Almost Human is almost great -- and has plenty of room to grow
It's hard to imagine there's room, much less a genuine need, for another cop show on television. You've got whole families of your CSIs, your NCISs, hell, there's even a Law and Order or two still chugging along, isn't there? Throw in the single-show franchises -- Castle, Hawaii Five-O, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds and a few dozen more -- and how can you even begin to care about yet another cop show?
Oh wait, this one has robots? Well, by all means then, proceed...
This Sunday, Fox debuted its latest cop show and its latest science fiction show and damned if they weren't one and the same. Going under the name Almost Human, the show is set 35 years in the future, in a world where the pace of technology is outstripping society's ability to regulate it. In this world, cops are all assigned an android partner with perfect recall and a willingness to get shot so flesh and blood folk don't have to -- pretty handy traits in a cop, for sure. With all the violent lunatics wielding unknown technology running around, they're still a little under-equipped to deal with everything, but it's a start.
The show's protagonist, John Kennex (played by Karl Urban), is a renegade who plays by his own rules, just one of many cop-show cliches the show incorporates. His partner is Dorian (Michael Ely), an older style of android programmed to have feelings, as opposed to his newer robo-brethren, who are ruled by logic and data alone. That's an interesting subversion of the typical science fiction trope on several levels -- both in the fact that the newer bots are less human, and in the fact that they didn't go with the tried-and-true and damn tired "robot wants to be a real boy" approach. Thus far, this robot is plenty real enough, and seems perfectly comfortable with his status.
In an unusual move, Fox delivered the first two episodes back to back, starting with the pilot Sunday night and following with the second episode on Monday. (Fox also promoted the shit out of it, suggesting the network might actually stick with the show a while.) The pilot did a remarkable job of setting up the world and Kennex's backstory without ever feeling clunky before delivering a solid story that sets up the larger, over-arching story that will presumably serve as the series's mythological core. The second episode delivered a stand-alone story completely unconnected to that larger story, suggesting that most episodes will stand alone. That could be good or bad, depending on your television preferences, but in this case it's probably a positive, allowing the series to find its footing without immediately getting bogged down in demanding and intricate multi-episode plotting for which it may not be entirely suited.
Not that the show needs a lot of help finding that footing. It's remarkably well-constructed and executed already, with strong performances from both leads and the supporting cast and reasonable storylines (the first covers a mysterious criminal organization clearly set up to be the series's big bad; the second concerns sexbots, and you can never go wrong with sexbots). The pacing is as strong as any show in recent memory and the supporting cast is full of intriguing characters played by strong character actors. Throw in an incredible visual aesthetic that borrows liberally and unapologetically from Blade Runner, RoboCop and Minority Report and a high degree of intelligence for a cop show, and you have the beginnings of something special.
Sure, it's not all there yet. There are a few awkward moments in the first two episodes that might take a few more episodes to wring out, mostly coming from Urban as Kennex. There's also an unfortunately high reliance on sci-fi MacGuffins to keep the stories moving along, but hey, it's a robot cop show, and it's not like even the best of science fiction television was ever above relying on technobabble to resolve a plot point (looking at you, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Then there are those cop-show cliches -- the star is a go-it-alone renegade who gets the job done no matter what, he has an asshole nemesis at the precinct who's out to get him, the cases get wrapped up in exactly the alloted run-time, etc. Of course, it also subverts nearly as many cliches -- no hard-nosed captain trying to keep this renegade in line; instead we get a sensitive and soft-spoken captain who trusts him above everyone else, and is a woman to boot. In other words, the complaints to be found are minor, especially in light of how much the show gets right.
And damn, does it get a lot right. The relationship between the leads is based on real chemistry, and both actors are playing the roles as real people (okay, one real person, one real robot person) with conflicting values, drives and desires. It's funny when it wants to be and it's smart enough to go to the obvious places (sexbots!) in less than obvious ways. The first two episodes fall just short of greatness, but the groundwork is laid for what could easily shape up to be the next great science fiction TV show. And the next great cop show. Imagine that.
Almost Human airs Monday nights at 7 p.m. on Fox. For more info, and to watch episodes you missed, visit the Almost Human site.