Almost Human: S01E01: Pilot

By Dom Sinacola · Nov 20, 2013

Almost Human was created by J.H. Wyman—a cyberpunk-ish name if there ever was one—someone you may remember as a writer and showrunner for four out of five seasons on Fringe, and so a guy who’s had his fair share of time run through the Bad Robot mill. Like anything attached to J.J. Abrams, Almost Human is a high-concept action adventure which wrestles with personality and pacing as it strives to unload a huge dump of exposition within its initial pilot episode. But unlike Fringe—which really only lapsed full-on into a serialized thriller after it spent its first season mixing mythology and monster-of-the-week stories much like its obvious precursor, The X-FilesAlmost Human has no heart for allowing the mystery of its world to emerge on its own terms.

Which is why a title card explains the series’ overarching plot in a few terse, stentorian sentences. In 2048 (a sexy woman’s voice reads), technology has advanced to such a degree that biogenetic alterations and crazy dangerous weapons have allowed crime to get the upper hand on law enforcement. Why the year is 2048 is anyone’s guess; assuming the downfall of humanity at the mercy of its own terrible creation would happen gradually, and not 35 years in the future all at once, as if the human race awoke in unison and declared they were fucked, does not brevity help. But, like fellow Abrams apprentice Damon Lindelof, Wyman isn’t concerned with History, just its consequences: does it matter how or in what order drugs and violence invaded our schools and “faceless” mega-gangs began to rule our streets when it means that in a few decades Robocops will become some sort of badass government mandate?

Almost Human can be, at times, a handsome show. Its soundtrack is by the Crystal Method. Its color palette is steeped in gunmetal blue and the garish neon familiar to anyone who’s defined one’s whole taste for science-fiction through Blade Runner’s bleak dystopia. Its CGI is able to shoulder the cinematic breadth of its plot while, akin too to Blade Runner, staying relatively understated given the relentless background noise of futuristic hardware. And it’s an admirable trait for a piece of television immersed in the notion of technology gone wild. A holographic barrier of police tape reads the biometrics of those approaching, allowing only authorized police officers through; a security guard sitting before a bank of flat screens flashing security footage wants to turn up the volume on the corner set, so he waves his hand in an upward motion a foot from its face: these are gestures slight and intuitive, barely given a moment’s notice.

Yet Almost Human begins with a perfunctory summary, and from there it never quite reaches an equilibrium between small, brilliant moments and big, messy, hollering action sequences. Within seconds of the title card, we take on the perspective of Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban), plunged behind the barrel of some sort of laser-powered assault rifle. We immediately recognize the view of a first-person shooter, and with it the familiar sensation of adrenalinized, digital bloodlust. Soon, bad guys are exploding and android policemen are weighing the odds of survival; when one of Kennex’s non-synthetic men takes fire, Kennex’s very human choice to try to save the poor guy ends up putting him in a coma. Seventeen months later, Kennex, replete with a fake robo-leg and brimming with post-traumatic stress disorder, undergoes illegal “recollection” procedures—like a mix between hypnotherapy and electro-shock—to try to jump-start his memory and finally make sense of what happen the night of the fateful raid.

Kennex hates androids too. Not only did an MX (android police) unit abandon him to hopelessly save his fallen comrade that aforementioned night, but Kennex once had a human partner (who we learn in episode two died, though it’s not explained how), and Kennex’s dad was an obviously decorated police officer who famously avoided getting paired with a “Synthetic.” Kennex is of course our old school curmudgeon, and by extension our proxy as we acclimate to our new surroundings—who better to navigate the strange emotional terrain of befriending a robot?

Which Kennex inevitably does, drawn back into the fray by news that the Insyndicate—the group he was attacking when leading the original raid—has resurfaced. After pushing his initial MX partner out of a moving car, all “Suck cement, skinjob!”, Kennex is reassigned to Dorian (Michael Ealy), a pre-MX model who’s extra-special because he’s programmed to feel. Unfortunately, Dorian’s model was decommissioned after one of his kind snapped and went robo-bonkers, unable to deal with its artificial capacity for empathy, so Dorian intuits quickly that his only chance to avoid being sold to NASA for parts is to stay a vital member of the police force. He’s willing to put up with a lot of Kennex’s mean-spirited bullshit—a lot of getting called a “synthetic,” a word he equates to a racial epithet—to keep himself alive.

Ealy’s Dorian is deftly played, his role gracefully assembled from the same quiet micro-gestures the show adopts as symbols for functional technology, and his rapport with Urban’s perma-scowl carries enough levity to make some of their conversations downright pleasant. Most of these conversations are musings on Dorian’s “realness,” like a one-sided Turing Test where the computer keeps insisting it’s a computer, but Urban—who could not have made a better Judge Dredd were he born with the helmet fused to his skull—is pretty excellent at playing the smartest dumbest guy in the room. Eventually, Dorian saves Kennex’s life, because that’s what’s bound to happen, and Kennex softens on the whole robo-racist thing.

Dorian faces prejudice at the police station too, where the rest of the force, happily paired with their “intimidating” MXs, see him as a liability. This, coupled with the fact that Ealy is African American, implies that at the very least Almost Human has something on its mind more than how it’ll best tumble into the next plot point. It may be a cheap way to get us to question what it means to be human when something like Battlestar Galactica did the same with so much more grace and, er…humanity, but if Almost Human plans to carry out however many episodes it has left by answering that question through emphasizing the bonds between friends, there’s not much more we can ask from a show on FOX.

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