Often with small-screen sci-fi, it's tough to match impressive imagined technologies with a rooted, emotional narrative. It can be easy for writers who create a wildly creative world to get distracted by flying cars and lasers while skimping on the true meat of the story. But perhaps more than any other genre, sci-fi needs real, flesh-and-blood characters to help us immerse ourselves into an imagined future. Unfortunately, FOX's newest dramatic offering Almost Human misses that mark. That's not to say the show doesn't have dazzling moments or hold promise — but in the show's premiere episode, there's not much to keep us emotionally invested in the shiny, whirring world we've been thrown into.
Almost Human is set in Los Angeles in 2048, when the city has become a bleak dystopia beset by a 400 percent increase in crime. Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban, a sci-fi vet from Star Trek and Dredd) has awoken from a 17-month coma after losing his leg and nearly dying in an ambush by an ever-looming criminal organization known as The Syndicate. We quickly learn that Kennex is no fan of the "advanced, combat-model android" that each officer has been forced to partner with in hopes of keeping up with the drastically spiraling crime rate. In fact, he thinks the human-like MX-43 model is the reason he nearly died during the attack — and he makes it very clear that he's not interested in being paired with another one when he reenters the field.
Unfortunately for Kennex, rules are rules, and he's given an MX-43 to hit the road with as he returns to his beat. It's just a few hours before he decides to toss his new partner out of a moving car, which relegates him to a pile of crushed metal underneath tires. When he manages to cover up what happened to his first partner, Kennex is given a second android. This time, higher-ups opt to give him a dicier model known as the DRN, or Dorien (Michael Ealy), that was discontinued due to unforeseen problems with the "synthetic soul" it was programmed with. You see, like real humans, Dorien is somewhat emotionally unpredictable — which makes him a nice pairing with the disgruntled and edgy Kennex.
Karl Urban as John Kennex (Liane Hentscher/FOX)
On top of his anti-android views, throw in the fact that Kennex is trying to discover why his girlfriend went missing after the ambush, and you have a time-honored character type: The furrowed-brow detective who everyone pegs as a wild card who can't be trusted in the field. Almost Human's supporting cast of characters — which includes Minka Kelly as another detective and a department tech whiz played by Mackenzie Crook — neither shine nor fall flat, serving as recognizable avatars to fill out this neon-lit (and mysteriously rainy) vision of the future.
Almost Human is a lot to digest in a single episode, and it's often hard to keep up with — which isn't helped by the show's insistence on slapping impenetrable combinations of letters and numbers on everything. Films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, I, Robot, and Looper have all showcased similar worlds, where humans are dwarfed by technology. Nature has essentially vanished and has been replaced by sleek, floating touch-screens and blinking lights. Nearly everyone in these worlds is humorless and deadened in most ways, having been reduced to bare survival in a world gone essentially mad.
That projection says a great deal about our collective assumption of the future — and done well, it's what makes futuristic narratives so gripping. Seeing an art department imagine a plausible future is always fun, but the real treat is seeing how humans exist in these spaces. Our hesitation about technology creeping further and further into our fleshy selves — blurring the line between the unpredictability of the human psyche and the rigidity of programming —is what thrills and terrifies us.
None of those themes are explored with any kind of depth in the Almost Human pilot, though all the pieces are there to explore it in future episodes. Kennex and Dorien make for a mismatch that follows in the grand tradition of buddy cop pairings. But by the end of the episode, Dorien's ability to at least create the facade of human emotion finally begins wearing down Kennex's tough veneer. By the episode's end, the two have created a tentative bond as they've chased after The Syndicate, survived a shootout, and learned a troubling fact about Kennex's girlfriend.
In future episodes, we'll no doubt see this mystery explored in more detail. Kennex has clearly been carved out as the grizzled hero of the series; he doesn't fit in the sleek, emotionally void world in which he's been reawakened (though it's a safe bet he'll end up learning a thing or two from the android he's been paired with). If all of that sounds a bit tired — well, that's because it is. The setting may be unconventional, but detective tropes are as tried and true as romantic comedy pairings, and it takes a lot to differentiate these kinds of relationships from what has come before. After one episode, we already know that the mismatch will evolve into a united front that has the duo battling against a world they're not suited for, leading to criminal justice and, perhaps, love (hello, Minka Kelly). Pairing the skeptical misfit detective with an unruly android is a twist, but as of the pilot, it's not enough of a twist to make Almost Human must-see TV — and it'll take a lot more than eye-catching effects to rejuvenate this well-worn world.