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‘Almost Human’ Pilot & 1.02 Recap: “The Synthethic with the Bleeding Heart”

How many times has Fox greenlit a new sci-fi show only to cancel it within one season? Too many to count. Yet the network keeps trying to court that audience. One of the few to last a reasonable length of time was ‘Fringe’. With the demise of that series earlier this year, creator J.H. Wyman and producer J.J. Abrams are already back with a new venture, the futuristic cop drama ‘Almost Human’, which debuted with a two-night premiere on Sunday and Monday. Does this one have what it takes to go the distance? That remains to be seen.

Right off the bat, the show makes the same mistake as many “near future” sci-fi stories – arbitrarily picking a date not terribly long from now (in this case, 2048, just 35 years away), and positing that massive, world-changing technological advancements have permeated every aspect of society. We’re talking flying cars, ‘Minority Report’-style holographic computers and, most importantly, the omnipresence of androids that are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. I can buy the fancy computer interfaces, but there are a million reasons why flying cars aren’t going to happen (would you want one falling on your head after a fender bender?), and artificial intelligence this sophisticated is likely at least a century off. For that matter, I doubt that intelligent robots in the future will even try to look or act like humans. There are many more efficient and useful forms they can take that would be superior to ours.

Even sillier are all the little details the show changes just to constantly remind us how “futuristic” it is. Guns that are clearly firing bullets make “pew pew” laser sounds. Anything remotely electronic goes “beep boop beep boop boop beep” all the time. (The overuse of twinkly sound effects is really out of control.) People ride Segway scooters as if they’re not embarrassed to do so. Most hilariously, the levers on toilets are illuminated with pulsing neon lights… ‘Cuz it’s the future and blinking toilet levers will flush so much better than the lame non-blinking toilet levers we have now.

So, the story? In an action scene shot to look like an FPS videogame, we’re introduced to gruff badass cop John Kennex (Karl Urban from Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ movies), who charges into a violent shoot-out with bad guys called “The Syndicate” and promptly gets his leg blown off. After a 17-month coma, a little memory loss and the installation of a robo-leg, Kennex goes back to work on the police force. His captain (one-time indie darling Lili Taylor, who must be in need of a steady paycheck) informs him that new regulations require every human cop to be paired up with an “MX” model android partner. The MX series are a logic-based design, and are very cold and by-the-book and robotic. Naturally, Kennex hates them. He’d much prefer a human partner, like sexy detective Valerie (Minka Kelly from ‘Friday Night Lights’). Instead, he gets so annoyed when his new robo-partner asks too many questions about his personal business and threatens to report his rule-breaking that Kennex tosses him out the car door into traffic while speeding down the freeway.

Fortunately, killing an android doesn’t count as murder. Also fortunately, there’s apparently no 4G in 2048 for the android to wirelessly transmit his information (or video of Kennex killing him) back to headquarters.

Wouldn’t you know it, that was the last MX model in stock. Because the rules require Kennex to have an android partner, the department’s quirky tech guy (Mackenzie Crook from the original British ‘The Office’) has to pull an old DRN unit – nicknamed “Dorian” (Michael Ealy from ‘FlashForward’ and ‘Common Law’) – out of storage. The DRN is an older, discontinued model that was designed to closely emulate human behavior. Dorian is very warm and friendly, talks in slang and cracks jokes. Unfortunately, DRNs were considered unreliable because they developed human emotions, and all the weaknesses that come with those. He gets offended when Kennex repeatedly calls him a “synthetic,” because artificial humans are people too, you know, man. Also, no doubt people were bothered by too much “Uncanny Valley” effect and preferred that robots act like robots.

As you can imagine, this salt-and-pepper cop buddy duo will have to overcome their differences and learn to work together.

