“The years is 2048. Evolving technologies can no longer be regulated. Dangerous advancements forever alter the criminal landscape. Police are not prepared. Law enforcement combats this corruption with a new line of defence. But not all are created equal…Now all cops, human and man-made together, take on the battle to watch over us all…”
That slightly goofy narration is the opening for every episode of J.H. Wyman’s new Sci-Fi show, Almost Human, a police procedural set in a dystopian future, a mix of Judge Dredd, Robocop and I Robot. The series stars Karl Urban (Judge Dredd…very appropriately) as the surly Detective John Kennex, and Michael Ealy (Seven Pounds, FlashForward) as Dorian, his “synthetic human” android partner.
The series opens up with a raid on a “Syndicate” (one of the many criminal/terrorist organisations in the AH future) compound. Detective Kennex’s partner calls for help, being wounded and cut off from the rest of the police force and under heavy fire. Kennex takes an MX unit, the standard android police officer model making up the bulk of the police force, and gets to his partner who’s gravely wounded. However, determining the nature of the wounds to be fatal, the MX unit leaves Kennex and his partner to fend for themselves while it goes help others with more chances of survival, which is the logical choice, for which the MX series were created. Even alone and outgunned, Kennex picks up his dying partner and tries to get him to safety, only to have his lower right leg blown up by an explosive round, leaving him stunned, and killing his partner.
The series then jumps 18 months into the future, to the day John has to come back to work, and by then, MX androids become obligatory partners for all detectives, something Detective Kennex doesn’t like very much and after a short discussion/altercation with his new android partner while driving, the Detective opens the passenger door and promptly and forcefully ejects his partner from the vehicle…and into oncoming traffic. Looking for a replacement, Detective Kennex visits the police’s robotics expert Rudy Lom, portrayed by the ever amusing Mackenzie Crook (Pirates of the Caribbean, Game of Thrones), who regrets to inform him there aren’t any MX available, but instead provides him with a DRN model, which were created to be as close to human as possible, and as such are capable of feeling emotions…the only problem is, the last batch of them went crazy and started killing people.
The series focuses on their cases together and the difficult yet evolving buddy-cop relationship between the dour human detective and his heart-on-his-sleeve android partner. The first episode is perfect for a new show, setting the stage and the players and their world without going into heavy exposition, a pitfall more than a few series tend to fall into, such as Once Upon a time in Nightmareland, which I reviewed “recently”.
With the first episode I was worried that Karl Urban would be too Judge Dredd, but the character and the portrayal have plenty of nuances and more than one dimension and complications, something I’m thankful for. It’s the same for Dorian and the rest of the cast, who in just three episodes (my standard try-out period for series) have had at least a few new shades shown, even the “mean-spirited” Detective Richard Paul, portrayed by Michael Irby (The Unit), who at first gives the impression there might be something off about him, but further episodes have shown him to be a good cop, just opinionated about how things should be, which tends to get him on people’s wrong sides. The beautiful Minka Kelly (who sadly worked on the horrible Charlie’s Angels 2011 series) portrays Valerie Stahl, who’s obviously being set up as John Kennex’s romantic interest, but has enough depth to be interesting without it and in fact, her role as analyst makes her one of the biggest sources of “lore” during episodes.
Characterizations and portrayals are very good, but if I had to choose one to be the best, I’d have to give it to Michael Ealy. Dorian’s portrayal makes him seem much more human than the rest, feeling everything more intensely and genuinely interested in others, especially his partner, and thankfully Ealy and Urban have a fantastic chemistry and the scenes between the two of them, be it the philosophical arguments, the silly banter, or even Dorian’s few practical jokes (such as creating a complete online dating profile for his partner), are the best parts of the series so far. In fact, most of the cast have a very good chemistry, making the scenes a pleasure to watch. Crook’s scenes with the protagonists are fantastic, and often provide a bit of supplementary information on the overall setting and comic relief as well, with Crook’s character Rudy often letting something personal or intimate slip.
The setting, as I mentioned, is a bit of Judge Dredd and Robocop for its rampant criminal rates and technology, and I Robot for the seeming focus of said technology: robotics. Episode 1 introduces the police side of the android world, but episode 2, with the inclusion of Fembots, once again confirms that any new invention can be used for both war and porn.
While it’s a dystopian future, the city itself is pristine, not the garbage littered mess we’d expect from the narration, but just like Robocop’s Detroit and Dredd’s Mega City One, there are areas you don’t want to go, as they are more rundown and dangerous and filled with criminals and black market doctors. It’s the Demolition Man dystopia, pretty on the outside but rotten on the inside. Aesthetically speaking, the locations are beautiful, in a metallic, lifeless and detached way, which is obviously the message they’re trying to convey about this artificial-human-focused society. It’s good and gets the point across quite clearly without them needing to shove it down your throat as exposition, which I consider to be a great creative decision.
Speaking of aesthetics, the visual side is very good, a combination of CGI and “classic” special effects. The CGI in particular look believable, something this series needs to be successful. There’s nothing worse for a future setting than having its technology looking terrible. Makeup and design is fantastic, especially on the MX androids, they look and feel fake and artificial. I personally like the blue lights under Dorian’s skin, they’re the only thing about him that lets you know he’s not human and yet, they’re very subtle.
What it does nail for the setting is how low, cruel and frankly evil the criminals are, with Episode 2’s being the worst so far, and proving the setting and the series capable of some very dark storytelling. I won’t spoil ep. 2’s “criminal enterprise” for you, it’s worth watching and being shocked by how nasty it is.
What it doesn’t nail, at least not perfectly, is the level of technology. For such a technologically advanced future, as described by the narrator, the technology displayed is pretty mundane, aside from the weaponry and robotics of course. Sure, they have “drones”, but they’re remote controlled helicopters. I have to say I was disappointed to see a standard FDNY fire truck in episode 3, expecting something more high-tech. Of course, the series is set in 2048, 35 years from now, so I’m fairly sure they’re carefully presenting just how far technology has actually gotten, but with a “evolving technologies can no longer be regulated” intro message, my imagination ran free and I expected to see some really “out there” stuff, and still do, and the series has shown some really cool tech, such as the Recollector in Episode 1, a machine that helps you retrieve lost or blocked memories, but they haven’t taken a bigger technological leaps…yet.
So far, the series has managed to capture my attention on every episode, something procedurals tend to be iffy about because they depend too much on the case, but thankfully Wyman and his people know how to balance that weakness out with the fantastic writing, especially the scenes between the protagonists and general character development.
I’m excited on where this series will go and I will review the whole season once it’s done.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Watching. With strong writing, character portrayals and an interesting and pretty dark setting, this procedural will grab you and keep you glued to the screen.