5 Episode Evaluation: Almost Human

cast photo and logo for Almost Human
The Premise

The year is 2048 and the evolution of technology has sped out of control. In order to help combat the rise of technological crime, the police force has mandated that all officers be paired with an advanced-model android. Detective John Kennex risked his life and lost his leg to save a fellow officer after his previous android partner refused to assist him in the rescue. Because of his distrust of androids, Kennex has been assigned a discontinued android model, one developed to imitate human behavior and emotions–but had a tendency to malfunction and go mad. Kennex and his new partner, Dorian, must learn to work together to help stem to tide of technologically based crime.

Created by

J.H. Wyman

Starring

Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Minka Kelly, Mackenzie Crook, Michael Irby, and Lili Taylor

Episodes Evaluated
  1. Pilot – Written by J.H. Wyman; Directed by Brad Anderson
  2. Skin – Written by Cheo Hodari Coker; Directed by Michael Offer
  3. Are You Receiving? – Written by Justin Doble; Directed by Larry Teng
  4. The Bends – Written by Daniel Grindlinger; Directed by Kenneth Fink
  5. Blood Brothers – Written by Cole Maliska; Directed by Omar Madha
Strengths

Buddy-cop banter; Mackenzie Crook; Strong leads; the potential to be a techno-crime thriller. Soundtrack by the Crystal Method (is this a play out of the Tron/Daft Punk book?)

Weaknesses

Not-quite-cop-show, not-quite-techno-crime-thriller. There are hints of a larger story arc, but it has been slow in building. Why have a character arc when you can NOT have a character arc! Secondary characters seem underdeveloped.

Two Cops From the Scrap Heap

In a way, I think Fringe had it easy. Fringe was a show about paranormal investigation in the vein of The X-Files. It had its roots in horror, displaying a few police procedural trappings. But make no mistake, there was never any expectation that Fringe wasn’t science fiction. It had a confidence in focus, theme, and genre that was almost masterful and seemed virtually effortless.

Almost Human is one of the shows that picked up remnants from Fringe. First, it retains some of the writers and behind-the-scenes personnel from Fringe. Second, there is a thematic remnant from Fringe. Early in the previous show’s run, the theme dealt with technology that was growing at such a rate that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. Corporations and private industry were pursuing their own technological agendas, utilizing science that was beyond the comprehension of any governing agency. This reflects our i-driven world, a world which is being shaped more by technological advance than by old modes of social structure and authority. It also held within it a critique of capitalism as a force which subverts governing structures. Many of the technologies we interact with on a daily basis were developed by private industry, by grassroots movements to meet a perceived need that had not been seen by other developers. Who can regulate this technology? Should this technology be regulated or supported? Are technology and government, in our current society, at odds with one another? And then, somewhat early in the game, Fringe turned everything on its head by suggesting that the society which did not understand, regulate, develop, and dialogue with its emerging technologies would be at the mercy of a society which did. And so, is it possible that our technology is developing independently, or is it being developed at the behest of some unknown agency? These are huge questions. Fringe was nothing if not about asking huge questions.

Standard android partner model
The MX-43: Surprisingly easy to destroy.

The Fringe remnant from Almost Human is this idea of unregulated technology. But it extrapolates the randomness and lack of intervention in our current society and posits that we are at the mercy of our own foolishness. Another society didn’t arrive, manipulate, and enslave us. We are alone and our technology is destroying us. Or, put another way, humans are humans, and we will develop new technologies for criminal activity. This is the core of Almost Human. And this is also the obstacle which stands in the way of the series being truly brilliant. The show has put itself into a difficult position of holding in tension two equally compelling ideas: technology and crime. Science fiction and detective fiction—two genres which are frequently blended, but to what degree are they being blended here? And this is where Almost Human falls apart for me. I cannot tell what this show is trying to be. I cannot hear what this show is trying to say. Is it futuristic detective fiction, an analogue to historical detective fiction, or is it a science fiction, techno-thriller? Each of these operates with slightly different rules. They can be blended, but such blending must be handled carefully and it necessitates clear vision and focus. (Indeed, the lack of such focus in these first five episodes may be reflected in the departure of Naren Shankar, who was brought in as executive producer and co-showrunner with J.H. Wyman. Shankar has extensive experience with science fiction and police drama. Wyman has experience in both as well but Shankar’s c.v. is much longer. I’m curious as to the creative differences that may have developed and where each man saw the show going.)

The problem with attempting to blend police drama and science fiction is similar to blending detective stories and historical fiction: the investigation illustrates the setting. In fact, setting is extremely important in detective fiction, from Agatha Christie’s manors and villages to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian setting, to Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Each of these authors lived in their settings, however, and so they commented upon them in their own way. The better comparison would be shows/novels such as Cadfael, John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR, Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The point of the comparison is that crimes are always the same, committed out of universal human tendencies which disrupt the desired order of society. The investigation in historical mysteries, then, serves to illustrate not crime per se, but the society in which the crime is committed. It comments on the attitudes, conventions, and narratives of the historical period. Even Christie, Doyle, and Chandler do this, and they were writing about their contemporary society.

Rudy Lom goes undercover in a stylish suit and fedora.
Rudy Lom Investigates!

Almost Human, being set in the future, must use crime to add to the setting. It must project a society from ours and use the mysteries and investigations to explore that society. Thus, the investigation is rooted in world building. And one problem with movies and television with regard to science fiction and world building is that they occasionally rely too heavily on special effects and not enough on writing. In the five episodes I viewed for this evaluation, only one really works to merge investigation and world building: “Skin,” which explores robot prostitution. It works within the “almost human” theme of the show, commenting that even robot prostitutes are not really human, and thus humans are abducted and killed as a future-type skin grafting trade occurs. As horrific as this sounds, it is a compelling piece of world building. But no other episode in these five really works with the strength of “Skin.” Instead, they just seem to transplant contemporary crimes into a future society and develop technologies for the story which help the criminals to commit the crimes. It is like saying that in a hypothetical historical mystery, the assassin uses a bow instead of a gun. There is nothing inherently interesting in the difference. What I want to know instead is how the bow reflects the society, how the gun reflects the society. Those are the bigger ideas which lurk behind great detective fiction. This is the area that I don’t feel Almost Human has yet mastered because it has a society which hasn’t been developed beyond generic sci-fi city. I think there is an arc lurking in the background somewhere, but they are slow in revealing it, focusing instead on character development (which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily), but the characters seem to be underdeveloped. Much as I love Mackenzie Crook’s performance in “The Bends,” I think the performance brought more to the episode than the script. He is still just tech nerd. Detective Stahl (Minka Kelly) is still just attractive love interest. Detective Paul (Michael Irby) is still just rival cop. Captain Maldonado (Lili Taylor) has had a decent character episode, but the investigation didn’t really complement it. John Kennex (Karl Urban) and Dorian (Michael Ealy), however, are very well played and fun to watch.

Maybe the lack of focus in these early episodes represents the two visions before Shankar left the show. Maybe the show will find its footing in the next few episodes and begin to reach its potential by the middle of the season. I hope it does. The show could be a lot of fun; it just needs to figure out exactly what it is about and what it is trying to say.

Forge Ahead?

I may give the show another five episodes as time permits. If you love buddy cop banter, by all means watch this show. It is a lot of fun from that perspective. At the moment, however, I think that is all the show really has working for it.

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