Mar 27, 2014

[TV] Almost Human: Season 1

I think we've reached that point in US television when we're definitely starving for good genre television. There's been relatively more success among the fantasy shows (e.g. Once Upon A Time), but the more science fiction aligned shows have been dying one after another.

Almost Human seemed like a very serious attempt to put forward a fairly serious bid at a steady science fiction series. It had a pretty compelling setting - a near future that was supposed to remind us of movies like Blade Runner given its rather gritty view of the future. It was a robot story - and robot stories have a long history of being great vehicles for complex morality stories that explore what it is to be human.

But the show was to air on Fox, the same channel that has killed quite a number of science fiction shows (*coughs* Firefly *coughs) when they don't hit ratings targets. And so we end up having a sort of love-hate relationship with the channel since they seem to be willing to invest in a number of science fiction projects but they don't typically give them much slack.

So where does this show stand in all this?

Synopsis:  Almost Human is a US science fiction crime drama TV series created by J. H. Wyman for Bad Robot Productions. It airs on Fox and includes J.J. Abrams among its executive producers.

It is the year 2048 and continued technological progress and advancements has led to a staggering increase in more complex crimes as well. In order to better safeguard its men, it has been mandated that all police officers are accompanied by a combat model android as a companion and bodyguard. Naturally we'll focus on a character who has come to hate these robots - this being detective John Kennex (Karl Urban). After gang bust gone bad due to the androids deciding what was an acceptable risk or not, it has took him 17 months to come out a coma. He wakes up to find that he has lost one of his legs and must now learn to utilize a prosthetic.

Kennex struggles to fill in the massive gaps in his memory from that incident and goes as far as visiting black market doctors who have ways to try and jump start memories. When he is eventually called back into service by Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor), his initial partner of an MX-43 android doesn't fare too well after Kennex pushing him out of a moving vehicle. He is then assigned an older DRN model android as a replacement - once that actually has a name. Dorian (Michael Ealy) and the other DRNs are a decommissioned line of androids meant to be more human in behavior. However they had unpredictable challenges when dealing with their artificial emotions, leading to the line being ordered shut down.

At first it seems like the show is full of tropes of both the science fiction drama and the police procedural crime drama genre. You have the partners who are written to be disastrous together. You have the veteran cop with some major trauma to deal with. You have a highly episodic structure for the season with different cases with completely different crimes. Heck, you even have the in-office romance angle with Kennex never really finding a way to make his move.

But tropes and cliches aside, the show demonstrated tremendous potential from the very first episode and the characters continue to grow and develop over time. We first get to focus on Kennex dealing with the incident that lead to his injury and trying to retrieve those memories. And at the same time we're also getting to know Dorian better and how he is starkly different from the other police androids.

At first I was expecting that a lot of the stories would be android-related in terms of the crimes, thus really tying it to Blade Runner in a way. But then the title sequence stresses the fact that the department was trying to cope with exotic technologies and many of the episodes tried to go down  this route. Some were pretty clever but other cases felt like really corny counterparts for modern crimes. And the varying level of the quality of these cases plays quite a big factor in the overall feel of the show.

The core relationship between Urban and Ealy's characters is a pretty good one that's not quite your traditional buddy-cop relationship, but something along those lines for sure. You can believe how the traumatized cop and the overly empathetic android are both trying to come to terms with how they are to relate to one another. And this also had its share of highs and lows.

But the show isn't quite there yet and it's efforts at crafting a longer-term meta-plot, which I'll always feel helps a show evolve into something fans can really follow, have been somewhat lacking and rather clumsy. There have been connections between some of the episodes but the final story angle presented in the season-ender still felt rather left field. It's a potentially good story, but one that felt a little rushed.

Almost Human is still one of the more interesting genre fiction shows that have come around in a while and I really hope that it manages to survive to a second season. And the writers really need to make full use of that opportunity and really bring these characters into the new direction that we need them to grow into. As it stands now, this first season gets a respectable 3.5 MX units that Kennex destroys out of spite out of a possible 5.

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