“Almost Human” is Almost Interesting (TV Review)

November 19, 2013

Almost Human bannerAlmost Human is almost interesting.

The latest series from über-executive producer J.J. Abrams puts two charismatic leading men—Karl Urban (whose pitch-perfect “Bones” McCoy is widely acclaimed as one of the best parts of Abrams’ Star Trek movies) and Michael Ealy (whom I’ve not seen before, but whom other genre fans might recall from FlashForward or Underworld: Awakening)—into the midst of what feels like a hastily contrived mash-up of Blade Runner; The Caves of Steel and Isaac Asimov’s other Lije Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw novels; I, Robot (the Will Smith movie, this time); and every “buddy cop” movie you’ve seen since Lethal Weapon.

Set a few decades from now, when law enforcement works side-by-side with advanced humanoid robots to fight an ever-increasing crime rate, Almost Human tracks police detective John Kennex (Urban) as he returns to the force after a more than two-year absence. A deadly ambush he alone survived, planned by a girlfriend who betrayed him, left Kennex physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatized. He’s having trouble reentering life, as seen by both his clandestine visits to a memory recall technician and his psychosomatic inability to accept the bionic leg that replaces the one he lost.

Back on the beat, Kennex (his name sounds kind of, but not quite, like “connect,” which Kennex is having trouble doing—get it?) is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with issues of his own. He has the cool android capabilities you’d expect (no need to send a blood sample to the lab when Dorian can just inject it into his own neck and give you instant analysis), but is comfortable interacting with humans (he can deliver his information in “colloquial mode”) and badly wants to be a police officer. His model predates the cold, logical “MX” models currently in use, and is known for being prone to emotional outbursts. Dorian’s kind of like Lore from Star Trek:The Next Generation—retired from use because he was “too human”—only good, not evil. As Kennex’s captain tells him, Dorian is “special… just like you.” See? They’re both damaged goods. They’re both “almost human.” Get it?

Kennex and DorianMost of the show feels just that predictable. You know Kennex won’t want to be paired with an android (in fact, the pilot’s one genuinely surprising, and very funny, moment came early on, when Kennex literally shoves the MX partner he’s first assigned out of their moving car, into busy traffic), just as you know you’ll see the initial glimmerings of an “unlikely friendship” by the hour’s end (“Call me John”). Almost Human hits its plot and emotional beats in a professional but perfunctory way. 

One subplot that hints at something deeper is Kennex’s prejudice toward Dorian. He continually refers to Dorian as a “synthetic,” a term Dorian regards as a slur. At several points, Dorian insists that Kennex treat him with respect, and tries to make Kennex understand his own motivations and hopes. Given that Dorian is played by an African-American actor, Almost Human could choose to use the characters’ relationship as a science fictional exploration of race relations. Ealy and Urban are surely capable of creating a rich interpersonal dynamic that would shine light on our society’s continuing struggle toward acceptance and equality (and not just in matters of race).

If Almost Human pursues that course, however, someone will have to let me know, because I didn’t find enough of value in the pilot to keep me interested. But I may go back and re-read The Caves of Steel sooner rather than later.

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13 comments on ““Almost Human” is Almost Interesting (TV Review)

  1. I hadn’t heard about this one. The premise sounds a bit Blade Runner, which is setting the bar a little high.
    Too bad. I could imagine Urban headlining a good show that I’d look forward to. I guess this isn’t the one.

    • Michael Nov 19, 2013

      I like Urban a lot, too, and was expecting more. Oh, well. It’s just as well – my viewing time is at a premium as it is. Thanks for reading and commenting, as ever!

  2. I had been anticipating this show, and was, not overwhelmed or underwhelmed; just “whelmed”. The pilot had a lot of things to do; set up the context, many of the main characters, have a plot in and of itself, and plant the seeds for upcoming storylines, so I don’t begrudge it a slow start.

