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tv review

Seitz: Almost Human Steals From the Best

In the new Fox network drama Almost Human, 2048 is dark and dirty. There are astonishingly violent criminals in it, and cops on the edge, and robots. Some cars have wheels, others fly; one of them looks like a hovering black doughnut. It rains all the time. Computers project iPad-like windows into the air, like in Minority Report (which influenced the iPhone, among other real-life technologies). All beat cops are required to have robot partners.

You’ve seen all of this before — and I do mean all of it, from the design elements to the character beats. Apparently there are only two types of science-fictional futures: Star Trek and Alien. This series (premiering in two parts this Sunday and Monday at eight before settling into its Monday time slot) from J.J. Abrams and J.H. Wyman (Fringe) takes place in more of an Alien future — more specifically, an Alien Nation future. Fans of the latter — which began as a 1988 film and turned into a TV show on Fox, of all places — will marvel (or snicker) at all the similarities, starting with the pairing-off of the aforementioned scowling detective, John Kennex (Karl Urban, looking and sounding eerily like Brad Pitt) and his sweet-tempered sidekick Dorian (Michael Ealy).

So we’ve got two standard-issue buddy cops here, both with issues. Dorian was decommissioned after repairing tiles on a space station. He’s an older, unfashionable model of droid; he wouldn’t be sharing a squad car with Kennex if Kennex hadn’t summarily tossed his previous robot partner out of a moving vehicle for the crime of asking too many questions about his drug habit. Kennex has good reason to be on drugs: Two years earlier, he led a team of fellow cops on a botched raid against a fearsome criminal syndicate. The action killed everyone on the squad and cost him a leg that was subsequently replaced by robotics.

Kennex and Dorian’s bickering vibe is so very Alien Nation, there should be an “inspired by” credit in the opening titles. As on Alien Nation, there’s an aspect of racial or ethnic parable in this show’s premise, and it’s emphasized through multiracial casting: Kennex is an emotionally constipated White Man of Action, à la young Charlton Heston or Clint Eastwood. He’s surrounded by people of color, or people of circuitry; some are people of color made of circuitry (Ealy is African-American; other robot cops are portrayed by Asians; Kennex’s commanding officer, played by Lili Taylor, is Hispanic). Kennex's tragedy seems partly owed to poor robot intelligence. He often indulges in what sounds like coded racism, or speciesism — or is it materialism? I’m not sure what word to use when referring to robots — when he hatefully refers to Dorian as a “synthetic” and orders him to “power down” (code for “shut up”). Kennex's earlier dispatch of his previous robot partner is shockingly funny at first, but disgusting if you think about it for more than a few seconds. There's a whiff of the Middle Passage about it — the way he just gets tired of his passenger's questions and chucks him overboard. The robots, Dorian specifically, are second-class citizens in what amounts to a slave-based economy. Do they know and recognize their “place”? Are they happy with it? These are the questions that good sci-fi might ask. To its credit, Almost Human asks them, and it does so obliquely, without self-congratulation.

The show’s title could apply to either cop, really. In this dingy futureworld, flesh seems to be morphing into machinery and vice versa. And the leg: Sometimes a synthetic limb is just a synthetic limb, but not this time, not at all. Only the robots seem at peace, but some of them are a bit sketchy. They seem nice, if a bit cold, but there’s something unnerving in their eyes — or maybe it’s just the sheen of whatever the manufacturers use to make the robots’ eyeballs. All the humans seem perched on the edge of misery if they haven’t yet tipped over, and there are intimations of conspiracy, or perhaps a world beyond the rational; Kennex is afflicted by visions. They might be trauma-induced or they might be doorways to a more evolved consciousness, and this seems like the sort of show that might not insist on either/or. 

Again, you’ve seen every bit of this elsewhere. It’s Dystopia 101 with a minor in Ridley Scott Studies. But if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best, and do it with feeling, as Almost Human does. The show is derivative but passionate, verging on corny. It means what it’s telling us and showing us, and there’s a sense of curiosity and commitment in every frame. If I seem lukewarm on it, it’s only because it’s barely started and I don't want to over- or undersell it. Like alleged technological miracles, opinions on new TV shows are subject to upgrade — or recall.