ALMOST HUMAN is my favorite new show of the year.
To compare it to other JJ Abrams’ produced shows, ALMOST HUMAN takes my favorite parts of FRINGE and concentrates them. When I loved FRINGE most of all (review #1 / review #2), it was when Peter, Olivia, Walter, Astrid, and Broyles were solving weird crimes. The more the show evolved and the plots became more complicated, the more I felt like we were getting the FRINGE-ified versions of classic sci-fi tropes, and these detours were fine when they were just that – detours. But when we started spending significant time in the alternate universe, I lost interest or became frustrated. I didn’t care about the Alt versions of our universe’s characters and instead of feeling inspired by any of it, FRINGE became increasingly tired to me, recovering only when it was on its final legs. Like LOST (another Abrams’ show), FRINGE seem inspired by knowing when it was ending and it got on with telling good stories instead of simply prolonging stories.
Things started to change a bit with ALCATRAZ, which was playing the long-game with the overall premise of the show, but was staying completely formulaic with the short game. I liked ALCATRAZ more than most, but I was frustrated by the show’s insistence on playing the broken chronology game, giving us a modern cop show infused with extended flashback narratives.
Enter ALMOST HUMAN, which is a further step away from FRINGE and LOST’s complicated narratives and eschews ALCATRAZ’s dual chronological narratives to give us … a cop show.
It’s beautifully simple. Look, I love complicated shows as much as the next guy when they work, but there are times when it’s been a long day and I just want to sit on my couch and be entertained. ARROW is perfect at doing this – it presents a larger premise and then repetitively walks us down the same road over and over until its properly mined those stories for all their worth, and then it finds another street to walk down. When ARROW drops into the past, it’s too illuminate something about Oliver’s character and, almost always, illuminate something about Oliver’s character that ties directly into that episode. Shows like LOST or the Steven Moffat-run DOCTOR WHO are perfect for the internet age, playing into our culture’s obsession with figuring out the biggest truths through the littlest details. We love taking note of the small connections. We love finding the hidden connections before they’re revealed.
All of that is well and good … as long as it’s entertaining.
ALMOST HUMAN is entertaining.
There’s a real skill in being able to tell a longer story through formulaic episodes and keep the audience entertained. ARROW does this. So does CASTLE, which has properly and determinedly advanced the larger stories of Castle and Beckett’s romance and the murder of Beckett’s mother while also giving us practically the exact same episode every week for five years.
Through the first six episodes, I’m not even sure ALMOST HUMAN has an idea of where it wants to go. In the pilot episode, we see Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) get all shot up in an ambush in the increasingly-dystopian future of 2048. Cut to two years later and Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor) convinces him to finally come back to work and assigns him a robot partner from among the multitude of identical MX units. The MX units are ruled by logic, which of course doesn’t work for Kennex, so he does what any cop with an annoying partner does – he kicks him out of the car on a busy highway so he can get run over and destroyed. There are no more MX units, so geeky technician Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) awakens an abandoned DRN unit named Dorian (Michael Ealy). The DRN robots were built to mimic human emotions, in contrast to the MX and their logic. Kennex hates this, too, of course, and halfway through the pilot episode I was a bit worried we were going to be treated with endless anti-robotics digs from Kennex and placid rejoinders from Dorian.
Many early reviews of ALMOST HUMAN commented on all the ’80s sci-fi influences ALMOST HUMAN was mining, and certainly there are plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle nods to all manner of films and TV shows, but for me, at least, all of those nods and winks and derivations of Blade Runner, Robocop, and Terminator vanished after the first episode.
Because ALMOST HUMAN isn’t a science fiction show.
It’s a cop show.
Yes, it’s set in a sci-fi universe, but this show does not exist to do science fiction akin to something like Minority Report which has lots of flashy whiz-bang that asks us to ponder the larger questions of technology and human intent. There’s no time for that here because in ALMOST HUMAN, the future sucks. ALMOST HUMAN is much more like what John McClane does in between movies – you know, if McClane lived in 2050, had a synthetic leg, and a robot for a partner. There’s plenty of science-fiction bits sprinkled throughout ALMOST HUMAN, but they’re secondary to the central selling point of Kennex and Dorian solving crimes. “Skin” has sex robots, “Are You Receiving?” has criminals who can change the appearance of their face, “The Bends” has a new synthetic drug, and “Blood Brothers” has a group of clones committing crimes, but the science doesn’t get in the way of the crime or the investigation. Kennex and Dorian still go pound on doors and rely on Lom and helper detectives Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly) and Richard Paul (Michael Irby) to help. There’s undercover work and stings and stakeouts. There’s witnesses who lie and criminals willing to cut deals.
I love it.
The show also wisely skips past the Kennex and Dorian “slowly become accustomed to one another through shared experience” subplot, too. The show’s creator/showrunner J.H. Wyman has wisely decided to let the fate of this show rest on how much the audience likes seeing Karl Urban and Michael Ealy solve crimes together. By the end of the first episode, Dorian has won Kennex over, so they can get right to bro-fighting with one another instead of dealing with racism masked as anti-roboticism. It’s a wise choice that allows them to backdoor plenty of existential angst for Dorian without having to front that plot. ALMOST HUMAN takes the Bromance Road – Kennex is impressed with the size of Dorian’s dick while Dorian scans Kennex’s balls. It leads to one of the best lines in the series’ first six episodes, when Kennex asks, “Are you scanning my balls?” This, America, is what the dystopian locker room will look like – humans envious of a big robot penis and robots scanning your testicles for your current semen count.
