Thought-provoking science fiction is in short supply on network TV in the U.S. — so it's a hopeful sign that NBC has ordered a pilot for Beautiful People. In this near-future-set show, human-appearing robots live among us, as the perfect slaves. What could possibly go wrong?
Here's everything you need to know about NBC's dystopian Beautiful People. Spoilers ahead...
Top image: Ahmed Bekeer, Photoshop Creative
We managed to score a look at a couple different drafts of the script of Beautiful People, which was written by former MadTV castmember Michael McDonald. Here's what we've learned.
First of all, Beautiful People is really dark, and more than a little sadistic at times. It's not at all subtle, though — it's in the grand tradition of dystopian "what if" scenarios in which a terrible injustice is being perpetrated throughout society, but somehow most people don't see it. The audience will be left in absolutely no doubt, at the end of a single episode, that these androids, or "Mechanicals," are people who deserve human rights.
And Beautiful People manages to be a fun mashup of several other stories about artificial intelligence and society — we compared it to Caprica in our first write-up about it. But there are also echoes of Blade Runner, with a whole division of cops assigned to chase down "defective" Mechanicals who develop feelings. There's a healthy dose of Stepford Wives, as people feel free to use the beautiful, perfect-looking Mechanicals for their most obvious purpose.
The pilot begins with a long tease, in which you see a family eating breakfast, and you realize that something is weird about them but you don't know what. There's a long, slow build-up, in which we mostly follow the daughter of the family, Tina. She's an adorable little girl, who dreams about being a ballerina and picks up acorns, imagining them turning into beautiful trees.
So it's a huge shock when Tina's hit by a car, towards the end of the opening teaser. And an even bigger shock when everybody acts as though the biggest problem is that her head left a dent in the car's front bumper. What an inconvenience! "I'm worried about the car," says Tina's mom Susan afterwards. "She was pretty small. She couldn't
have caused much damage," says Tina's dad, David. Later, Susan goes to wash the blood and hair off the car's front bumper, and apologize to the driver for the accident.
This shocking event — a bright little girl being hit by a car, and everybody treating it as a minor inconvenience to the driver — resonates through the rest of the pilot, as we see how the Mechanicals are enslaved. They're constrained by Asimov's good old Three Laws of Robotics. They're destroyed if they show the slightest sign of emotion. They're even given a weird drug, called Compliance, to prevent them from having any nasty mood swings. They all have bar codes on the backs of their necks.
And yet, they're clearly people in every way that matters. They have family units, like Tina and her parents. They respond to things with real emotion. Their children have to go to school, so they can learn all the nuances of human society. (The high-end "Mechanicals" like Tina and her family have no metal parts — instead, they're more like cyborgs, with some silicon chips and plastic, but also organic parts grown from the DNA of John Does, and possibly federal prisoners as well.)
We won't give away any major spoilers about Beautiful People here — pretty much all the plot information we're mentioning was included in the first press reports about the show. But based on the pilot script, it's a fascinating dystopian thought exercise, and we'd love to see more.
Here's our rundown of the major characters of Beautiful People:
Lydia (Frances Conroy). Yes, she played the older version of Moira from American Horror Story, and countless other great roles. Here, she plays Lydia, a rich older woman whose dead husband founded the main company that makes the Mechanicals. She's surprisingly lenient towards David, her Mechanical servant. Image by Getty Images.
Gregory (James Murray). The actor from Primeval plays Lydia's son, an ultra-successful attorney who's become a crusader for Mechanicals to have civil rights. When we first meet Gregory, he's prosecuting some cops who destroyed an old Mechanical for pausing to look at some ducks in a lake — but his client is the Mechanical's owner, who thinks of his dead servant as a family heirloom that was destroyed carelessly.
David (Patrick Heusinger). Lydia's servant. He's the father of Tina, the little girl who gets hit by a car. And he starts to develop human emotions afterwards, especially grief but also rage. As you can imagine, this is not a healthy situation for a Mechanical in a world where the slightest sign of emotion is cause for immediate shutdown.
And here are the roles that don't appear to have been cast yet:
Susan: David's wife. After David begins to develop feelings, she has a hard time keeping from doing the same. Especially when she's washing the car that killed her daughter.
Kyle: David and Susan's other child, Tina's brother. A bright young Mechanical, who's capable of being heroic — maybe more than a Mechanical is supposed to.
Jerry: The current head of Universal, the company that makes the high-end Mechanicals. He's kind of a sleazy used-car-dealer type, who encourages his dealers not to ask any tough questions about the Mechanicals going defective, or anything like that.
Roberta: Jerry's wife — and the driver of the car that hits Tina.
Elizabeth: Jerry and Roberta's daughter, who forms a special bond with Kyle, the Mechanical boy.
Lynch: Leader of the police Mechanicals squad. Kind of a thug, who likes to bust android heads.
Monica: Another attorney at Gregory's firm, a sexy babe who thinks Gregory is wasting his time with all this android-rights stuff. She's ambitious and clearly wants Gregory's job.
Jack: Gregory's boss, and Monica's dad. He has a trophy wife, who's roughly Monica's age.
All in all, this could be a fascinating soap opera, set in a world like ours — but with one illuminating difference. Really great stuff. Let's hope NBC doesn't give this show the 17th Precinct treatment.