In Being Human, ghosts are like snow. Like embracing someone who’s just come inside on a cold day. They bring grey sky in the door, and the clean air; they etch you with frost and ice crystals, making your cheeks red and your breath into clouds.
A ghost opens your door and shows you light shining through. She turns your lamps on at night and burns out your light bulbs. Blows the fuse in the bathroom. Boils pot after pot of water on your stove, making herself at home on the chesterfield. Full cups of tea appear all over the house. You look out the window at the full moon; it’s come down from the sky to inhabit you.
Mitchell tells Annie her lips are cold, a bit tingly, like kissing someone who just came in from outside. Mitchell knows Annie’s in the house. He feels a cold draught under the door; sees her by the window, colour of the moon. He’s burning up with memories of blood; all the people he’s left for dead in abandoned buildings and empty fields. They’re boiling over. Dripping down his skin. Faces of his victims press against the inside of his skull. Voices in the drains at night. He’s a twisting, moving fire.
He reaches for Annie. She soothes him with her cooling touch. He covers himself in her colours—grey and white, winter in the city: starlight and streetlight shining on paths of snow between the cinderblock buildings. She’s nighttime and the moon’s unblinking gaze.
Annie wonders, will she drift through the house forever? She’s so light she doesn’t even dent the cushions; she has no place in this world or the next. She looks through open doors and sees light, but no welcome. How long will it be? How long by the window, looking out?
Mitchell says Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called? Snowstorms. Yeah, ’bout so big, glass? No, they’re called snowstorms. Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.
That’s what Annie’s like, her translucent body. The world shifts and stirs in her, a frenzy of colour and sound. Outside, she hears footsteps on the walkway. Tires screeching in the road. Voices rising over the walls. Then everything settles once more into a cool bank of snow, shining in the streetlight, enveloping the world, cooling its fevers.
Imagine if some unspeakable change took place in your life, and you found yourself on the outside during every moment of every day? This is the story of Being Human, the story of a ghost named Annie, a vampire (Mitchell) and a werewolf (George) who become roommates in a rundown flat in Bristol. As Annie says, “we’ve driven off the edge of the map but we’re still travelling.”
When you’ve driven off the edge of the world, fallen out of human society so completely that you cannot find your way back, your redemption becomes the company of others who are also on the outside: your companions in an unbelievable world, a world you have been thrown into. You come to know each other and love each other more than ordinary humans ever could.
The BBC 3 program Being Human explores the lives of three characters who are no longer human. They have been cast out, but they find each other, as Annie says: “So. What have we got left to look forward to? Us refugees. The flotsam and jetsam of death. Maybe, if we still deserve such a thing as mercy, we find each other.”
Being Human is a courageous program – like its characters, it drives off the map and encounters its audience there, in a strange, unbelievable world. But even if a vampire, and werewolf and a ghost are not human, they turn out to be more human than we are. Like three strangers who meet on a train and have only a few hours to connect before parting ways forever, in a short time, these characters come to love each other as deeply as life-long companions. They reveal everything. They are already broken beyond repair, and are freed of the need to prove their worth to others.
The premise of this show—that these characters are thrown here as the flotsam and jetsam of death—reminds me of Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the twentieth century. “We are thrown into the world,” he says. We don’t emerge from a tradition, since traditions have broken down. We are not a part of an eternal and orderly fabric created by an all-knowing God, because that God is dead. And in His place is a God that Walter Wink, an American theologian, tells us is trapped in a cage by the brokenness of creation. God made this world, but God is not its master. When we pray, we rattle God’s cage; we wake him up, call on him to break himself free.
Mitchell: “God made man in His own image. What if that included His rage? And His spite. And His indifference. And His cruelty. What if God made us too? We’re all his children, you see. God’s a bit of a bastard. Look at us both. Covered in other people’s blood and talking about morality.”
