Monday, March 14, 2011

The Monster Promise Keepers of Syfy’s Being Human

syfy-being-human-josh-deer The executive producer of Syfy’s Being Human, the US remake of a UK series now in its third season, explained to TV Guide that he wanted to maintain the dark and morally ambiguous tone of the original, but there’s nothing ambiguous about the morality of the show.  What Jeremy Carver probably means is that his characters wrestle with temptations and occasionally falter, but there’s never much deliberation about what's the right thing to do or about who the bad guys are.  The moral universe of Being Human is clear: “Nature” is evil and “being human” means resisting it.

Being Human is only the latest to tap into the expanding popularity of vampires and the like.  As evidence by Twilight, True Blood, and Vampire Diaries, monsters are currently in season.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his introduction to Monster Theory (1996), the anthology that gave birth to that particular niche of cultural studies, argues that one could learn a lot about a culture by looking at the monsters it envisions.  Monsters embody a culture’s hidden fears and secret desires, it’s prohibitions and exclusions.  Monsters enforce traditions, scare children straight, and articulate differences between the self and the other.  So what does Being Human say about us?

The series begins when coworkers at a Boston hospital who happen to be a vampire and a werewolf decide to become roommates.  Aiden the vampire has been trying to stay on the straight and narrow path—not feeding on living human beings—but he falls off the wagon in the first episode and kills a nurse in the heat of passion.  Josh, meanwhile, has reacted to his werewolf transformation by living in a self-imposed, punishing social exile from the friends and family of his former life, but even so he’s terrified once a month of what he might do and whom he might hurt.  Taking a cue from the promise-keepers manual, Aiden the chaste and Josh the hermit decide a brother might help them keep their promises.

being-human-syfy-tv-show The monster mash is complete when the pair discover a ghost, Sally, haunting their quaint brownstone.  Sally was engaged to the landlord, Danny, who makes a friendly first impression but pushed Sally down the stairs in a fit of jealous rage and feels little remorse for killing her.  The moral choice shaping up for Sally is whether she should turn the other cheek and move on or become a vengeful poltergeist and make him sorry.

So each monster is tempted by some “natural” urge one’s humanity should resist: 

Vampire nature is predatory and power hungry.  Aiden must contend not only with his blood-thirst but also with his vampire friends, who have installed themselves in positions of authority (priests, police) and continually pressure him to do the same.  Werewolf nature is hyper-masculine and aggressive.  One of Josh’s plots included meeting his “maker,” who exhorts him to embrace “the Wolf,” which primarily involves hitting on women and starting fights with vampires.  Ghost nature is defined by the past.  They exist because they can’t let something go. 

These characterizations add up to how the show constructs the culturally-specific “nature” out of which humanity emerges as its negation. 

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