Being Human: Season One (BBC) – A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost walk into a bar. No, it’s not a joke, it’s a scene in the BBC series Being Human, a supernatural character drama about a trio of “monsters” sharing an apartment in Bristol and trying to live as humans despite the challenges to normal life. Mitchell (Aidan Turner), once the most vicious of the vampire community, plays big brother to the trio, trying to coach the socially awkward George (Russell Tovey), who turns into a ferocious werewolf every full moon, and the reclusive, emotionally fragile Annie (Lenora Crichlow), still mooning over the fiancé she left behind, into engaging with the world.
Created by Doctor Who veteran Toby Whithouse, it’s a character piece in a supernatural setting with comic flourishes and ferocious edges, notably a vampire conspiracy that tries to draw Mitchell back into the predator fold that plays out over the season, while his past haunts him in the form of a young woman he turned into a vampire who is caught between rejecting and embracing the predatory nature of the beast. And speaking of beasts, George meets a fellow lycanthrope (which creates some friction in the trio), and Annie faces the emotional anchors that keep her tethered to Earth and discovers something she has blocked out of her memories of the perfect romance. The first few episodes work overtime on backstory and basic rules of the game and then it starts to build on the basics as the men struggle with the feral forces of their afflictions and they all struggle to keep the powers in check and reconnect with the human sides of the natures. Beyond that, they are good company, even when just hanging out in their Bristol flat, swapping small talk, sharing survival strategies and trying to come to terms with their skewed identities. They are a kind of unique support group, but they are also friends who put themselves on the line for one another, which is finally their most human trait: compassion, loyalty, friendship.
Six episodes on two discs in a fold-out digipak, plus plenty of supplements. The actors discuss their characters of the first season in the 20-minute “Character Profiles,” creator Toby Whithouse talks about the origins and development of the series in “The Journey with Toby Whithouse” (seven minutes), the brief “Vamping It Up” lays out the basic rules for this show’s incarnation of vampirism and “Becoming a Werewolf” (five minutes) reveals the old-school prosthetic effects in the wolf transformations. There’s an alternate scenes, 8 minutes of deleted scenes and 15 minutes of extended scenes, breezy “Video Diaries” from the three stars and a couple of production featurettes (the “Locations” tour of Bristol was particularly interesting to this Yankee). A second series has already run in Britain and is set to run on BBC American in late July.
“In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of young men challenged the art establishment of the day. The ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ were inspired by the real world around the, yet took imaginative license in their art. This story, based on their loves and lives, follows in that inventive spirit.” The lusty British series Desperate Romantics (BBC), based on the book by co-creator and executive producer Franny Moyle, follows the often bawdy adventures of “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” three young, ambitious painters in mid-nineteenth century London who challenged the art conventions of their day with a mix of realism and imagination. Aidan Turner (of Being Human) is the seductive Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Samuel Barnett the romantic John Millais and Rafe Spall the obsessive William Holman Hunt, while Sam Crane is narrator and commentator as the fictional fourth, a journalist intoxicated by their revolutionary ideals who becomes something of their unofficial press agent.
Tom Hollander costars as John Ruskin, the pre-eminent art critic of the day and a supporter of their work, if not always their career. Like everyone here, he has his own personal agenda, but his commitment to their work is driven by genuine appreciation. While the establishment critics mock their work (especially the interest in the working classes and everyday lives of ordinary people painted with compassion and imagination), Ruskin champions it as “Capturing the extraordinary beauty of the every day.” His private life, meanwhile, is sexually repressed and psychologically stunted and he isn’t above manipulating his discoveries for his own, not always exalted ends.
They’re a lusty group in a lively culture of taverns and trollops, where artists are revered and models are celebrities, and the show takes as appropriately lusty, sexy approach (which translates to more nudity than your average HBO series). But it’s not simply a bawdy romp; for all their talk, only one of the group is actually much of a womanizer; Millais and Hunt are rather shy men who are literally dragged into sexual experience. The story is entertaining, if not as illustrative and enlightening is I’d hoped (it never went into a second series, which might have corrected this), and the contradictions and ironies of character are more sideshow than psychological study, but the sketch of the culture of art and celebrity of the time (not just of the artists but the models as well) is quite interesting and the lively treatment and energetic portrayals hooked me nonetheless.
Six episodes on two discs in a standard case with a hinged tray, plus the half-hour featurette “Desperate Romantics: A Portrait,” which compares the real life history to the fictionalized story on screen, and an interview with Franny Moyle.
Look Around You: Season One (BBC), a British comedy series from 2002, little known in the US (where it played on the Cartoon Network) but with a cult following in the UK, is a demented parody of seventies educational programming packed with misinformation (“Germs originated in Germany and then spread around the world”), nonsense facts (“The biggest number that you can think of is 45,000,000, though scientists believe there may yet be bigger numbers”), absurd experiments (see why a ghost can’t whistle) and meaningless quizzes with the deadpan simplicity of dated school science documentaries. It plays like the University of the Air curriculum as taught by Monty Python, and it’s about as scientifically valid. The visual style, graphics, music, unflappable voice of authority (Nigel Lambert), even the scratchy 16mm film production is dead-on and the humor so unexpected it becomes disarming. The eight brief episodes run under ten minutes apiece, which seems just about perfect, but the single disc release features all sorts of extra credit: a bonus “module,” a pop-up video and commentary on each episode by creators Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, who are joined by tag-team guest commentators including Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.
My Boys: The Complete Second and Third Seasons (Sony) – The TBS original sitcom starring Jordana Spiro as Chicago sports writer P.J. Franklin, den mother to a group of childish yet amiable men who treat her as just one of the guys, is still alive and well and here are more episodes to prove it. I’m not really a sitcom guy, but I find this one more engaging than most network sitcoms. The new season begins on TBS in late July. 18 episodes on two discs in a box set of thinpak cases.
Also new this week: Courage the Cowardly Dog: Season One (Cartoon Network Hall of Fame) (Warner), another classic Cartoon Network original series, the Lifetime original movie The Wronged Man (Sony), and Super Friends! Season One, Volume Two (Warner).