Being Human

A few nights ago, when Modern Family's Cameron-as-Fizbo tried on a court jester's shtick for size, Mitchell offered this dour rejoinder: "There goes the theory that an English accent makes everyone sound smart." I don't think it's Anglophile snobbery that has me celebrating the return of Being Human to BBC America's lineup Saturday night, while being left as cold as a cadaver by Syfy's spotty remake. The original is simply a much better show.

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Better acted, for sure, and it's not just a matter of dialect. There's an intensity to the British original, even when it's going for droll humor, that's lacking in the shrill and heavy-handed do-over. (Some of this very likely has to do with having fallen hard for the original, making it next to impossible to replicate such passion for what feels like an uninspired rerun. I'm not surprised that those with no exposure to the British series are intrigued by the premise, even if the execution pales by comparison.)

In an odd juxtaposition that will make consumers of both series feel stuck in a weird time warp, BBC America is launching the third season (currently airing in England) at the same time Syfy's freshman year continues finding its way. It's not just a different show, it's a different world entirely. So much has happened, and continues to happen, that it's probably unfair to compare to a show that has yet to make many of these game-changing narrative leaps.

But let's forget the Syfy version. I certainly have. Where we left off with the BBCA series was a wrenching, traumatic cliffhanger in which friendly ghost Annie (Lorena Crichlow, so much more appealing than her Syfy counterpart) is trapped in purgatory, reaching out to her friends through staticky TV screens as she pitiably weeps in a sinister waiting room and anxiously waits for whatever comes next.

In the eventful season opener, Annie's mates — brooding vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner), boyish werewolf George (Russell Tovey) and his wolfmate Nina (Sinead Keenan) — are grieving the loss but moving on, to a B&B in Wales with tacky beach murals on the walls and a soundproof basement that will be perfect for the monthly transformations. There's a clever reference to Fawlty Towers as they settle in, with a tangible realism that distinguishes Being Human from swoony adolescent melodramas like The Vampire Diaries and the Twilight saga.

Mitchell takes action to rescue Annie, gate-crashing at a deathbed to sneak into Purgatory, which becomes a psychologically perilous quest once a flirtatious guide leads him on a grim memory tour of his own many bloody misdeeds. Gnarly stuff, but all in a good cause, because the only way for the undead Mitchell to reclaim a semblance of his own humanity is to face up to his darkest nature. Meanwhile, as likable George acclimates to his new digs, he finds himself in the worst place imaginable as the full moon rises. Nina's rescue attempt while she's fighting off her own change is a literal howl, somehow scary and funny and sexy all at once. A Being Human specialty.

Because the paranormal is everywhere in a show like this, the new setting brings new creatures, including a rugged vagabond werewolf named McNair, played by British TV stalwart Robson Green (The Wire in the Blood, Touching Evil). How he fits into the story is initially unclear, but he's just tormented and savage enough to fit in.

You really don't know what Being Human is like until you've seen this version of it. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Also getting off to a strong start this weekend is the latest running of CBS' Emmy-winning reality competition The Amazing Race, which looks better than ever now that it is finally being broadcast in high definition. There's also an instant rooting interest — or possibly booing — in the casting, which brings back 11 (mostly) memorable teams angling for a second chance. As one of the racers puts it, "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity — again." Because I'm actually happy to see the return of players like the cowboy brothers, the Harlem Globetrotters, mother-son Margie and Luke, goth couple Kent and Vyxsen and best buds Zev and Justin, I'm more OK with this than I am the latest go-round for the overexposed "Boston Rob" and Russell the Rude on Survivor: Redemption Island, who really have outstayed their welcome.

Recycling reality stars infinitely is ultimately a game of diminishing returns, so I hope Race will spare us this gimmick in the future. Thankfully, there are enough twists in the premiere episode, which catapults from the windy Palm Springs desert to the watery wonderland of Australia's Sydney harbor, to get me past this initial hurdle. Advantages evaporate dramatically, and it soon begins to seem like it's anyone's game. And did I mention: Hi Def!

Another staple of recent sweeps periods has been the Saturday Night Live retrospective, taking us through the various eras and decades of this iconic comedy-variety institution. Now that this series of specials has caught up to current times, the only place left to go is Backstage, the somewhat misleading title for a hodgepodge of clips and interviews that feels more like an extended extra for the inevitable boxed set. Though not as cohesive as past compilations, Backstage does reflect rather honestly the ups and downs in the long history of what creator Lorne Michaels describes as "a coalition of tastes of which nobody is 100% satisfied."

Segments are devoted to the art and challenge of the monologue (including a vintage clip of a faux audience member trying to sell Charlie Sheen bags of drugs), which means witnessing the evolution of frequent guest Alec Baldwin, as well as the legacy of short films and "silly song" musical parodies, the history of Weekend Update, the blessing and curse of fan-favorite recurring characters, watershed moments that sent censors into an uproar (Sinead O'Connor and the picture of the Pope, the infamous "Canteen Boy" sketch), shifting tides of political topicality, and frank remembrances about and from those who never really fit in to the Darwinian sink-or-swim competitive mentality of this "comedy boot camp." People like Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, all who went on to greater things after struggling in legendary Studio 8H.

It's a cliché to say Saturday Night Live isn't what it used to be, because even when it used to be, it wasn't always all it was cracked up to be. Even now, there are exhilarating highs amid the lowest of the lows — a relatively recent clip of Bill Hader's Stefon seems instantly classic — although I admit I laughed when the congenitally curmudgeonly Gilbert Gottfried describes the current SNL thusly: "Now it's just a restaurant in a good location."

Being Human premieres Saturday, 9/8c, on BBC America

The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business premieres Sunday, 8/7c, on CBS

Saturday Night Live: Backstage premieres Sunday, 9/8c, on NBC

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