In this world where we cannot call on God the all-knowing, God the arbiter of right and wrong, our actions take precedence. We act out our love for one another; we rescue each other from the ends of the earth with our compassion. God is found in these moments of grace, as when Sister Helen Préjean says to the condemned prisoner when he’s about to be executed in the movie Dead Man Walking: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”
As when the character Mitchell crosses into Purgatory to rescue Annie and bring her back, not to the world of the living, but back into the knot of love that binds the three friends together, like blood vessels intertwined—warm, pulsing and enveloping.
Or like the eternal Celtic knot of love, loyalty and friendship. The ghost, the vampire and the werewolf are cold out there on the edge of the world, but they are transformed by their humanity, which, it turns out, is no longer about being biologically human, or even alive in the usual sense. It is an ineffable connection that emerges as more than the sum of all its parts.
Maybe I should write a letter to Toby Whithouse, the creator of this show, to thank him for showing me that television can be a platform for such a courageous art form. I was raised on a steady diet of American commercial television, with a little CBC and BBC thrown in. American TV can rarely, if ever, match programs like Being Human, which despite a small budget, has wonderful script writing, carefully designed sets, and is permeated with a sense of the importance of nurturing the humanity of its characters as well as the audience. Little, if anything, that appears in the show is there by accident. Every prop, costume element and relationship serves a purpose.
Having read bell hooks, I learned to critique American mainstream television, which seems to be afflicted by an inability to move beyond certain racial tropes that it plays out again and again. For example, the African-American as confidante to the white protagonist; the African American who has special spiritual powers (e.g. Guinan in Star Trek, played by Whoopi Goldberg); the tendency to kill off African-American characters within the opening moments of many programs; the African-American as criminal. The total absence of Arab (or Arab-seeming) characters who are not terrorists. The repeated rape and/or murder of women and the the avenging these crimes, without any sense of pushing back against the source of the violence. The endlessly-repeated theme of redemptive violence permeates pretty much everything:
“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known.
According to this myth, life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.” – Walter Wink
Lack of attention is part of the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of attending to the other, you attack the other. Instead of risking disorder, you preserve certainty by deferring to the violence that ensures security and predictability. You never attend to the disorderly facts of real life and their meaning.
This lack of attention is at the heart of a great many American TV programs. Instead of creating detail and having deference for a unique story and characters, there is formula: each episode the same as the last. The triumph of order over chaos, safety over danger, again and again. Simple and dumb, in the sense of being unable to speak to the heart.
Outside of the borders of the myth of redemptive violence, we find a wealth of stories, like those of Being Human, tracing acts of courage and love. They are so numerous they cannot be contained. We find these stories on television, in theatres, in books, on the stage, on canvas, in galleries, music halls, churches, temples—everywhere. Small acts of love that need only to be noticed in order for them to become miracles.
“John Mitchell: I’ve got this friend. He says the human condition, the human nature, ‘being human’ – is to be cold and alone. Like someone lost in the woods. It’s safe to say he’s a ‘glass-is-half-empty’ kind of guy. And I see nature differently. I see the ancient machinery of the world. Elegant and ferocious, neither good nor bad, it’s full of beautiful things, unspeakable things. The trick is to keep them hidden – until the right moment.”
I happened upon the BBC version of Being Human on Netflix. As a Canadian, most of my TV viewing has been either American or CBC programs. Seeing BBC’s Being Human has made me realize how truly awful most mainstream American TV and film actually is. It is formulaic, boring, poorly acted, poorly written and beats the same themes of racism, sexual repression and violence to death over and over again. Now, I have NOT seen any HBO programs and I suspect there may be some very good shows on HBO.
What I love about Being Human is that the program is courageous. Nothing happens that is not fully considered – thought through all the way. If there is violence, it has a purpose, one that the actors, the writers, the set designers – everyone involved – seems to be aware of.
The show is a compassionate, funny, well thought-out exploration of the dark side of being human through the lives of people who are no longer human. The only American program that I can think of that reminds me of BH is Joan of Arcadia, which also seemed to move beyond unreflected violence and formulaic script writing to explore the depths of human life. But of course it was cancelled after two years!
As far as American TV is concerned, I have gone on strike; called a boycott. I have decided that there is just so much wonderful programming to be found elsewhere that it will take me the rest of my life just to scratch the surface.