Ah, Fall. The time of year when the pumpkins are ripe, the leaves fall and major networks trot out a fresh crop of TV shows. While I’d say there’ve been some disappointments (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and outright garbage (Dads) in the mix, the most pleasant surprise so far has been Fox’s decision to gamble on a handful of oddball genre shows in the form of Almost Human, Brooklyn-Nine Nine and Sleepy Hollow. Could this be the first of a new wave of shows to compete with the kind of unique programming usually reserved for Netflix or, to a lesser extent, AMC? Since all three of these shows are high-concept cop shows, we figured the best way to discuss them would be if Max Robinson teamed up with a different Deadshirt writer on each show in a three-part article we’re calling Partner Up.
Max: First up, Deadshirt Head honcho Dylan Roth and I talk about Almost Human, a show about Karl Urban teaming up with a robot partner to fight crime in a future time. I think this show was tailor-made for Dylan and I?
Dylan: Almost Human is a sci fi drama set in a near future where new technology runs rampant and every police officer is partnered with an android wingman. But one grumpy cop, John Kennix (Star Trek’s Karl Urban) won’t put up with a by-the-book mechanical babysitter, so he’s given an advanced decommissioned model, the shockingly lifelike Dorian (Michael Ealy.) He’s got a sense of humor, a sympathetic ear, and of course a host of handy tech superpowers. So far the most obvious strength of the show is how it subverts your expectations of “robot buddy cop show” by making Dorian by far the warmer, more relatable of the two leads, while Kennix is humorless and awkward.
Max: It’s crazy that we haven’t gotten this exact premise on television already, right? Hell, Friends did a gag about this a decade ago with Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E..
Dylan: Why couldn’t we have seen that Friends spin-off? Anything’s better than Joey.
Max: History’s greatest mystery. Having watched the first two episodes of Almost Human, I’d say there’s a lot to like here. This is the kind of show needs three big things: a BUDGET, cool sci-fi angles and solid leads. And they have all that!
Dylan: Almost Human has the most seamless visual effects integration I’ve ever seen on television. There are a lot of little touches, like the way Dorian’s circuits pulse blue under his skin from time to time, or the mix of modern and futuristic vehicles speeding down the highways of the as-yet-unnamed city setting.
Max: Yeah! I love the detail with the blue/red lights on the androids. It’s something they didn’t need to do but it adds some legitimacy to the whole thing. The pilot especially is super-heavy on effects but it doesn’t look cheap and really sells you on the idea that this is a world where technology has developed too quickly. I especially liked the bit where Kennix walks through the holographic crime scene tape. This is a world where it’s cheaper/easier to make a hologram of tape than actual tape.
Dylan: The show has already demonstrated its’ creators ability to blow your mind with some really cool sci fi ideas that can be pulled off cheaply, as well. In the opening minutes of the second episode, we get a look at two really simple, really clever ideas that are conveyed completely visually – a spray-on mist that hides your face from cameras and a “DNA bomb” that wrecks a crime scene by spreading garbage evidence everywhere – and the writers thankfully don’t feel the need to explain the ideas any further in dialog.
Max: While the first two episodes of the show aren’t perfect (more on that a little later), Almost Human does something that’s one of the hallmarks of good sci-fi; it takes you out of your comfort zone. Specifically, how they characterize crime here. The pilot does a nice job of showing how totally outmatched the police are by these high-tech crime syndicates. And the problems Kennix and Dorian face – a virus engineered to specifically kill cops, a black market operation that abducts women for their skin – are inherently creepy because they’re not exactly implausible.
Dylan: Already, as of the second episode, they’re also laying the groundwork to ask important questions about the nature of artificial intelligence. Dorian is clearly a thinking, feeling sentient being, but so far all of the other machines we’ve met are purpose-specific. The other robotic cops are just cops and nothing else, and the sexbots (God, did they have to call them “sexbots?” I feel like an idiot talking about them.) clearly only think about pleasing the people around them and are barely aware of themselves. But Dorian is clearly put off by the idea that they’re disposable people, and sees the potential of personhood in all of them.
Max: The robo-stitutes sure reminded me that I was watching a Fox show. As skeevy as that felt, I do give them credit for getting mileage out of the concept. The end of that episode, where Dorian’s comforting the fembot as she’s being more or less put down, is a little ham-handed but there’s a real sense of tragedy there. The androids in general have personality and I think that’s pretty crucial to Almost Human’s success. Even the other, nondescript cop-bots betray subtle emotions like pettiness.
Dylan: Obviously they’re just getting started with developing the characters and the world they inhabit, but I really hope they don’t take too long in showing us what life is like for a sentient android in a future where machines are property. Does Dorian technically belong to the police department? That’s certainly problematic, and could lead to some great Star Trek-style dilemmas. Also, what does he do with his time when Kennix isn’t around? Does he just shut off, or does he have a whole other life of his own?
Max: The last thing I’ll say is I really enjoy the dynamic between Kennix and Dorian. Having Urban, the human part of the duo, be dour and emotionally withdrawn is a nice tweak on the standard formula. I’m also pleased they, at least so far, held off from making Dorian another tiresome Data-like character. He has questions about The Human Experience but also clearly relates to and understands people better than most. Overall, I think Almost Human is off to a fine start.
NEXT: Sam Paxton and Max discuss what might be the funniest new show on television, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.