride on Syfy.
Being Human airs new episodes Mondays at 9:00 p.m. on Syfy, with several repeats.
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