If you think the concept of Being Human, the BBC's surprise hit series about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing an apartment, sounds ridiculous, the people who make the show take violent exception. They think it sounds contemptibly stupid, beneath even the lowest conception of television dignity, unwatchable and even unmakeable.
"I laughed ridiculously about it when they suggested it," says Lenora Crichlow, the 25-year-old actress who plays the ghost, Annie. "To be honest, my reaction was, ‘Are you serious?' I take my acting quite seriously. I'd just quit a heavy drama. This sounded like an absurd joke."
And it was, kind of. Toby Whithouse, the show's creator, had filled entire cemeteries with discarded Being Human scripts. The one Crichlow saw had been written in the giddy certainty that it would never be produced. "By the last one, I just assumed the show would never be made," Whithouse admits. "And the moment I realized that, it completely liberated me. Nothing I've ever written was ever easier."
But Being Human turned out to be anything but the campy supernatural ripoff of Three's Company that everybody expected. Instead, it's a wistful, witty and sometimes quite scary meditation on whether life is wasted on the living. Even more surprisingly, it's a (pardon the expression) monstrous hit -- not only in Great Britain, where outraged fans thwarted a BBC attempt to cancel it, but also on this side of the Atlantic, where it pulled in some of the highest ratings in BBC America history last year.
Even now, as the channel prepares to launch the show's second U.S. season at 10 p.m. Saturday, nobody who works on Being Human can quite believe its success.
"It had never really occurred to me that the show might air in the United States," Whithouse muses. "One doesn't want to tempt fate. It had already been a long and exhausting process getting it to the screen. I was just grateful anyone was watching it and enjoying it. A life beyond that, I didn't want to think about it."
TV shows that go bump in the night are hardly a novelty in American television; from The CW's Vampire Diaries and Supernatural to ABC's The Gates to CBS' Ghost Whisperer, TV has more fangs and phantasms than you can shake a crucifix at. What distinguishes Being Human from the rest of the werewolf pack is the degree to which its characters struggle with the complications their supernatural sides complicate the ordinary romantic and work-place dramas of 20-somethings.
Annie the ghost has to stand jealously and invisibly by watching her old boyfriend take up with another girl. George the werewolf (played by Russell Tovey) must explain to landlords why all the furniture is reduced to a heap of kindling every time there's a full moon. And Mitchell the vampire (Aidan Turner) no longer dates, because his kisses inevitably result in something much more gruesome than hickeys.
Their relations with God are even more problematic. When George tells Annie he's no longer an Orthodox Jew and can eat bacon, she curiously inquires, "Do they have rules about being a werewolf as well?" Replies George, his mordant wit wrapped around a core of despair: "I think you'd be hard pressed to find a religion that doesn't frown on it."
If the show's characters emphasize their humanity, that's because they were originally written as humans. Being Human started out as a sort of fractured suburban version of Friends.
"I was hired to devise a show about three college-graduate friends who decide to buy a house together," says Whithouse, a British TV veteran who previously had written a comedy-drama series about nurses as well as the occasional episode for such sci-fi series as Torchwood and Doctor Who.
"I thought it wasn't a particularly thrilling idea, and then -- completely unbidden -- I had the thought of making the three characters a recovering sex addict, a borderline agoraphobic and a very repressed guy with anger-management issues. We liked the way the characters locked together, but we couldn't come up with a story. We decided to have last meeting, and if we couldn't come up with it, we'd call it a day."
The final meeting dragged along just like all the others until somebody said, "What if we make George, the guy with the anger-management issues, into a werewolf? At least that would give us a story for the first episode." From there the addict quickly turned into a vampire and the agoraphobic into a ghost who couldn't leave the apartment because she was murdered in it.
"But everybody was still skeptical, and none more so than myself," Whithouse says. ‘‘I wrote the first version as a sitcom. It's now buried in a lead-lined casket so that no one can ever read it. I guess I was kind of apologizing -- ‘This is so silly, no one could ever take it seriously, so let's write it like that.' Then I decided to do a complete rewrite from page one. This time, I pretended I was writing a low-budget American indie film, . . . but always, in every version, the bottom line was the characters, the original ones we came up with."
The gritty and pointedly unglamorous indie-film approach finally worked, at least so far as Whithouse was concerned. Not everyone agreed, least of all the BBC programmers. After airing the pilot in February 2008, the network decided it wasn't worth a full-series run and ditched the whole project. It relented only after several months of viewer uproar, and by then most of the actors had signed onto other projects and had to be recast.
"The show was always a hit, just not with the channel," says Crichlow, who wasn't in the pilot. "Of course, now everybody saw it coming, and everybody knew it would be a success. But that's not really
the way it was."
Even after the show's wildly successful first season in Great Britain, Whithouse and the cast were morose about its prospects in the United States. When they went to San Diego last year to publicize the U.S. launch at Comic Con, a convention of fantasy and sci-fi fans, they expected, at best, an indifferent reception.
"We thought we were going to be the poor relation, the forgotten orphan child," Whithouse says. "We were stunned by just how many people had already seen it, getting hold of episodes on the Internet somehow." (That's not the only thing he still marvels at: "Coming down to the hotel lobby seeing women of a certain age dressed as Princess Leia was something of a shock.")
Whithouse hopes those fans will be as pleased with the second season of Being Human as they were with the first. For all its complex characterization, the show also features powerful plotting. The first season revolved around an incipient revolt by a vampire underground disgusted with human control of the world. (‘‘We left them to tend this paradise, this Eden," the vampire leader ranted. "And look what they did.")
This year the threat against Being Human's characters will come from the opposite direction: a religious group that has learned of the supernatural shadow world and is determined to wipe it out.
"In the first season, Annie, George and Mitchell were striving to reclaim their humanity, and the threats against them came from the supernatural world," Whithouse says. ‘‘Now we're going to turn the trope on its head. Instead of humans pursed by monsters, the monsters will be the human prey.
"This is in no way a statement about religion. But if people believe in an invisible, omniscient, all-powerful being, then it's not that big a leap of faith to believe in vampires and werewolves and ghosts. If you believe in God, you have to believe in the devil -- and his agents.
"The human villains of this story line believe that vampires are demons, and ultimately they believe they are doing good by wiping them out. The most interesting thing about villains is when they don't believe they're doing evil, they think they're helping the world get better."
Whithouse and the cast are happy to talk about the second season, which has already aired in Great Britain. But ask about the third, which is about to begin shooting, and suddenly the phone line from London falls silent as a tomb. Though Crichlow is perfectly willing to talk about what she doesn't want to see: an all-musical episode, one of the most popular suggestions on Being Human fan message boards in England.
"Listen, there's a reason that not everybody is writing series for television," she snorts. "The idea of putting a musical together is the most terrifying thing I can imagine. The support for that has just been ridiculous. I can't imagine a TV show doing that."
Crichlow lapses into ominous silence when a reporter tells her that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did just that in a 2002 episode. "Good God," she murmurs. "Don't breathe a word of that to anyone here."