Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Almost Human," Year One

Minor spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far

After thirteen episodes, I feel like I'm still waiting for "Almost Human" to drop the other shoe. Despite setting up a lot of mythology and all these different little mysteries that point to longer arcs and more substantive stories, there hasn't been a whole lot of progression for any of the show's major ongoing conflicts since the pilot. Remember the traumatic shoot-out with the Syndicate and John Kennex's missing ex-girlfriend? They're referenced a few times, to assure us that the storyline is still alive and well, but the developments are only incremental. What about the mysterious memories that Rudy found in Dorian? No answers, but plenty of fretting over them. Any more information on Dorian's past or the circumstances of his decommissioning? Not really.

Instead, "Almost Human" quickly slipped into being yet another crime-of-the-week police procedural, except set in a future version of Pittsburgh. The special effects are still a notch above the norm, and it's fun to see the show play with concepts like a genetically-engineered class of humans called Chromes, souped-up security systems run amok, and upgraded plastic surgery. Sadly, the writing isn't anything special, and there's nothing that matches up to the promising first two episodes. Instead, it pings as awfully similar to the all the middling science-fiction shows that I was watching on FOX back in the '90s like "Sliders" and all the "The X-Files" clones. I was especially puzzled at how the show so rarely delves into the question posed by the show's title - what are the larger consequences of creating androids like Dorian, who are almost human, but not quite? The show touches on Dorian's day-to-day struggles with living as a synthetic being in a human world, but never very deeply. I don't think Kennex's status as a cyborg officer has been brought up since the third or fourth episode.

I still like the pairing of Michael Ealy and Karl Urban very much, and it's enough to keep most of the filler stories on track, but the show clearly isn't using these two to their full potential. The rest of the cast is in even worse shape. Mackenzie Crook's Rudy has gotten a lot of screen time and makes for decent comic relief, but Lili Taylor is stuck spouting tired exposition as their supervisor, Michael Irby's Detective Paul remains infuriatingly two-dimensional, and though Minka Kelly got one good episode as Detective Stahl, I still can't take her seriously as a police officer, especially as the show insists on dressing and coiffing her like a network morning show hostess and she's frequently more plasticine than the show's android characters. Compare how another network genre show, "Person of Interest" has steadily developed its cast of minor characters, and the problem becomes obvious.

What I liked so much about the early episodes of "Almost Human" was the worldbuilding, that nice mix of retro-futuristic elements with more contemporary technological advancements. However, this has gotten increasingly generic over time. Hackers apparently still take their fashion cues from the outdated 90s alternative scene last seen in "Hackers" the movie. The plots to "Repo Men" and "Untraceable" have already been rehashed, along with the usual runamok androids, misappropriated high-tech weaponry, and medical advances gone wrong that inevitably show up on every similar science-fiction show. The problem is that "Almost Human" hasn't provided much to distinguish itself. It still feels like the show is referencing other science-fiction media instead of making a cohesive whole out of all the different bits of technology it's introduced.

Detective Kennex and Dorian could be really compelling characters if they were handled right, and the show is in a position where it could tackle much headier and more interesting material, but the desire to do so clearly isn't there. I keep finding myself comparing "Almost Human" to the first season of the "Ghost in the Shell" series, which was also a procedural about law enforcement operating in a technologically advanced near-future filled with cyborgs and androids. The difference is that despite being animated, "Ghost in the Shell" wasn't afraid of complex ideas and difficult characters. It had no interest in trotting out the old tropes and pandering to their audience, even if it meant alienating the more mainstream viewers. "Almost Human" is often painfully safe and formulaic.

Oh well. Maybe I expected too much. "Almost Human" is still a perfectly watchable genre show and continues to display a lot of potential to be better than it is. However, I'm not going to be too disappointed if this turns out to be its only season. It produced a few good episodes and created some interesting characters. It's just too bad that it never took advantage of everything it had going for it, and produced anything really great.

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