Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Pilot: Fox's ALMOST HUMAN

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

What's it about? Almost Human is a sci-fi crime drama set in the imagined future of 2048, where crime's rampant and the police are partnered with combat-ready androids. One such LAPD detective, John Kennex, who notoriously hates robots, finds himself paired with an model capable of emotion called Dorian.

Who made it? This Fox drama is created by J.H Wyman, co-creator of cult sci-fi series Fringe, and produced by J.J Abrams' production company Bad Robot Television and Warner Bros. Television. Abrams and Bryan Burk (both formerly of Fringe) also serve as executive producers.


Who stars in it? Karl Urban (Star Trek Into Darkness) takes the lead as gruff cop Kennex, with Michael Ealy (The Good Wife) as his handsome android partner Dorian. Co-stars include beautiful Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights) as potential love-interest Detective Valerie Stahl, gaunt Mackenzie Crook (The Office) as inventor Rudy Lom, and Lily Taylor (Six Feet Under) as Captain Sandra Maldonado.

What's good about it? As you've come to expect from Bad Robot Productions, Almost Human's production is first-rate. The world is believably futuristic without being OTT (a lesson learned from Fringe's future-set final season?) and inevitable comparisons to Blade Runner are only fleeting with a few rainy cityscapes and flying cars. This actually reminded me more of the future seen in Michael Bay's The Island, with perhaps a touch of Alex Proyas' I, Robot and Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. The concept also has similarities to 1999 Canadian sci-fi drama Total Recall 2070, which despite its name was only loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (previously adapted into 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall).

The stand-out performance undoubtedly comes from Michael Ealy, who has an interesting presence and raises the show a notch or two whenever he's around. What works best is how Almost Human's avoided making Dorian a typical automaton (stilted speech, avoidance of spoken contractions, no blinking), as there are times when he feels so human you forget he's artificial. I'm sure some viewers will feel like there's less fun if a robotic character isn't appreciably robotic in nature, but I found this approach refreshing. It also makes sense you'd program a machine to mimic humans in this way, and the show still has more traditional fun with 'humourless drones' because the LAPD is half-populated by the latter-model MX's (essentially ambulant crash test dummies driven by pure logic and statistical analysis).


The second episode, "Skin", was significantly better than the exposition-heavy pilot. It showed that Almost Human may have a future if it continues to take standard cop show ideas (like a missing persons case) and give them a fresh sci-fi spin. This hour involved sexbots (or "bang bots") being created using human DNA taken from kidnapped women (male sexbots don't appear to be popular). It felt lighter and funnier than the pilot (loved the scene where bachelor Kennex implored Dorian to stop scanning his testicles), and there was a genuinely touching scene when Dorian lied about an afterlife to a sexbot he'd taken a shine to, who was about to be deactivated. (No mention of Silicon Heaven, alas, Red Dwarf fans.)

What's bad about it? While there are fresh ingredients here and there, for the most part Almost Human feels like a patchwork of clich├ęs and sci-fi tropes. It's built on the over familiar 'odd couple'/'buddy cop' dynamic, a missing girlfriend, an English nerd spouting 'technobabble', and a room of wisecracking cops who all hate the two leads. There were too many times in the pilot where I was only half paying attention, because it felt like you'd seen this idea a hundred times before and were waiting for something different to occur. Thankfully, "Skin" was more agreeable and has convinced me this show could work long-term if the writing's there. Although it's strange that Kennex and Dorian already feel like good pals, when you'd imagine their relationship would be noticeably frosty for at least half a season.

There's also an unintentionally troubling scene where Kennex destroys an irritating android by throwing it out a moving car, to be crushed by traffic. So he not only endangered the lives of other road users, but committed what feels like murder once we come to bond with Dorian. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Almost Human tackles that issue in a "are robots alive?" storyline. It's the nature of the beast.


Is it worth sticking with? A tentative yes, although the problem with procedurals is they have the potential to become dull far quicker than any other type of shows because of their inbuilt formulas. Almost Human's worth watching for Ealy's charming performance and a feeling its procedural nature will be kept alive because there's Fringe-style weirdness in a world where technology's booming (e.g. I loved the spray-on 'flash masks' two kidnappers wore to hide their features on CCTV). It's a little unnerving Naren Shankar (erstwhile co-showrunner with Wyman) quit the show over "creative differences" early on, but given Shankar's credentials on procedurals like CSI it's perhaps a sign this show will soon become more serialised than it feels right now. A similar change of approach guided Fringeto widespread geek adulation at the cost of a ratings drop because casual viewers didn't have a clue what was going on week-to-week.

Anything else worth mentioning? Did you know that J.J Abrams composed this show's theme tune? And there you were thinking he could only write and direct! Oh, and the second episode lost 2.5 million viewers from the previous night's premiere, so it's already shed 6.60m people. Were they so unimpressed they avoided episode 2, or did airing the first two episodes on consecutive days confused a few million folk? It'll be interesting to see if the initial 9m are back next week, or if that 6m is its core audience. I'm actually expecting the show to follow a similar trajectory to Fringe (being lucky to get 4m most weeks), but will Fox show the same loyalty and patience here? Or will Almost Human be axed before you know it?

Where and when is it broadcast? Almost Human premiered on Fox last Sunday (17 November) and aired its second episode in its regular Monday timeslot (18 November). A UK broadcaster has yet to be found, as Syfy UK stepped out of the running over its asking price in the summer. Sky1 were then said to be interested, where it would certainly be a good replacement for Fringe, but nothing is official yet.