The much-hyped two-night premiere event really just consists of two separate episodes aired on consecutive evenings. In the ‘Pilot’, bad guys use “programmable DNA” to develop a deadly toxin that specifically targets police officers. They then stage a raid on police headquarters that involves a device that can knock out all the MXs (but doesn’t affect Dorian) in order to retrieve something from the evidence room. Kennex and Dorian manage to fend off the invasion, but have no idea what the baddies wanted. However, Kennex has a flashback to his injury in which he remembers that his ex-girlfriend may have been a member of the Syndicate gang.

In the second episode, called ‘Skin’, we learn that people 35 years from now will still listen to Massive Attack while having sex. A gang of evil Albanians (what is this, ‘Tune in Tomorrow’?) has been kidnapping and murdering women in order to graft their skin onto sexbots, so that their robo-whores will feel more realistic and pleasurable than regular robo-whores. Kennex and Dorian break up the ring and save the latest victim, but feel bad when they’re ordered to destroy the friendly hooker-bot who helped them crack the case, because the law draws a line at androids with human DNA.

I feel like I should enjoy this show more that I have so far. Near-future sci-fi is one of my favorite guilty pleasure genres, the cheesier the better. For as goofy as this one often is, it takes itself just a little too seriously. As I’m sure I’ve made clear, it’s also very derivative of ‘Blade Runner’, ‘RoboCop’, ‘Alien Nation’ and dozens of other famous sources, including ‘Dredd’, which Urban just starred in recently.

With that said, the show has good production values and visual effects, and Urban makes an effective leading man. I want it to be entertaining, so I’ll continue to watch and see if it can live up to that.

5 comments

  1. All of what you said is true, but you clearly forgot to mention that Ealy and Urban have some great chemistry together. And the humor is really good as well, the knife “trick” was especially funny.

    It is definitely not as good as fringe was off the bat, but I like Urban and I will give this the time it needs. But the show has to cost a ton to produce so unless audiences tune in we may not have long with Foxes history. Hopefully JJ Abrams has enough banked good will with his successes that they will not be so quick.

  2. PaulB

    Don’t recall seeing a single flying car and do agree that ‘near future’ sci-fi often goes too far. The cities are the biggest error as they will barely look different in 35 years. As for the AI, 35 years is absolutely within reason for that level of AI. Just look back to where we were 35 years ago and extrapolate (I work in tech and the types of things that are being worked on now aren’t too far behind this). cyberhuman though, no, probably not.. But it does have to be a cyberhuman for broad appeal. I’ve just pretended it is in a Fringe type parallel universe, which might even be supported by the butterfly you see the tech working on.. Regardless, you seem to be WAAAAYYY to hung on the tech and missed what has been great and that is what Tim mentioned. The two main characters are great together so far. Even my partner, who I made watch it, commented on how much she loved their interactions and she was hooked.
    Plenty of other good intrigue set up already, including the semi-explanation that getting set up with Dorian wasn’t a coincidence and this Dorian isn’t ‘normal’.
    Like Tim, my partner and I though that the rest of the season is going to have to be bottle episodes as they had to have shot their entire seasons budget on the first two episodes given the production level.

  3. PaulB

    OH and as for it being derivative, yes, though there are very very very few sci-fi movies or shows that haven’t been significantly derivative but the good ones add their own twist and become the reference for the future. I also recall seeing something about JJ and the staff talking about drawing from some of these shows like Blade Runner (where they did a very homage shot at the outside food bar). So some of this is very intentional.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      There were flying cars seen in the background of several city shots. J.J. may call what he’s doing “homage,” but I call it “Having no fresh ideas of his own.” :)

      I will agree that the chemistry of the two leads works. The second episode especially had some good banter.

  4. Charles M

    Flying cars could work. Just keep it for emergency vehicles only. And only at important times. Police officers don’t have to have a dangerous car chase, they just float up into the air and watch getaway vehicle. Ambulances can skip traffic safely and quickly.

    Also there would be no need for helicopters and their dangerous blades that make them difficult to use in some situations.

    At least, that’s how I’d do it and have it make sense.

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