Who: “Almost Human,” aired on network TV, specifically on FOX, fall/winter Mondays at 8:00 PM.
What: “Almost Human,” a science fiction action/crime drama set in a future where police forces are partially staffed by androids in cities where crime runs rampant, and a police officer named John Kennex (Karl Urban, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek), who loses his partner in an ambush after an android statistically determines that the partner is too badly hurt and too beyond help, must reconcile with returning to work following his own coma, the addition of a “synthetic” prosthetic leg, and the partnering with the androids he comes to dangerously resent.
When: The series premiered on FOX, Sunday, November 17, 2013, at 8:00 PM.
Where: The show is set in an unknown metropolis, though it strikes this viewer as being Los Angeles, California, in the year 2048. Update: I think it’s actually supposed to be New York City.
Why: It’s science fiction, it features Eomer/the new Dr. McCoy (Mr. Urban), and it was created and is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and one of his cohorts from Fringe. As I am in the Cult of J.J., I must sample everything that man touches.
John Kennex (Urban) finds his life forever altered after a crime syndicate ambush, to which he mistakenly led officers under his charge, results in their deaths. When one of the force’s requisite androids abandons John’s mortally wounded partner during the siege, categorizing him as an unacceptable risk, John’s partner loses his life, and John loses his leg. He is then comatose for seventeen months, until he is revived with a synthetic prosthesis to replace his missing limb. Though he attempts to undergo black market treatments to recover some of the memories of that fateful day, his superior (Lili Taylor) recalls him to work and assigns John his mandatory android partner – which he promptly shoves out of a moving vehicle while investigating a robbery. He is then assigned to work with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an early generation android prototype programmed to have actual feelings and to interact, emotional responses in tact, with his human counterparts. John must set aside his deep seated prejudice, while Dorian reminds John of what it is to be human in a world populated by a growing number of artificial copies, as they investigate and work in a city ravaged by crime and “unregulated technology.”
This viewer initially rated the pilot 3 stars, which earns a six episode trial. After six episodes (which was extended to the whole season, as only thirteen episodes comprise season one), my verdict is:
Almost Human is a visually stunning science fiction vehicle with some creatively advanced concepts and a frightening-in-that-it’s-possible vision of a near future overrun by the peaks and pitfalls of the influence of technology and artificial intelligence; yet, the story meandered toward the end, leading to an anticlimactic, emotionless punchline that did not leave this viewer wanting more. If the show is renewed for a second season, I’m not sure I would watch it – then again, with the way the first season ended, it appears not even the show’s creators are very hopeful or confident of renewal. The bottom line is that Almost Human did not sustain any of its plot threads by the end – at best, it was a buddy cop vehicle, worth a few chuckles.
How – as in How’s It Going? (Thoughts)
What works for Almost Human:
1) Micheal Ealy, who plays Dorian, is the true star of this show. The android with “synthetic soul” programming is a wonderful foil for the gruff, scarred Kennex, and Ealy’s calm, wryly observational robot is a great counter-balance to Karl Urban’s macho-man cop. His Dorian was a scene-stealer, providing much of the comic relief and dramatic tension, frequently in the same episode; the episode in which another android of his make rode along on a case that John and Dorian were investigating, meaning two Michael Ealy’s in the same vehicle with the one Karl Urban, was one of the best episodes of the season. Without Michael Ealy, this program would have floundered early.
2) The visual effects are stunning. The visual effects designers spared no ounce of imagination, creating a technologically dependent society almost thirty years into the future with advances that could be possible, even as they are presently just out of reach. Virtual walls with controllable screens, telecommunication devices that shame smartphones, and, of course, the androids and robotics themselves create the necessary backdrop to render this world, and its high degree of related crime requiring police attention, truly believable and chilling at times. Aesthetically, the cinematography of this show was poignantly apropos: at times, this futuristic world appears gray and cold, reminiscent of the artificial life surrounding the biological residents of the city, but then the austere landscape is punctuated by accents of neon colors framing the futuristic technology dominating the urban panorama. In general, the visual palate of the program was artistic of its own merit and as much a character of the story as any of the ensemble cast.
3) Karl Urban wasn’t too shabby himself. The erstwhile Middle Earth man and the current iteration of Dr. “Bones” McCoy in the Star Trek reboot is leading man material, which this program demonstrates adequately. He is charismatic, charming, handsome, and works well with all of his scene partners. Hopefully, he is offered other chances to shine, either in this vehicle or in one with more ready potential for longevity.
What doesn’t work:
1) Mackenzie Crook’s rambling mad scientist in the basement is an odd addition to this ensemble. Look, I loved him as Gareth in the British version of The Office and as one of the bumbling pirates in the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (ignoring the fourth one for the moment), but his awkward, overly inappropriate computer and robotics guru felt out of place in a world that is more serious, cynical, and sarcastic as a rule. His character is, no doubt, also designed to elicit comic relief, but the audience is provided no backdrop for this character as they are (sparingly) for other members of the ensemble, except to know that he is a hacker and technological genius, so there is no reason to care about him or find his babbling awkwardness funny.
