Almost Human Series Premiere Review: I, Synthetic
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 Hollow, The 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.
NOTES TO BE UPLOADED
– 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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