    Thought exactly the same thing about the Data/Lore comparison.

    I’m giving it a little time to get the story moving. Don’t give up just after the first few pages. 🙂

    • Michael Nov 19, 2013

      It’s a good point about giving shows a fair shake, Doug. If I had more time, I would. By all means, anyone who’s interested should stick with it and let me know if it pans out. I like Urban and I liked Ealy, and would be glad if they get a really good show out of it. Thanks for reading!

  3. Carole and Ken Nov 19, 2013

    Mike, we enjoyed the show – just seen one and not the pilot. It wasn’t perfect, but it was different since we had not see the other movies you mentioned. We’re curious enough to watch it again. It’s a little creepy, but hey, we like creepy!

    • Michael Nov 20, 2013

      Hey, Carole and Ken (and welcome to the SFC!) I didn’t think it was creepy myself, but I did find it a little gory (more so than my other favorite new show, “Sleepy Hollow,” which is amazingly bloodless, for all the beheadings going on). If I weren’t already watching too much TV as it is, I’d probably give “Almost Human” another shot – maybe, if it lasts, I’ll catch it on DVD later.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Saw ads for this during the World Series. Production values looked better than what I’m used to from modern TV. (Not that I watch any modern TV, quite frankly…) But it seems FOX throws the most money into their stuff.

    Remember when NBC rolled out The Event? That was quite a transparency of nonsense. This appears to be a little bit more than nonsense, but I don’t care. If the show does well and proves decent, great, but I won’t bother to watch unless I hear it’s brilliant.

    Plus, the android/human thing is pretty familiar. Seems like this show’s premise could write itself alongside Karl’s playing Officer McCoy.

    • Michael Nov 20, 2013

      Hi, Wes! Yes, I did think the effects were top-notch, but in the service of what seemed, to me, such familiar elements, I just couldn’t get too excited. They were really explicitly aping Blade Runner especially, I thought – the flying cars, the neon Chinese signs, etc.

      I don’t doubt “Almost Human” has a real thought at its heart, but it just didn’t grab me. I’m glad to see the trend of the comments here seems to be running more positive than my initial reaction – should bode well for its chances to find its legs.

      I liked the first few hours of “The Event,” but, yeah, it fell apart pretty quickly.

      Urban and Ealy made me find myself thinking, “You know, I’d watch a McCoy/Spock police procedural!” 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. RDKirk Nov 23, 2013

    The racial allegory is more subtle than most will see, and brought out more (but still subtly) in the second episode, “Skin.”

    Those of us who were “magic negroes” in the early days of racial integration will recognize it: Almost accepted into one world only by appearances, but can’t return to the other world.

    Did anyone ever think that the kind of black man portrayed by Sidney Poitier in the 60s was happy anywhere being “the first” and “the only” in a white society that didn’t really accept him? And when two who are alike meet in that society (as Dorian does in “Skin”) they can’t even reach out to one another without jeopardizing themselves. It was a very, very lonely existence.

    Watching Michael Ealy play that role so well as he listened stoically to the off-hand comments of the “fully humans” in his presence and that complex longing for the only relationship he can have–with someone in the same position as his is in…but at the same time, cannot have.

    I shed a few man-tears in remembrance.

    • Michael Nov 23, 2013

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and honest comment. I appreciate it.

      It sounds as though the show will be (even if subtly) addressing the race allegory, and I’m glad to hear that. I really was very impressed with Ealy’s work in the pilot, so it sounds as though I owe it to myself, and to the show, to give it another shot. Thanks for filling me in!

  6. You really should see the 2nd episode: it’s funnier, less pounding action, more comprehendable, meatier, less derivitive, he supporting characters were better utilized. Pvwrall better than the pilot. Hope it continies to improve.

  7. Michael Nov 24, 2013

    You’ve all convinced me! I’ll give “Almost Human” another shot in the very near future and report back to you. Thanks for all the feedback.

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