ALMOST HUMAN also wisely keeps their characters closer to the center than out in the extremes. Kennex is damaged from losing his partner and his entire team, yes, but once you get past the pilot, he’s not suffering from constant flashbacks or hitting the bottle hard after work. He had as horrible a situation as a cop can expect to have, he’s done his two years in the dystopian wilderness of self-doubt, and now he’s back on the job. In the first episode, Kennex is struggling with accepting his synthetic leg, but after that episode, you can almost forget about it, except for a nice moment with olive oil that Kennex has because he’s listened to Dorian. There’s such a disconnect between what the pilot sets up and what the other five episodes deliver that I do wonder if a decision was made by the producers or network after the pilot was put together to knock those extremes back down towards the center.
For his part, Dorian thankfully doesn’t go all Data on us – he’s a robot, he’s accepted this (even if he doesn’t like it when people refer to him in any version of “it” instead of “him,” and his moments of contemplation are small and largely come from the corners of the story, such as when he sees another DRN robot working as a janitor in a hospital and gets him to tag along for the rest of that mission, or when he asks Kennex to get him a different housing situation so he doesn’t have to live with the MX units who creep him out because they’re Ken dolls.
I like how Dorian and Kennex can give each other crap, but then when things turn serious they instantly snap into cop mode and work together. Yeah, they bicker, but they bicker like bros instead of like two socio-cultural stand-ins. It’s just a cop show and I love it for that. I love that Abrams is putting out a show where the science fiction and the use of the past is there to enhance the story, not overwhelm it.
The show isn’t perfect, of course. There’s this weird “Kennex has a thing for Stahl” angle that just plays strange. I get that it’s a way for Dorian to get something over on Kennex, and when it’s one dude busting another dude’s chops on having a thing for a co-worker, it’s fun, but when Kennex gets all marble-mouthed around her, it’s pretty wince-inducing. Dorian asks Kennex to describe his perfect woman, he describes Stahl, and Dorian calls him out on it, and you wish the show would have had Kennex follow up with, “Dude, it’s Minka Kelly. Who doesn’t think she’s perfect?” but while the show is comfortable with the guys taking about their own junk, it’s not comfortable applying that tone to women. Part of the problem with Kennex’s weirdness around Stahl that it’s not consistently employed, but it also reveals how the show could use the past a bit more, since Kennex is single because his former girlfriend was part of the group that slaughtered Kennex’s men back in 2048. And, yes, I realize this makes me seem like a complete hypocrite or jerk because there I was praising the show for not falling into the dual narrative chronologies, but if you’re going to make it a story point that Kennex’s former girlfriend is a terrorist and responsible for the damage done to him, it should probably be addressed a bit more. You don’t have to go all “Ollie on the island,” but I welcome the entire Insyndicate angle getting a bit more play.
I like Lili Taylor’s Captain Maldonado because she’s not the typical police captain who’s respected, embittered, and loud. She’s still got something to prove, and in “Blood Brothers” the bad guy uses this to get under her skin. Mackenzie Crook’s Rudy Lom is also really good; like so much of ALMOST HUMAN, his weird, wacky vibe in the pilot had me a bit worried he’d be this horrible, flat stereotype, but the show has done a good job rounding him out. Yes, he’s a tech genius who looks like the only time he’s seen the sun he went running for cover, but he’s also got a nice sympathetic streak for the robots and he’s completely willing to put himself at risk and go undercover. His insistence on wearing a fedora even when everyone is telling him no makes the character endearing, as it does when the undercover operation goes bad, he gets shot, and then he simply hides and waits for his rescue. It makes him more human.
Which, yes, is something almost everyone on the show is dealing with, the quest to become more human than they are. Almost everyone on the show is defined by either a specific event or a specific skill, and the show has the characters step away from that to great effect. Much like AGENTS OF SHIELD, we’re seeing a group of individuals become a team; unlike AGENTS OF SHIELD, it didn’t take ALMOST HUMAN seven episodes to figure out how to do it well.
ALMOST HUMAN is working for me right now. Karl Urban is his usual great self, and his rapport with Michael Ealy is already one of the best bromances on television. I’m sure they’ll come back to the pilot’s plot about the Insyndicate folks who go the jump on Kennex’s unit, but they’ve made a mostly wise decision establishing the formula first.
I’ve started waiting until a few episodes build up in the Netflix queue before watching new shows to save me from making the instant judgments. My earlier reviews for this year’s shows were done after an episode or two, and while there is an instant desire to have an opinion, it’s not the best way to properly evaluate a show. An episode? Yes, but too many people turn “I didn’t like this episode” into “I can’t ever like this show.” There’s so much of that instant judgment going on that shows don’t have time to grow, and I want to be able to absorb more of a show so I don’t fall prey to that same, “I’ve made a decision and now I’m going to keep defending it because there’s no way a show can get better than I originally thought it was even if that’s exactly what’s happened with AGENTS OF SHIELD” line of thinking.