Pilot Review: ALMOST HUMAN

Despite great rapport between its two leads, the latest from Bad Robot Productions feels too derivative to recommend heartily.

“Sometimes new technology isn’t always better.”

Cpt. Maldonado

In my house, there are three tiers of television: first, there’s “Appointment Viewing,” a show that I’ll do whatever I can to watch live because I love it dearly, and/or want to be a part of the cultural conversation about it (Game of Thrones, Parks & Rec, etc.) Then there are shows that I enjoy, but don’t mind waiting a day or two to catch up (most reality TV, second-rung comedies). And finally, there’s what I call “Background Viewing,” which we simply put on to pass the time while we wait for something else. Once Upon a Time and Person of Interest were once in this group before we gave up on them entirely (though I hear the latter has gotten better). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is practically living there now. And if it doesn’t show me something more, Almost Human will end up there too.

A mishmash of Blade Runner, I Robot, Minority Report, and a dozen others (but mostly Blade Runner), Almost Human brings us to the year 2048, when androids have gone mainstream and are given to police officers as partners, where they analyze evidence, search databases, advise on protocol, and the like. Being also a “buddy cop” show, our protagonist John Kennex (Karl Urban, porting over his Australian glower from Lord of the Rings and Star Trekis the guy who hates androids (or “synthetics,” a word he hurls around like a slur) because one let his human partner die during a raid two years prior. That mission-gone-wrong resulted in the loss of Kennex’s leg and a long coma, leaving gaps in his memory when he wakes up, including something about his ex-girlfriend which wasn’t clear in the pilot and not addressed at all in the second episode.

His commanding officer (Lili Taylor, who you’d not expect to be in these kinds of things) has brought him back to finish the job on that still-active syndicate, and assigns him a “new” android partner: actually an older model, the DRN, who has the capacity to emulate human emotion. So John and “Dorian” set off to get to know each other while stopping bad guys in the future. Urban tackles the “grizzled vet with a dark past” archetype with enthusiasm, but so far the writing’s not giving him enough to work with. As Dorian, Michael Ealy is clearly having fun — his mannerisms are subtle, and he’s got great rapport with Urban. Their squad car banter is one of the genuine highlights of the series so far, even if it’s largely unmotivated. I’m not sure why Kennex would take to Dorian so quickly after tossing his previous android partner out onto the highway, but I’m also kind of glad the show isn’t wasting its time setting that up.

If the pilot alludes to a complex mythology that didn’t quite grab me, the second episode ignores all of that for a standard “case of the week” format, providing a model for the sustainability of the show going forward. An A.I.-esque conspiracy to kidnap women and graft their skin onto “sexbots” is pure stock, with one-off characters that don’t leap off the screen so much as shrink into it. It does seem like Almost Human could have some heavier things to say down the line about sentience and what makes people “different” or even what makes them people (fill in your own race/gender identity argument), but it doesn’t yet show an indication of tackling that. The best science-fiction shows were also part social commentary, and AH will have to step up its game in that area if it wants to be taken seriously.

Positives: Mackenzie Crook as a robot tech is entertaining, even if he’s essentially playing the British Office‘s Gareth with a budget, and the effects work is remarkably strong across the board. One of the criticisms levied against S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it looks and feels too much like a cheap network show, with claustrophobic sets and un-special effects, but Human has unexpectedly great CGI: the internal light show of the androids, the skyline, and especially that neat tiny giraffe do the job of not just “not being distracting,” but actually looking pretty cool. Bad Robot stableboy J.H. Wyman, who shepherded Fringe to its conclusion, has shown what he can do in bringing thought-provoking, exciting sci-fi to television, and I’m more than willing to give this one a shot despite its underwhelming premiere. After all, might as well watch something while we’re waiting for Sleepy Hollow.

Grade: C+

Extra Thoughts:

  • While I’ll definitely put Crook in the win column for the casting department, what the heck is Minka Kelly doing here? In what universe is she a believable police officer?
  • I’m a little bit torn on the mythology vs. procedural balance when it comes to this show, mostly because the elements within it have been done so many times before (and done better) so it’s hard to imagine what Human can bring to the table. But at the same time, I don’t want it to just be a cop show. Procedurals bore me, so it needs either a compelling serialized narrative, or something to say thematically. Preferably both.
  • There were reports of some kind of “major twist” that was cut from the final minute of the pilot that annoyed a few bloggers. Either Wyman ditched it because he decided it didn’t work, either — and is now going in a new direction — or is saving it for later. All I have to say is that if the show ever implies Kennex is an android too, I’m walking.

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