Almost Human Series Premiere Review: I, Synthetic

By Cory Barker

Nov 18, 2013

Almost Human S01E01: "Pilot"

Finally! I don't know about you guys, but Almost Human is the one new show I've been excitedly waiting for since the networks announced their new shows last spring. Although it's cool that series like Sleepy HollowThe Tomorrow People, and The Blacklist have ended up being various degrees of fun, from its promos Almost Human seemed to promise the perfect mix of a good idea, a creative team with respectable history, a solid cast, etc. Thankfully, despite some typical pilot-y hiccups, this first episode proved that the excitement was well-founded. Almost Human isn't already the best new series of the season, but it clearly has the potential to grow into it. 

In his preview of the series, Tim praised Almost Human's set design and special effects, and while I was perhaps not as impressed as Tim was, the pilot certainly looked really great. The dark, dingy, and depressing areas of the futuristic Los Angeles nicely contrast with the bright, clean police precinct. Even better, pilot didn't overdo it with the FUTURISTIC stuff. It's 2048—35 years into the future—and there are weird-looking cars, new-fangled technology, and oh yeah synthetic robots, but this first hour didn't really beat us over the head with cool gadgets and nonsensical exposition about said gadgets. Although those kinds of innovations clearly exist in this world, series creator J.H. Wyman seems more interested in slowly revealing them to us and building out the world more methodically; that's an approach I can appreciate.

I actually expected Almost Human to get really bogged down in exposition, and although that did happen in certain moments, most of the problematic stuff was more character-based: Minka Kelly's Valerie describing the value of her skills to Karl Urban's Kennex, Michael Irby's Richard providing a detailed history of the case that almost got Kennex murdered two years prior, Michael Ealy's Dorian telling Kennex what's wrong with him, etc. For whatever reason, the pilot respected the audience's intelligence and decided not to over-explain the existence of robots (the opening title info did plenty), but when it came to establishing his characters, Wyman wasn't as respectful. Great pilots let us see who characters are instead of simply telling us, and even though the characters are all basic types (or less), this pilot didn't do that. Hopefully once the show gets moving and the world is in place, the writers can turn their attention to the people who inhabit it. It's not that Kennex and Dorian aren't interesting, because they definitely are; Almost Human just needs to do a better job of not having people describe themselves and the show's themes so obviously. If we can understand robots, we can understand that Kennex is wracked with guilt and doesn't play well with others.

Those awkward, exposition-filled moments were definitely the worst part of Almost Human's first episode, but let's not dwell too much on the negative. One thing that some viewers—particularly those who recall the last few years of Wyman's last show, a little ditty called Fringe—might take issue with, is the show's clearly procedural story engine. The characters are cops, so it's no surprise that the pilot was built around a very familiar case structure. Wyman, likely eager to make sure those who were turned off by Fringe aren't similarly scared of his new project, has already said that each week will feature an open-and-shut case. But I'll say this: If the pilot is any indication of the kind of stuff Almost Human is going to do every week, I'm fine with it. This episode's story didn't have that much meat on the bones, because much of the focus was on Kennex and Dorian's relationship, but it was enough to hold my interest. The futuristic setting should allow the show to come up with cool gimmicks, like this one's murder box, and if the show keeps the focus on the main pairing, then it's already doing its job. Sure, it might be cool if Almost Human didn't try to appeal to a mass audience with cops and cases and whatever, but hasn't Wyman proven that he can mix procedural stuff with more interesting sci-fi stuff and questions about humanity, existence, etc.? Controversial opinion alert: Some of Fringe's best episodes were driven by an episodic case. Point being, the procedural stuff was a little thin in this opening hour, but I'm not worried. 

I'm not worried because the central relationship between Kennex and Dorian and the larger mysteries were pretty good here. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy are two great performers who could (and in Ealy's case have) topline their own shows, so bringing them together and watching them play off one another is kind of an embarrassment of riches. Urban wasn't asked to do much more than scowl and look suspicious, but the final few minutes of the episode allowed him to open up a little and show what he can do. This was Ealy's hour, though. While he's turned in plenty of great work over the years, he's typically never mentioned in any fantasy casting situations, and he should be. Dorian is meant to represent an in-between species that's neither human nor MX, and Ealy was really, really good in portraying the depth and emotion of a character that could have been severely overplayed. As he showed here, Ealy knows how to bring emotion and pain to his face without strain, a trait that's going to serve him well over the series' duration. Hopefully future episodes won't rely too much on a generic tension between Kennex and Dorian, not only because they have more in common than Kennex might like to admit (and that's obviously the point), but because Urban deserves the opportunity to show off the kind of diverse work he can do, too.