2) The writing/story overall fell flat. One of this viewer’s observations from the pilot is that this program had truly intriguing serial story line potential, with some tantalizing threads unraveled in that first episode, but that it also could drift into episodic procedural territory, essentially a Law and Order or a CSI set in the future. Unfortunately, the writers squandered the barely frayed threads they exposed, revisiting Kennex’s haunted memory only once or Dorian’s flawed design only in small, irregular spurts that went nowhere and were forgotten in the very next episode. Each installment, instead, focused on a crime of the week; as a result, the characters but for Kennex and Dorian – and even, to some extent, the two of them – were never fully flushed out, and the mechanics of each episode fell into a routine of “solve crime and crack wise” without much in the way of story development. Also, a few episodes made reference to a “wall” that appears to form a border to the city, and but the show never explained what that was or why it was important. In many ways, the story ended uneventfully and anticlimactically, without a cliffhanger, twist, or emotionally engaging piece of story in the season (series?) finale that would entice a viewer to return.
3) Minka Kelly’s genetically engineered potential romantic interest for John, a woman named Valerie, was potentially intriguing, but the actress’ performance and manner of line delivery were a bit hollow, lacking the substance to match the character she was portraying. Though she is beautiful and played sweet, even the flirtations between John and Valerie felt forced; this viewer senses that Ms. Kelly’s ability may not have been equal to the task of playing this character, though the writers did not give her much to work with, to be fair.
Thoughts Following the Pilot/Season Recap
Almost Human started as something exceeding mitigated expectations, owing to its late fall premiere, and meandered into a whimsical, cushioned, unexciting thud by the end of its thirteen episode run. Despite the grim/stark realities of a future fraught with technology that surpassed the stability of its human wielders, the show mined and milked the buddy cop motif for all it was worth and, perhaps, unsurprisingly. After all, Michael Ealy and Karl Urban’s rapport was the true reason to watch, even though their characters’ robot/human relationship was given focus during brief moments rather than as a central story arc that lasted for more than a fraction of an episode here and there.
The show began with a scarred cop, haunted by a decision that resulted in the deaths of some of his fellow cops, who is forced to work with the technology that betrayed him and his morals/ethics. The show ended having forgotten this premise entirely, revisiting it once and without sufficient resolution to provide closure for the character or the viewer. Arguably, Dorian’s human-like android soothed some of John’s wounds, but for something to run so deep that the character engaged in dangerous brain-mining procedures to gain access to forgotten memories and shunned other technology, at least in the pilot, only to adjust quickly to his return to work – it felt lazy to simply abandon those traumas without further explanation, development, or resolution. John could be a quick healer, but that’s a viewer’s presumption in a story world that is based on some rather specific elements outlined explicitly in the show’s pilot and weekly opening titles, without requiring presumptions to fill in the gaps.
Ultimately, this first season simply centered on a case-of-the-week format, and only the character of Dorian was given any kind of attention beyond the superficial. Yet, even his back-story was meted out in frustrating tidbits. His brand of android was decommissioned and was flawed in design but why? Mackenzie Crook’s Rudy finds embedded code in Dorian’s android brain but of what? The story lacked focus beyond its formula, and this lack of focus may doom its continued existence in the end.
In fact, it is difficult to recap a season that really went nowhere and focused almost exclusively on crimes of the week. John exonerated his father by the season finale, though it was never discussed that his father was wrongfully or disgracefully terminated from police duty until this last episode. Dorian and his friendship grew comfortable enough for Dorian to buy John a present in the finale: an upgraded artificial leg. John is presumably more comfortable with androids thanks to Dorian. None of the cases they investigated were very interesting save for one: a serial killer called the “straw man,” who escaped over the “wall” by the end of the episode but to where? John’s traumas were nearly forgotten by the end, and even his tentative flirtation with Valerie was undermined by her discovery of a club with a genetically-engineered only member policy and a handsome genetically engineered club president who entreated her to go on a date with him.
Astonishingly, Lili Taylor plays the captain of the police department and does a fine job, yet the viewer knows absolutely nothing about her character but for the fact that she is protective of John and finds no qualms in subverting regulations to help him get back on track. Nothing was explained beyond the superficial; thus, this season recap can only focus on the superficial.
In the end, Almost Human traveled a road to nowhere where story was concerned, even if John and Dorian’s tentative rapport and obvious charisma offered a few laughs. If the show gets renewed, the writers should seriously reconsider revisiting this season for episode ideas – after all, there are a few too many loose ends to tie off, even though no real reason was established to stay interested in them.
If Almost Human survives into a second season, this viewer would actually be surprised. The writers and producers didn’t earn it, even if the performers gave it the old college try. The visual effects were impressive, but visual effects alone do not sustain a long-form television series. The premise of the program might have worked better as a film or series of films with shorter intervals and smaller, more intense, more focused plots that do not require more than minimal character development. Also, this viewer wonders how expensive this show is to produce.
TVLine.com suggests that the show’s future “could go either way” as far as renewal or cancellation. Nothing has been announced or made official as of this point; if it does get renewed, this viewer hopes that the writers/producers aim a bit more ambitiously with their storytelling, since the robot/human buddy cop pastiche has been well established; after all, there is so much potential here. It would be a shame if the show didn’t shoot for something a bit more substantive and worthy of its truly creative visual presentation.