Note: The following is a guest post written by Ronan’s brother, not-Ronan. He might post some more stuff here in the future.
Every few months I experience an almost irresistible urge to go and see what TV shows people are talking about on the internet. This is despite the fact that I rarely watch ‘live’ television and can count on one hand the number of shows I watched to completion in 2013. (If you’re curious: Hannibal, Orange is the New Black and Breaking Bad.) My relationship with TV is characterised mostly by a sense of distant curiosity.
It can also be a bit strange to ‘follow’ TV if you don’t live in America. Yes, there are obviously shows being produced outside of the USA, but those aren’t what people on the internet want to talk about unless it’s Doctor Who. American television eclipses the output of any other nation in the popular consciousness, so when I take a glance in the direction of ‘new TV shows’ every few months, it’s almost inevitable that I latch on to American shows.
Specifically, I tend to latch on to really bad American shows.
Almost Human tells the story of John Kennex, a hot-tempered police officer with a robotic leg. He lost his real leg in a shoot-out that killed his partner, a tragedy which he blames on the robotic ‘MX’ unit assigned to help them with a dangerous operation. See, the MX refused to help him evacuate his wounded partner because he had a statistically low chance of survival. As a creature of pure logic, the android had no choice but to assist other officers who weren’t yet operating on borrowed time. As a result, Kennex harbors a deep mistrust of all androids. That starts to change when he is introduced to Dorian, an android designed to have the same emotional capacity as a human. Dorian is ‘special’, according to Kennex’s commanding officer.
And no, Kennex is not played by Will Smith, although the similarities to that terrible I, Robot adaptation are so blatant that I’d almost believe they were intended as an homage.
Thankfully, Almost Human has got a bit more going on under the hood than I, Robot. It takes place in the gritty future of 2048, where techno-criminals rule the cities and there’s neon everywhere and an odd fusion of China and Japan is implied to have both culturally and economically taken over the world. Also there are robots. Sometimes they fight crime.
After some initial set-up with an admittedly intriguing last-minute twist (Kennex’s girlfriend was working for the gang that almost killed him), the show settles into familiar crime-of-the-week territory. Several of the first five episodes focus on hot-button topics in the world of speculative technology: we’ve got artificial organs and the illegal trade thereof, stem cells, sex bots, bio-terrorism, police drones and a general suffusion of American cultural anxiety. It makes for some interesting stories, although I can’t help but roll my eyes at how ripped-from-the-headlines a lot of it feels. (The drones in particular practically scream ‘WE ARE BEING RELEVANT’.)
As science-fiction, Almost Human is a mixed bag. There’s an impressive array of speculative technology on display, much of it handled with a greater degree of nuance than you’d expect from mainstream TV, but a lot of its SF credibility is blown on the strange way it handles its main conceit.
The androids who seem to make up 50% of the police force are treated alternately as high-tech tools, fully-fledged humans and unthinking automata, often by the same characters. In the very first episode Kennex shoves an MX unit out of his car and into traffic, essentially ‘killing’ it. His superiors react with only mild annoyance to the destruction of what is apparently a fully sentient artificial intelligence. The androids, it seems, are disposable…except that most of the main characters speak to Dorian, Kennex’s almost-human replacement partner (see what they did there?), as if he was every bit as human as Kennex himself. In fact, most of them seem to prefer Dorian’s company to Kennex’s, which isn’t surprising given what a gruff meathead Kennex is.
The show’s portrayal of its android characters rapidly begins to fall apart the more you think about it. Where exactly do the androids go at night? Do they have homes, or does Dorian just hang around the police station until it’s time to go out on patrol again? A robot repair man mentions his ‘shift being over’ at one point, so they clearly don’t just work 24 hours a day. Is it a crime to destroy an android? Apparently not, otherwise Kennex would have gone to prison for brutally murdering his first robotic partner. The show inevitably tries to ask deep questions about what it means to be human and all the rest of it, but it’s difficult to take its occasional naval-gazing too seriously when the premise feels so insubstantial.
So why did I watch five episodes of Almost Human, and why am I planning on watching a sixth as soon as I finish downloading it? I don’t know, to be honest. Probably for the same reason I watched the first two episodes of The Blacklist, a show which is deeply, catastrophically stupid in every conceivable way, and for the same reason I once marathoned the first two seasons of Damages before coming to my senses and realising that I didn’t actually like it all that much. TV – the kind of TV that the internet spends most of its time talking about – is incredibly watchable. That’s why it works.
Almost Human is a perfect example of a show that is easy to become lost in even if it does leave you with the lingering sense that you may be somehow worse off for indulging in it. Eventually I’ll get tired of it and stop with all of this TV stuff…until next time, anyway.