Deadshirt Is Watching…is a weekly feature in which Deadshirt staff, contributors, and guests sound off on the television shows we’re tuned into, from intense dramas to clever sitcoms to the most insane reality shows. This week: UnReal, and HUMANS!
Joe Stando is watching…
Episode 4, “Wife”
Lifetime, Mondays at 10pm ET
Over a long enough period of time, Lifetime was bound to have a genuinely good show, and at four episodes, I’m ready to name UnREAL—the dark comedy/drama about the backstage backstabbings on a Bachelor-style reality series—their first unqualified success. It’s clever, it’s comparatively well-acted, and there’s a surprising degree of verisimilitude to actual film shoots balanced with a ton of totally over-the-top character work.
The overall arc of the series is roughly the same as an actual dating contest: roughly every week, a couple women get voted off the show, while behind the scenes, the producers bicker and manipulate each other to keep the enterprise going. No one on this show is particularly likeable, and they mostly range from characters who lie to themselves that they’re only doing what they have to (like the protagonist, Rachel) to those who are pretty open about being selfish and rude (her boss, Quinn). There are honestly more soap opera-style subplots than I care to keep track of, as every character has fucked someone and is trying to either hide that or rub it in the face of some third character. But the few that rise to the top, like the manipulative, self-aware flirtation between Rachel and Adam (the show’s charming, British, sociopathic star) are pretty genuinely engaging, because you can see the wheels turning in the characters’ heads as they try to use affection to get ahead.
The other bit of the show that I really like is that it’s clearly run by people who are old hands at both television production and reality TV specifically, and they’re not afraid of giving away all the magicians’ secrets. From subplots about editing footage to make “villains” to technical problems like unusable audio and bad location scouting, it’s a show written about topics that the staff actually understands, which is refreshing amidst the sea of procedurals about “mystery plagues” and “hacking” and “special civilian assistants to the police.” This extra level of expertise is what helps elevate the rest of the material, and while the show is scripted, it feels very much like we imagine reality TV’s production to be like: frantic, spectacular, and actively destructive to everyone involved.
Episode Highlight: I could review this show every week and my highlight every week would be “Constance Zimmer has a bob haircut and is a total bitch to everyone.” Seriously, I’ve had a crush on her forever, and this kind of material that she can really sink her teeth into is a kindness to me. This is also the episode that taught me you can say the words “shithole” and “clit” on the Lifetime Television Network. Will wonders never cease? But as for the highlight of this specific episode, I’ll go with the gag when Adam’s romantic stroll with one of the contestants lasts about ten feet, because they run out of usable space at their terrible location. It’s a nice filmmaking gag that’s comparatively subtle in execution, which really exemplifies the show’s balance.
Dylan Roth is watching…
AMC, Sundays at 9pm ET
With the eight-episode miniseries HUMANS, AMC takes its first swing at science fiction (no, The Walking Dead doesn’t count), and the result is unexceptional, but promising. The premise is familiar to any fan of contemporary sci-fi: in an alternate present, lifelike synthetic androids are a commonplace slave caste in modern society, but how close to human can a machine get before it becomes alive? This thought experiment has been played out in fiction for the last century, but the closest analog is to the world of the recently completed comics series Alex + Ada by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna. The first chapter of HUMANS doesn’t introduce any new ideas to this specific sci-fi subgenre, but it does get good use out of the established tropes, and features some excellent performances.
HUMANS is an ensemble drama that’s already juggling a lot of plots, but this first episode most prominently features Laura Hawkins (The I.T. Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson), a workaholic mother whose husband purchases a Synth, Anita (Gemma Chan) to help out around the house. Everyone in her family reacts to Anita they way you’d expect—exhausted househusband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) is thrilled to have some help, jaded teen Mattie hates her for the bleak future her kind represents, creepy son Toby is hot for robo-nanny, and little Sophie sees Anita as her new best friend/life-size doll. As for Laura, she feels as if her place in the household (a place often left vacant during long business trips) is being usurped, and she’s suspicious that not all is as it seems with the android Anita.
Laura’s right to be suspicious—one of the other plots to HUMANS is the story of a runaway band of fully sentient Synths trying to stick together and avoid captivity, and until five weeks ago, Anita was one of them. Anita’s memories of her true nature have been erased…mostly. She’s already beginning to show signs of awakening into the person she used to be.
Other stories include that of aging scientist Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), whose relationship with obsolete Synth Odi (Will Tudor) parallels his own deteriorating memory; D.S. Peter Drummund, (Neil Maskell), a detective who handles cases involving Synths; and the rest of the runaway sentient machines, whose story will likely be the spine that connects the others.
So far, HUMANS is raising all of the right issues and asking all of the right questions. It’s a very believable depiction of how our society would be affected by the existence of humanoid machine servants. The miniseries seems to promise to address issues political, social, economical, and sexual. But, the question is, will it say anything new on the subject? Will this series have anything to offer that was lacking in Alex + Ada, Spielberg’s A.I., or any one of a thousand novels that tread on the same ground?
I feel that I also owe readers a TRIGGER WARNING, as there’s a subplot involving a sentient Synth, Niska (Emily Berrington), who’s been captured and resold into a brothel, where she must hide her true nature and pretend to be a servile fuckdoll until a rescue can be arranged. Where this story is headed and to what degree it will be framed in an exploitative manner remains to be seen.
Episode Highlight: William Hurt delivers a fantastic performance as the lonely Dr. George Millican, whose love for his terminally malfunctioning Synth companion feels completely genuine. There’s a point in the episode when a tearful George is moments from having to put poor Odi down for good (with a mallet), until Odi manages to recall a lost memory of George’s late wife. Odi receives a stay of execution, but may not escape a grisly fate for long.