Separate Unequal, and ‘Almost Human’

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.

RATING 2 / 10