Humans Is the Best Robot Show on TV

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Gemma Chan as a synth who is only human on AMC’s Humans. Photo: Colin Hutton/Kudos/CH4/AMC

Forget Westworld. Humans is the most compelling, emotionally resonant robot-centric show on television.

Is it unfair to compare the two just because they happen to deal with the ramifications of artificial intelligence? Maybe. Westworld has only completed one season, whereas Humans, which returns to AMC tonight at 10, has delivered a second season that demonstrates a full, imaginative expansion of its narrative. Tonally and visually, they also reside in different realms, with Westworld the slicker and more nakedly ambitious one and Humans the understated, less flashy model. Like practically every current AMC drama, with the exception of The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul, Humans has maintained a profile so modest that even its fans may not realize the follow-up to its first eight episodes, which aired back in the summer of 2015, airs tonight.

What ultimately gives Humans an immediacy that Westworld lacks, though, is its storytelling structure. Westworld focuses on potentially sentient androids, called “hosts,” who live in a cowboy-themed amusement park accessed principally by wealthy human beings who can afford to visit. But on Humans potentially sentient androids — called synths, or synthetics — are everywhere in regular society: living with families, working in factories, offering couples therapy, riding subways, and acting as companions to people seeking to fill the gaps left by lost loved ones. The world this series depicts doesn’t look so different from the world many of us currently inhabit, except that in the version on our screens, robots with glowing emerald eyes happen to be walk among us. If — really, maybe when — A.I.s become a reality, Humans offers a more realistic sneak preview of what life might actually look and feel like. Or, to put it another way: Westworld is the TV show equivalent of a super-cool robot, while Humans is a more recognizable, sometimes emotional being.

In its second season — which picks up a few months after the events of season one, with a portion of the synth population potentially on the verge of reaching consciousness — the tension and pacing on Humans are heightened considerably. Once again, the Hawkins family, who in season one acquired and befriended a synth (Gemma Chan) with another, more fully awakened identity embedded in her code, sits at the center of things.

Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), whose marriage hit some bumps in season one, not least because Joe decided to have sex with Chan’s Mia, have moved into a new home and are attempting to regain a sense of normalcy for themselves and their three children. But every member of the household is still fixated in some way on the manufactured beings in their midst. That includes Laura, an attorney working on a case in which she advocates that synth rights are human rights, and eldest daughter, Mattie (Lucy Carless), who is still assisting the small faction of sentient synths committed to liberating their brethren. Then there’s the youngest, Sophie (Pixie Davies), who has developed Juvenile Synthetic Overidentification Disorder, an increasingly common affliction that causes children to behave like synths. Sophie’s desire to become a bot is so strong that she even Magic Markers two bright blue circles on her bedroom mirror, then lines up her pupils just so, reflecting back a little girl whose eyes glow just like one of them. It’s a moment that is visually striking, poignant, and chilling all at once.

The second season of Humans is peppered with scenes like that, as well as several ancillary story lines, including one that centers around a grieving scientist played by Carrie-Anne Moss, that demonstrate how synth technology may be pushed further forward in potentially problematic ways. As was the case in season one, the actors deliver uniformly and admirably controlled performances. In particular, Chan and Ruth Bradley, who plays Karen, a police detective who also happens to be an undercover synth, are exceptionally deft at hopscotching between the human and the cyborg, transitioning believably from deadpan, mechanized responses to expressions of genuine warmth and raw shock. There are moments when disbelief is asked to be suspended a bit too severely — at one point, a synth shows up in the Hawkinses’ kitchen, but it’s unclear how she got in their house or how she would have even known their new address. But those nagging issues, while noticeable, aren’t distracting enough to detract from the stronger sense of momentum and the broader sense of scope.

Westworld isn’t the only show Humans calls to mind, with its mix of sci-fi, interpersonal drama, and discussions of ethical responsibility. There are moments, especially with the plotline that involves Moss and her relationship with a sophisticated operating system, that are reminiscent of the film Her, too. Those aforementioned qualities and the show’s distinctly British vibe (while based on a Swedish series, Humans was co-created for the U.K.’s Channel Four by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley) also feel of a kind with the high-tech anthology series Black Mirror. It’s become all too common these days to hear people say they feel like they’re living in a Black Mirror episode, either because bee-pollinating drones are apparently becoming an actual thing (for more: see Black Mirror season three) or because of the insanity of our current political climate (for more: see Black Mirror episodes from seasons one and two, as well as the headlines on the New York Times homepage at any given moment).

Humans also feels like a reflection of these times, from its snapshots of demonstrations (the ones on the show are spearheaded by protesters against synth labor) to the public discomfort with treating the synths like regular members of society. If you swap out synth with undocumented immigrants or refugees, Humans would be a different show. But not that different.

Later in the season, when Joe expresses interest in relocating to a synth-free town, Laura asks, “What for, to live in some phony, backward-looking bubble where everyone can pretend the future isn’t happening?” Again, she’s talking about the England that exists within the context of this vividly drawn series. But it’s impossible to hear her question and not think about the Brexiting United Kingdom or Trump’s America at this moment. That subtext is right there, embedded in Humans’ rich, intricate code.

Humans Is the Best Robot Show on TV