What follows is a combined review of Almost Human‘s first two episodes, “Pilot” and “Skin”, making up the show’s series premiere from Monday and Tuesday.
Summary: The pilot of Almost Human falters at being unique, but “Skin” succeeds at presenting some glimpses at the science fiction goodness to come.
If you have not seen this episode yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, do not keep reading.
Almost Human is one of many shows this season that carries lots and lots of potential, but doesn’t quite reach it in its pilot. Its second episode, “Skin”, is a much improved effort, though, and makes sense for why the first two were packaged as a two-night premiere. The pilot episode is necessary to set-up the premise (however familiar that premise may be) while its second episode jumps on everything about the show that works.
Potential-wise, the advantage it has to, say, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (sort of the poster child for squandered potential this season) is that it does appear to have a distinct voice right from minute one, even if it’s not particularly new at first. A lot of generic sci-fi stuff is borrowed and reused to build the world (season 5 of Fringe seems to have been J.H. Wyman’s dry run, world-wise.) And there’s of course the obvious parallels to stories/films like I, Robot and numerous other “sympathetic robots” material. But it doesn’t seems like it’s struggling to differentiate itself from that canon; it’s not trying to hide any of it at all, actually. The show seems to be attacking the robot concept like Star Trek attacked the space travel concept–it’s not that the very concept itself is unique, but they’re going to explore every possible aspect of it they can. In the first two episodes alone, we’ve already gotten discussions of robots’ views of souls, their perceptions of birth and childhood, their perceptions of death, sexbots, mixing human DNA with robots, etc. At a certain point the show will certainly venture into other futuristic arenas that might not have to directly do with robots, but at this stage it’s diving head-long into the concept.
The major upside is that it’s remarkably easy to go with the robot concept and not worry much about suspension of disbelief, since none of this is new to sci-fi veterans. The downside is that, well…none of it is new, yet. We’re given lots of exposition for this world–more than necessary in the pilot, as the show seems convinced that its concept is more complex than it actually is. There’s very little by way of new stuff in the pilot especially, which makes this all a little nerve-wracking for anyone with high hopes. “Skin” does much better, though, throwing in a handful of inventions like the plate scanner, DNA bomb or flash masks. They’re all crime-centric gadgets, but they’re relatively believable and ingenious, exactly what proper sci-fi should be.
Additionally, one of the best things that “Skin” excels at is giving a glimpse of how robots have affected the world, but without shoving any moral or forced philosophy down our throats. Kids still think robots are cool, as they should. Sex bots exist, because of course they do. But people have accepted these things in the same way we’ve accepted smart phones; it’s another type of technology that we’re only perfecting, and the advantages tend to trump the downsides. Instead of big uprisings, we have people who are annoyed at robots in the same way that some people refuse to upgrade their phones. Surely the show will delve deeper into these things as it goes along, but it’s refreshing to see the show not dipping into the “Is this morally right?” well so early. In fact, even though there are some basic awkward jokes thrown out at the expense of the sex bots, for the most part they’re handled as a legitimate operation with respect. In fact, there’s a quick note that human sex trafficking had gone down significantly because of them. That’s a very interesting point to make, and a fairly progressive at that. Again, it’s exactly what proper sci-fi should do: projecting our views of things in a fantastical light, and making us question our own thoughts on the subject.
There’s something to be said about a show these days that goes at its genre without embarrassment, which Almost Human does. It’s weirdly common now to see TV or film series underplaying the very genre that’s presented (superhero shows with minimal powers or costumes, sci-fis with only subtle sci-fi…which even Fringe did to an extent until it hit its stride.) Almost Human hits the ground running with making it all feel like a familiar sci-fi movie, and while that familiarity makes things a little shaky in terms of what the show can provide, it’s also enticing to see things so open to going out there. It’s not a weird show yet, but it certainly can be, grounding itself only by also being a buddy cop procedural hybrid.
And really, that’s where the show excels: the charismatic buddy cops. In truth, it’s following in line with the basic procedural formula in a lot of ways; the plot may be fairly standard, but the main characters are instantly likeable and fun. Karl Urban is absolutely delightful as Detective John Kennex, the typical hard-boiled no-nonsense cop with a heart of gold. Not unlike the concept, Kennex is pretty much a carbon copy of every procedural archetype. But Urban is just so good in the part, pretty much nailing every line and look without coming off as overselling or too big of a jerk. What particularly sets Kennex apart is how quickly his relationship with Dorian is sparked, and that Kennex, while hardened, is not all-out prejudiced. His hatred of the MXs because of their logic causing a disaster (again, a total copy of the film version of I, Robot) is addressed, but as soon as Dorian proves capable, he’s over it. It’s refreshing that this isn’t Kennex’s main story arc, and that he’s completely okay with Dorian as his partner by the time the pilot closes. Instead, as “Skin” delves into, his internal conflict is reconnecting with other people after his fiasco. As a counterpart to the robots in the series, Kennex himself is struggling to understand his own humanity. The pilot doesn’t have time to address this much, but “Skin” does adeptly, using his interactions with the child, his partner’s family, and the dating site as an example of the facets of Kennex’s life he’s been avoiding.
