It seems like it's been quite a while since we've had a good ghost story on television. Ironically, though, "Bedlam" debuted on BBCAmerica on the same week as FX launched Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story." So, all of a sudden, I had two to check out and the shows couldn't be more different. "American Horror Story," for those that haven't seen it, is a spectacularly over-the-top freak show designed to push the boundaries of television and of reason. I have yet to decide whether I think it is brilliant or if it is convoluted rubbish--but one thing is certain, I can't tear my eyes away from it! "Bedlam," unfortunately, plays it much more conventionally and safe. The show has a terrific hook, though. It is set in a creepy former mental institution currently being renovated into luxury apartments. The building itself is disconcerting and scary and has a convenient adjacent grave site. A great selling point to prospective inhabitants! The hospital environment allows for plenty of unruly spirits to linger about and it would be easy to develop this premise into something dark and scary. I, however, think the show misses the mark in its first season.
Instead of evolving a complex mythology, each of the six episodes represented in the season has a self-contained haunting. At the beginning of an episode, we're introduced to a new character that we've never seen before but is somehow living there and is best friends with one of the lead actors. They have some sort of ghostly interaction and the spirit is released (literally) within the last five minutes to the other side. It's so formulaic, you can see every beat coming a mile away. That might be forgivable if the show provided some actual scares, but aside from some occasionally spooky visuals--these spirits never elicit much fright in the viewer. The best you hope for is the "bump in the night" variety creepiness, but the ghostly mysteries are never particularly compelling. There is a more intriguing storyline that plays out over the season involving a series of missing girls, and I think the show would have been better off maintaining more solid continuing plot threads. I couldn't help but wish for the unhinged unpredictability inherent in "American Horror Story" as I watched each show unravel in a by-the-numbers routine.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate "Bedlam" (although a friend that watched with me was continually bored to tears) and I think it has the potential to be developed. Theo James plays a man with a troubled past who can commune with the spirit world. As the enigmatic hero, there is an interesting and mysterious quality about his role that could be expanded. The rest of the cast does well with rather hazy or lackluster characterizations. I especially liked the lightness that Will Young brings to what amounts to a comic sidekick role. Ultimately, I think the idea behind the show was to brings ghosts into a sexy young soap opera setting--but blending these two aspects (while a solid prospect) made them both feel a little flat. If the show returned for another season, I would probably give it a look to see if any narrative changes looked promising. But if it continued further with episodic and uninspired hauntings, I'd probably end up moving on to another insane asylum. You might like the show if you don't anticipate big scares, though. KGHarris, 11/11.
Six Episodes: (1) Cohabitants, (2) Driven, (3) Inmates, (4) Hide and Seek, (5) Committed, and (6) Burning Man.