And the Syndicate story? I'm in. It's an easy, familiar set-up with Kennex's former girlfriend being involved, and it seems like they show's going to do Fringe-y stuff when the Syndicate strikes. We've probably all seen this kind of storytelling before, but Wyman is the type of writer I trust to make it work. Let's just hope he doesn't immediately start aping his own work from Fringe; if any bald dudes with weird names show up, we'll be in trouble.

There are definitely still some kinks to work out with Almost Human. The show will need to give the supporting characters more to do and stop relying on exposition-filled monologues to establish characters. But all the elements are here for a really solid, possibly fascinating show. It's nice to be really excited about a new show for once.


– Seriously, Lili Taylor probably deserves better than this, at least if this is what her character is going to be. 

– The MXs sure love getting shot directly in the eye, huh? Decent-looking effect, though.

– Myklon Red, programmable DNA, and robots are all part of this world, but apparently olive oil still solves a number of important problems. The more things change, right?

– Let's hear some early, uneducated theorizing about the Syndicate. They want that spare head in the evidence room, but what for? Shapeshifter, huh?

What'd you think of Almost Human's debut?

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  • marcusj1973 Dec 11, 2013

    Finally got around to watching the first few episodes in my trial run.

    While it looked cool, I didn't have any huge expectations for 'Almost Human' to revolutionize the genre. It's a buddy cop show...'Starsky & Hutch' 50 years later, and it delivered as expected. Great chemistry between the two leads and supporting characters who are there purely to facilitate the stories of those two leads.

    Nice to see Lili Taylor back...though it took me a couple episodes to answer the internal asking, "I know that woman, but I can't recall from where". If Lloyd makes a cameo this will instantly become my favouritest show ever.

  • nic656 Nov 25, 2013

    One of the better pilots of the season. Has me hooked. I have complete faith in Wyman. Going to resist the Fringe comparisons, cause what made Fringe so great was that there was nothing like it on tv. Let's see if Almost Human can do the same...

  • vcivi Nov 21, 2013

    Liked the was different...
    Dorian i like immediately as he shows feelings and is a smartass...unlike that Chines keep seeing all over the place...
    liked how they started with the past, to show how other cops think about Karl Urban....
    I think i will watch the whole season, without being bored...

  • JT_Kirk Nov 20, 2013

    Storywise it was interesting but I found the conclusion to be ultimately very pedestrian and a huge let-down from the setup - it isn't smart at all, it's just a shootout over a macguffin after reading some pointless files that the MX series somehow couldn't "piece together" despite it being pretty straightforward. The main characters were likable, but lightweight - I expected more stryfe, more headbutting or philosophy or something, the most compelling character was the underground doctor! And for Dorian to save... uh, mainguy, to save his life like that was super cheeseball. If the actual cases aren't going to be more future-compelling than this, I don't really see what the point will be to this show.

    Visually, this show looked like a modern cheapo show. A mix of styles and messages, clear things and a lot of old tablets in fancy dress, CGI falling apart before your eyes, tiny sets and little backlot streets redressed, and even this wonky "warzone" flashback feel that was entirely out of place. The city had no individual voice and the station looked ridiculous. Oh, and "green lasers!" was such a stupid addition, we've seen colored lasers for 20 years now as a basic thing, changing the color to a new wavelength is nothing new, you bought some off-the-shelf green lasers and slapped them on, big deal - first red, then blue, now green, they're all dumb if they're meant to seem like futuretech. And the cheap guns that are aesthetically all wrong, I get that gizmos aren't supposed to be the focus, but don't build something that looks like something from a Super Nintendo game when modern aesthetics are well beyond that.

  • klotensen Nov 20, 2013

    This might be the only procedural I'll watch this season...

  • TracyTrouble Nov 20, 2013

    It was good; I really enjoyed it - but then Karl Urban is a great actor and I've yet to see him stuff up any role he's had. So I'm in it for the long haul I think.

  • AkiraHideyo Nov 20, 2013

    It does remind me of a young Fringe initially, minus the seriousness all round. Not bad story lines and definitely watchable. It has good production values and way way ahead of duds like Ravenswood, OUAT in Wonderland or the current bore fest TVD and sometimes, geez, enough standalone, non celestial themed/sans Cast already, Supernatural. Almost Human has the potential to be like the greats like Fringe, but then again, it's not how good a series is these days (just take at Fringe), it how the networks play their "Walls Street" logic cards. Sigh.

  • daniellecio Nov 20, 2013

    I'd be cool with it if David Robert Jones wants to stop by. Also, Fringe's first season started out mostly episodic and eventually grew the mythology! Are there no plans like that for this show?

  • muzrub Nov 20, 2013

    I liked what I saw.

  • AngelColn Nov 19, 2013

    So far so good. Let's wait for the 4 episodes test for a final decision about the show.

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