Michael Ealy often steals the show from Urban as Dorian, though, which is a good thing. Ealy is incredibly sympathetic as Dorian, and remarkably comfortable in the role. The most promising thing about Dorian as a character is that he’s completely aware of and content with his status as a robot, without any stereotypical resentment for humanity. Instead, he strives to know himself better, and does this by better understanding his human counterparts. It’s worth noting how Dorian shares quite a bit of care for both robots (as evidenced by his interactions with Vanessa, the sex bot) and his human colleagues. He doesn’t protest when Vanessa is commanded to be deactivated, but he makes his care and frustration clear, even if he agrees with the rules. It’s intriguing that Ealy isn’t more “robotic” as Dorian, and in fact seems to be intentionally extra nurturing and warm, playing up the idea that his program actively works harder to look as human as possible. It’s a nice twist on uncanny valley, and Ealy is instantly likeable in the role. The chemistry between the Urban and Ealy is spot-on for the buddy cop feel it’s going for, too. “Skin” spends much of its time toying around with the two leads’ chemistry, and there isn’t really a sequence or gag that fails. The dating site bit is a little weird, but it’s paid off very well with both the “testicle scan” gag and the reason Kennex ultimately turns it down in the end.
The supporting cast hasn’t had the chance to show much yet, but no one sticks out as an overt weak link. Lili Taylor is particularly strong as the old fashioned police type, Sandra Maldonado, and that she and Kennex already have such a strong relationship (as opposed to making Kennex kind of a rogue) is promising. Mackenzie Crook strikes a surprisingly good balance of awkward in Rudy, the resident typical science guy, without being overindulgent and annoying like Topher on Dollhouse or Fitz-Simmons on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were in their initial outings. Minka Kelly and Michael Irby as Detectives Stahl and Lorn, respectively, are the least developed and hardest to pin down (aside from “the girl” and “the rough rival”), but again, no performance is offensive. The side performers are remarkable, though; all of the background MXs are incredibly believable, and as is Ella Thomas as Vanessa, who manages to help create one unexpected tearjerker at the end.
This is clearly an expensive show, but it seems to be managing that money well considering how gorgeous it is from a production standpoint. The set design is a nice median between the bright, white and clean Minority Report style and the typical darker, grittier future settings. That makes sense, too, considering this show only takes place about 35 years in the future–long enough for significant changes in technology, but not long enough for society itself to change drastically or for there to be a gigantic cataclysm. The music is also very fun, even if it’s odd to see a J.J. Abrams-produced show without a Michael Giacchico score behind it. Instead, electronic rock duo The Crystal Method provides a video game-esque score, unlike anything else on TV right now. As said before, the show’s strength is how it’s completely embracing that it’s science fiction, and having the electronica in the background only hammers it in further.
Even with that on the table, the show still has a ways to go before it can identify itself as something unique. But until then, it can lean on the two leads as a foundation for a while. Almost Human’s pilot is standard fare and not particularly great, but “Skin” improves on it and shows us a glimpse of what we might be seeing in the weeks to come. If those glimpses come to pass, then we might be in for the next great sci-fi. If not, we’ve at least got Karl Urban arguing with a robot about his testicles, which is pretty cool.
Odds & Ends
- I wrote this whole review without even mentioning the reveal that Kennex’s ex-girlfriend was a bad guy, because aside from being part of the pilot hook, it’s been fairly inconsequential thus far. It’s interesting how that’s not even mentioned in “Skin”–kudos to the writers for not making Kennex consumed by revenge for this. Time will tell how it gets followed up on.
- Insyndicate? Really? You’re actually calling your major Big Bad gang “Insyndicate”?
- Dorian’s eye roll when Kennex awkwardly tells Victor, “That’s a good, strong name,” is hilarious.
- The brutal sequence of the MX “falling” out of the car is really well done.
- Anyone else get Fringe pilot flashbacks when the women’s skin started to turn transparent?
- In addition to The Crystal Method, there’s also a Depeche Mode song. Of course.
- “Fantastic, I get the synthetic with the bleeding heart.”
- “I haven’t even been a child and I know that would scare me.”
- “You have negative energy man.”
- “My issue with cats is none of your business.”