Science Fiction has had some hard years on television in the last decade. The space operas of the late 90s are long gone, having experienced their death knell with the cancellation of Firefly and (mercifully) Enterprise. Dystopian series rose to take their place, but even those are struggling: Revolution is wildly uneven in quality, and other, more gimmicky shows like Life on Mars and FlashForward are cancelled before their conceits can fully catch on. But urban fantasy is winding down (as evidenced by NBC’s utterly insane Dracula), which means that more speculative sci fi is poised to make a possible comeback.
Is Almost Human part of that comeback? Well…almost. The visual design of Neo Los Angeles looks superb: dark spires twist into the backdrop sky, complete with flying cars darting between them. The show pays homage to Blade Runner in its city design, its noir feel, its underground Chinese black market medicine, and its text opening, by borrowing the best parts of Ridley Scott’s visual choices and updating everything else. It’s also impossible not to remember the oft-underrated Alien Nation in this show’s premise, which is a beat cop paired with an unusual partner (here a “synthetic” instead of an extraterrestrial). Little touches to the show’s world, like a floating touch interface for phone messages, make it feel like a genuine glimpse into the future.
Unfortunately, the writing for the series couldn’t be more backwards. Karl Urban plays John Kennex, who is clearly the bastard child of every tough cop movie of the 70s. He’s gruff, unorthodox, brutal with his suspects, and distrustful of bureaucracy and new technology. He doesn’t care about odds, or procedure, when his partner’s life is on the line. He’s a walking, talking, throwback cliché, and it really hurts the first hour of what could otherwise be a really great series.
This isn’t an indictment of Urban’s performance. I like him as an actor, and he’s perfect for the tone of the show. But for all the chances Fox is taking on the special effects for this series (and they’re extensive as hell, which means they’re also expensive), they sure aren’t stretching themselves plot-wise. A vicious terrorist organization called the Insyndicate builds a bio-weapon that only targets cops so they can break into an improbably-sized evidence warehouse to recover a mysterious object (revealed to be another synthetic) taken as evidence from a previous bust. The Insyndicate puts a man inside the station to take down the police’s MX-series synthetics and then tries to pump their bioweapon into the station, which would seem cleverer if the police weren’t completely incompetent: it takes outdated synthetic Dorian to decode a damaged file that proves to be the key to the mystery, making the police’s entire tech department look like incompetent boobs. Likewise, the Insyndicate lands a flying car (or future-helicopter, whatever) on top of the police precinct without so much as a blink from a single cop. Did they skimp on roof security, or can anyone land there? Maybe future roofs double as parking lots. Still, it seems silly.
Despite the weak plot, a bright spot shines through in Michael Ealy’s synthetic cop Dorian. Taking the calm collectedness of Brent Spiner’s Data, but leaving behind the search for humanity, Ealy plays his character like a man (or man-bot) at peace with who and what he is. His model is infamous for its unreliability, as everyone reminds him, but he seems so affable and competent, I think he’ll be the surprise delight of the series. Dorian could have been another in sci fi’s endless parade of robots longing to be human, but instead, Ealy comes off as likeable enough to justify John Kennex’s gradual acceptance at the end of the episode.
I see a lot of potential in Almost Human. It’s got some serious growing pains to get out of the way before it becomes a good show—chief among them being a need to leave behind police procedural clichés and embrace the possibility of future crimes—but it’s good enough at the moment to merit sticking around.
- Automatic weapons, exploding bullets, and glowy grenades: street crime has skipped a few levels in the future.
- Why would they let him back on the force with that laundry list of psychological issues? Don’t they have an eager rookie they can throw at the Insyndicate problem?
- “John, Dorian. Dorian, John.” I get the cleverness of naming their synthetic for Oscar Wilde’s ageless hedonist, but all I can think of now is Zack Braff from Scrubs.
- “I was made to feel, and I do, as much as you.” Why do sci fi scientists insist on creating emotive androids? It never ends well.
- Shrink-wrap gun: a dramatic and terrible tool for kidnapping.
- Even in the future, TV cop interrogations never change.
- The doctors at County missed the suspect’s self-inflicted wound and a package tied at the back of his throat. Clearly medical science has taken a few great leaps backwards to make way for police drones.
- I’d like to imagine that real police, or at least smart police, would call in a bomb squad the second they saw a strange device arcing with electricity.
- Thank God the menace of the week took the time to explain his reasoning to Vogel out in public just before kidnapping him.
- “Sometimes newer technology isn’t always better.”
- I wonder if the Ark of the Covenant wound up in that police evidence warehouse. Also, cop on a Segway: never not funny.
- Did the olive oil work on John’s synthetic leg? DID IT?