This summer is all mixed up. Strangely, the new USA Network series ‘Mr. Robot‘ is about humans, while AMC’s ‘Humans’ is about robots. Did someone mistakenly switch the script cover pages before the respective network pitch meetings?
‘Humans’ is actually a co-production between AMC in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the UK, and will air on both over the summer. Unusually for original content financed by and broadcast on an American network (as opposed to a foreign production licensed for rebroadcast here), this is a decidedly British series, set in England and starring a mostly British cast. The only noteworthy American actor to show up on screen is William Hurt, who has (at least so far) a fairly small role.
The series is also the official English-language remake of a respected Swedish sci-fi drama called ‘Real Humans’. The premise is this: Sometime in the near future, the technology has been perfected to create artificially-intelligent humanoid androids called “Synthetics.” Aside from a slightly plastic-y complexion and intentionally weird eyes (so they’re easy to identify), these Synths look very convincingly like actual people. They behave robotically, however, and are used primarily as servants and manual labor. It’s as if the Siri in your iPhone could walk around and do your dishes – the difference being that each Synth is also a unique custom design, with no mass-produced models. Synths have become so ubiquitous in society that people are starting to complain about how they’ve stolen human jobs.
The main focus of the pilot episode is the middle-class Hawkins family. Because wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson from ‘The IT Crowd’) is a harried lawyer who’s never around, husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill from ‘Mr. Selfridge’) brings their youngest daughter out to the mall to buy a Synth to help around the house. The unit he gets is a beautiful Asian girl (Gemma Chan). After booting her up, the daughter names her “Anita.”
When Laura comes home and finds out about this, she’s displeased by the news. She thinks Synths are creepy, and that the family can’t afford one anyway. Nonetheless, Joe convinces her to let Anita stay at least for the 30 day trial period. She almost comes around on the issue, until she spots Anita doing weird things a robot shouldn’t do, like spying on her sleeping daughter, watching television and staring up at the moon for no reason.
In flashback, we learn that Anita is one of a small group of Synths who were given consciousness by their programmer. Along with her human boyfriend, she and the others have been on the run from a robot hunter who believes they pose a threat to humanity, and that the world is on the verge of achieving a Singularity. Anita (or whatever her former name was) got captured by thieves who thought she was a regular ‘bot and sold her to be reprogrammed and reissued. The new programming has apparently not taken.
Meanwhile, the elderly Dr. Millican (Hurt) refuses to give up his old, defective home-aide Synth unit when it glitches and accidentally harms a bystander in a grocery store, and the authorities try to take it away for recycling. We haven’t been given a lot of info about Millican yet, but it’s suggested that he may have been a programmer, and that his ‘bot has secrets in its head that he doesn’t want anyone else getting. He’s also developed a strong emotional attachment to it, as if it were his son.
I have a couple issues with the conception of the show. Personally, I don’t believe there’s any reason why real Artificial Intelligence would need to be contained in a human-looking robot form, other than perhaps human narcissism in creating something that looks like us. There are many more efficient and useful forms real AI could take – especially the industrial units we see doing farming or factory work. What’s the point of having humanoid robots do that sort of thing? Also, I find it highly improbable that none of these robots are networked, either to each other or to the internet.
Quibbles like that aside, it’s still a dandy science fiction concept. The show has very slick production values, a lot of great performances (especially Gemma Chan, who’s fantastic as Anita), and an interesting story. I’m on board to watch more.