Wednesday, November 20, 2013
The Idiot Box: Almost Human - "Pilot" and "Skin" Review
Earlier this year I published a somewhat ecstatic review of the pilot for the new Fox series Sleepy Hollow, heralding it as a worthy successor to the creators' previous series Fringe. Since then, the show has been almost emphatically hit and miss, with every other episode either living up to its wacky potential or making me question why I bother (kickass witch revenge tale/boring sleep demon/Nazi cult/lame Roanoke re-imagining/etc). Though it now seems to be finding its footing a bit with the introduction of John Noble's Sin Eater character, the series hasn't quite been all I wanted it to be at the start. Luckily, more than one Fringe writer got a show picked up this season, and J.H. Wyman's Almost Human, though not quite as unapologetically insane in premise or execution, feels like it might just be the actual Fringe substitute I've been looking for, if not a full blown pseudo-sequel.
Almost Human is basically Alien Nation meets Robocop, a near future tale of two detectives from different worlds, one a dogged human traditionalist and the other a soft spoken android, brought together to learn from each other while fighting high tech super crime. We're introduced to both characters at their lowest point, one just coming back to the force after a long sabbatical following a tragically botched raid on a terrorist cell, and the other being re-activated after spending years in storage due to the widespread belief that his relatively complex emotional software makes him unstable and unreliable. Since this is TV where crazy unhinged cops who don't feel they need to follow protocol are rewarded for their behavior, the two are deemed the perfect match and in our first two episodes manage to save the entire squad room via their innate specialness, and even run afoul of some sexbots.
Yeah, its hard for me to hate this show when the concept of a world filled with lifelike androids has already given way to a sexbot story in the first two episodes. Of course its not just about androids, as apparently 35 years is enough time for us to have developed not only sentient humanoid machines, but also perfectly calibrated synthetic limbs, shapeshifting license plates, and Total Recall style memory activators. Its an advanced future world just shy of plausibility, but still modern enough that they seem to be at least trying to reign in the "future=flying cars" temptation of so many sci-fi settings. It works because so much of the technology on display is shown to be underground, created and used by criminals in what amounts to a tech-race with law enforcement, which feels like a deliberate Fringe nod, as the mysterious Insyndicate might as well be The Pattern, and the cops are just a few neat tricks away from being the Fringe-division of alternate Earth.
At the same time, perhaps in a deliberate effort to ensure that you buy the high concept premise of androids among us, Almost Human seems to be trying to establish as serious a tone as possible, treating its world as realistically as it can in contrast to a show like Fringe, which is understandable, but not quite as fun to watch as its criminally underrated ancestor. At many times it feels like it wants you to forget that its a sci-fi show at all and just appreciate it as a buddy cop drama that just so happens to have high-tech gadgets show up every now and then, which is almost forgivable when the mainstream audience for prime time television typically tunes out when they see stuff like this. The trick is to slip the good stuff under the dullards noses, and I wonder if this show might be just a little too subtle about it, at the expense of that manic energy that the typical J.J. Abrams produced genre show usually has.
Also, what I assumed would be the main conflict of the series, an anti-robot cop forced to learn to live with a robot partner, seems to have already been resolved by the end of the first episode. He starts out gruff and combative, but very quickly learns the value of his new partner's contribution and accepts him as different and better than the emotionless robo-cops everyone else has. By the second episode they are already working together pretty smoothly, which probably should have taken a lot longer to happen. The problem is that the two characters aren't really different enough to make the Alien Nation twist work. They're polar opposites in terms of personality, but physically, the android is almost too human, too comfortable with interacting with other humans and too in control of his own emotions. This should be a learning experience for both of them, and in the androids case something akin to Star Trek's Data and his first forays into life with emotions. Just because he was designed to know how to act in social situations doesn't mean it should be this easy for him.
Still, the chemistry between the two leads is good enough to sustain the show purely on a buddy cop level and the science fiction elements are ingrained enough into the structure of the show that even if they are downplayed a bit here and there, I think we can look forward to enough interesting twists on high-tech crime to justify the premise. Finding out what the illegal sexbots are made of is a big hint to some more Fringe-esque creepiness to come, even if it might never quite get to the level I want it to, and we get enough mythology in the elusive terrorist organization to keep me interested to know how it all plays out (my personal theory: we're gonna find out they're fighting for the rights of artificially intelligent beings and are led by an old school emotional android that looks just like Dorian. Probably too specific, but fuck it, let's swing for the fence). There's enough here that I'm at least comfortable sticking with it for the rest of the season. Almost Human is easily available on Hulu, and I'd definitely recommend giving this one a shot if you haven't already.