Separate Unequal, and 'Almost Human'

Lesley Smith

Where Almost Human differs from many of its predecessors and peers is the way it seems to revel in unreflexive prejudice.

Almost Human

Airtime: Sunday, 8pm ET
Cast: Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Lili Taylor, MacKenzie Crook, Minka Kelly, Richard Paul
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Fox
Director: Brad Anderson
Air date: 2013-11-17

The shade of Ridley Scott’s iconic Blade Runner hovers over Almost Human from its opening voice-over to its closing credits. Fox’s new show copies both the source-story writer Philip K. Dick's future society dependent on an android slave class to execute humans' dirty work and the movie’s evocative mise-en-scene of grungy noodle bars, rainy streets, and shadowy Asian savants. But where Scott and Dick raised questions about human nature, as it were, Almost Human is interested only in finding a minor twist to distinguish it from all the other mismatched partner cops shows that dance indistinguishably down the prime time schedules.

Here’s the pattern. There’s the traumatized white man, Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban), addicted to his job as the only structure that gives his life meaning, partnered unwillingly (of course) with a member of a subordinate class (it could be a woman, but in this case it’s a discontinued android, Dorian [Michael Ealy]), whose patience, empathy, and saintly capacity to ignore abrasive prejudice coax into life the flickering embers of selfhood in the protagonist. They work for a feisty woman boss (Lili Taylor), who is trapped in the aggressive Mom role, dispensing tough love to her wayward team, and they depend, for all things technical, on a geeky oddball lurking in a high-tech basement. While recent shows have used the geek role as a slot for the unsylph female, Almost Human stays true to its “almost all men” focus by casting Mackenzie Crook in alt-hacker drag as its magus of technosphere.

Only subtle writing and taut plotting could rescue such an amalgam of clichéd parts. But not a wrinkle of tension mars the anodyne surface of the stock conspiracy-theory non-plot of the premiere episode. Kennex’s old enemies appear, they are temporarily vanquished and they will undoubtedly keep reappearing ad nauseam until the viewers’ patience snaps and ratings plunge to the untenable.

The real star of the show is director Brad Anderson, whose beautifully shot and edited action sequences pace up the limp dialogue and adolescent existential angst. But he's up against it with Almost Human's tedious formula, which is, to be fair, symptomatic of a general collapse of creativity across primetime drama. The 11 November episode of The Blacklist, for example, trundles through the same skeletal plot as Almost Human’s premiere: a shadowy criminal group executes one crime to distract attention from another, more deadly attack. The bad guys even turn up in the same dark clothes and flat Halloween masks as the NBC series.

Where Almost Human differs from many of its predecessors and peers, though, is the way it seems to revel in unreflexive prejudice. The show’s creator and pilot author, J. H. Wyman, the talented writer and show runner for the much more unconventional and challenging Fringe, seems to think it’s okay for Kennex to throw racial epithets at Dorian, the only African American character, as long as the stereotyping slang “synthetic” relates to whether one was conceived in a human body or in a lab, rather than to the color of one’s skin.

The series opener -- which airs 17 November, before the series takes up its regular slot on Monday nights -- also makes the discomfiting parallel between Kennex and Dorian as the eponymous "almost humans." Really? Kennex is equipped with a high-tech artificial leg, while Dorian is vulnerable, at any moment, to being “shut off” by his masters, or to meeting the fate of Kennex’s previous android partner. That is, Kennex pushed him out of a fast-moving car on the freeway with no more thought than if he were swatting a fly. The suggestion of a shared identity between Kennex and Dorian is akin to claiming a shared identity for the privileged man and the homeless drifter whose pain he feels. It’s a nice thought, but only serves to perpetuate inequality by short-circuiting critical scrutiny.

Fox has a long history of nurturing entertaining near-future sci-fi with a provocative tilt, but the launch of Almost Human suggests its drama is falling into the same nadir as much of its reality programming and news coverage. If the premise intrigues you, watch or rewatch Blade Runner instead, and offer Almost Human the all-too-human body swerve.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.