​Almost Human goes back to the 1980s futureS

Do you like Robocop? Blade Runner? Demolition Man? Alien Nation? Total Recall? And countless other police drama-esque science fiction movies from the '80s? Then you'll love Almost Human, which is an unapologetic pastiche of the genre, updated to reflect 21st century post-human politics and fears of pharmaceutical terrorism.

Whether you like Almost Human or not will depend almost entirely on your reaction to the above paragraph. Are you completely disinterested? Does this show sound terrible? Or does a completely straight-faced recreation of these types of cheesy but somehow earnest scifi cop stories fill you with nostalgia and put a small smile on your face just thinking about it? If it's the latter, you will find Almost Human to be completely predictable but a lot of fun. (And if you don't, you will hate it.)

In 2046, crime has gotten so terrible that all cops are assigned robot partners called MXs to help them (they're basically like Robocop ,but without the skills). Karl Urban plays John Spartan Kennex, a gruff, tough cop who wanders into an ambush by the evil Insyndicate — you know they're extra evil because of they use a prefix in front of "syndicate" — where one of the androids fails to help save a human cop because he's too badly wounded, and Karl Urban gets his leg blown off trying to help the other dude to safety.

Cut to 2048: Kennex is trying to get his memory of the ambush back after being in a coma for 17 months, courtesy of the Total Recall machine (located in the slums of Blade Runner, for good measure). Kennex is running the full gamut of '80s cop problems: He's surly, he's popping pills, he hates his partner (because he hates robots), he has a robot leg that he also hates, he's spotted by one of the robot cops he hates in the slums which raises the robot's suspicions, his girlfriend prior to the ambush has mysteriously disappeared, he's too traumatized to go back to work — the latter of which is dealt with when his captain tells him there's something going down with the Insyndicate, and he probably wants to go check it out.

Kennex returns to active duty and gets partnered with one of the androids, who knows from the general android cop database that Kennex was in the slums the other night; when Kennex tells him he was there for noodles — there is an outdoor noodle shop there, just in case it wasn't Blade Runner-y enough for you — the android also knows there weren't any noodle particles on his breath the other night, and announces he's going to report him until Kennex tosses him out of the car in front of a semi.

So Kennex needs a new robot partner, and he gets assigned a DRN, a.k.a. Dorian — one of the extra-human androids programmed with emotions and a personality and the ability to infer things and looks almost entirely human. Kennex hates this one just as much as the others, and is determined to be a dick to it by calling Dorian a "synthetic," which he hates. Dorian, on the other hand, just tries to play with the hand he's dealt, as this is first chance at "life" after being decommissioned for four years (the DRNs had a habit of going crazy because of their high levels of emotion, apparently).

And then the case actually kicks in, which is not particularly exciting despite including a captured cop, an elaborate trap, some kind of chemical that attacks the DNA injected into future cops to protect them from other chemical attacks, Kennex beating up a prisoner to get information, the prisoner having secretly let himself get caught to hide a mini-EMP in the police station, and so on. Eventually, Kennex heads back to the Total Recall machine and remembers that the last thing he saw at the ambush that cost him his leg was his girlfriend Anna as a member of the Insyndicate. And somehow this all means that the Insyndicate wants something in the police department's evidence room, and stagse a full-blown assault to get it (the EMP takes out all the MX droids — it doesn't affect Dorian because he runs on a different frequency). A huge shoot-out ensues, and of course Kennex and Dorian save the day after killing many, many people.

Really, the whole point is watching Kennex and Dorian together. Kennex hates Dorian for no other reason than his robo-prejudice, which Dorian slowly erodes with his winning personality, his refusal to rat on Kennex for beating the shit out of the Insyndicate prisoner, his ability as a mobile crime lab, and the fact he saves Kennex from dying in the Total Recall machine. (He also calls out Kennex for blaming the MX for his fellow cop dying, when Kennex is the one who led them all into the ambush in the first place.) While the plot of the episode is nothing special, it's still a pleasure to watch Karl Urban go through the steps of begrudgingly approving of and liking his new partner, even if we've seen it a hundred times before.

But Almost Human's real pleasure comes from Michael Ealy, who plays Dorian as the most affable, coolest robot you've ever met. I mean, it's obvious that the uber-human robot would act more human than the gruff, emotionally closed-off cop, but Ealy does it with such ease and charm that he singlehandedly makes the show.

The other good thing about Almost Human: The effects are gorgeous. The L.A. of the future looks amazing, the robot effects are both stunning and subtle, and even the practical sets look like a wonderful cross between the '80s idea of what the future would look like and an Apple Store. Indeed, the whole thing looks like a reasonably well-budgeted movie — and so I have to wonder if Almost Human will even come close to maintaining this level of SFX in future episodes.

If it doesn't, I worry about Almost Human, because I don't know that the show can coast on Michael Ealy's charms alone. Actually, even if it does keep this level of SFX, eventually the show is going to need to bring something else to the table other than this pastiche of '80s scifi movie references and well-trod cop drama plots if it wants to survive past season one. Hopefully tonight's episode — part two of the two-night "premiere" — will give us a better idea of whether Almost Human has anything more to offer.

​Almost Human goes back to the 1980s futureS

Assorted Musings:

  • Actually, it looks like tonight's episode is heading straight to the sexbots trope, so I have my doubts this will be the bastion of originality I'm hoping for.
  • I wouldn't call Mika Kelly one of the greatest actresses of her generation or anything, but man, Minka Kelly had nothing to do in this episode. Actually, none of the other characters did besides Mackenzie Crook's science guy Rudy (who you might recognize as Pirates of the Caribbean's Ragetti or Orell on Game of Thrones).
  • I'm no scientist, but I have my doubts that putting olive oil in your presumably expensive cyberleg is at all a good idea.