Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Humans" Year One

Androids are popular again, as technology advancements over the past few years have brought the specter of machine takeover of society back into the popular consciousness.  The new UK Channel 4 series "Humans" is very much a product of the times, touching on fears of human obsolescence, our responsibilities toward AI, and the dark side of consumer culture.  The cast is good, the concepts are solid, and the story is pretty compelling.  However, "Humans" is meant for a broader general audience, and it never gets as dark or as innovative as I was hoping that it would.  I'd put it roughly on par with "Orphan Black," another good genre series that incorporates a lot of science-fiction ideas, but isn't interested in digging too deep.

Set in a time not too far in the future, where android servants called "Synths" are commonplace, the story revolves around several different sets of characters who slowly intersect as time goes on.  First there's the Hawkins family: father Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), mother Laura (Katherine Parkinson), teenage daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless), teenage son Toby (Theo Stevenson), and little Sophie (Pixie Davies), who clash over the arrival of a Synth named Anita (Gemma Chan) into their household.  Then there's Leo (Colin Morgan), who along with several "conscious" Synths is being hunted down by the authorities, led by Professor Hobb (Danny Webb).  D.S. Pete Drummond (Neil Maskell) quickly becomes involved, after one of these Synths, Niska (Emily Berrington), becomes violent toward humans.  Finally there's Dr. Millican (William Hurt), who is trying to save his older model Synth, Odi (WillTudor), from the scrap heap.

It's not a particularly complicated universe that these characters inhabit, but I appreciate that the worldbuilding is done carefully, with a lot of thought.  There are a lot of neat little details and references related to the operations of the Synths that add some texture without calling too much attention to themselves.  Reactions to the Synths are varied, and they complicate human relationships and interactions.  I'm glad that so much of the series revolves around Anita and the Hawkins family, though the material with the kids is a little tedious.  It allows us to see how the Synths affect many different aspects of the characters' lives, and their impact on the wider culture.  The actors who play the Synths who do not have consciousness, especially Gemma Chan and Will Tudor, do a good job of mining the artificiality of the Synths for all it's worth.  The series wouldn't have worked if their performances weren't so convincing.  Emily Berrington is also a standout as the rebellious Niska, the show's most complicated character.  Among the human beings, it's always nice to see William Hurt in anything, and I continue to be impressed by Neil Maskell.

I think eight episodes was just about the right length for the first series, because it tells a complete story, and each of the major characters gets some development - some not as much as others, but at least enough to justify their appearances.  For the first few episodes I was skeptical that the show was going anywhere interesting, but once the momentum picks up, it does all come together nicely.  I expect that "Humans" will appeal most to those who don't watch a lot of science-fiction, though, because it is very light and not very heady at all, especially compared to recent media with similar subject matter like "Ex Machina" and "Black Mirror."  "Humans" is very good for the show it wants to be, but I wish that it had wanted to be something more original and daring.  Much of the crew came to "Humans" from Channel 4's "Utopia," so the production values are very strong - there's just not the same opportunity for them to really do something great.

Ultimately, the story of "Humans" feels awfully safe and familiar for 2015, though there are some strong characters like Niska and Anita who are worth getting to know.  I'm hoping that "Humans" will be able to expand on the strong foundation its created to move on to bigger things in the series to come - another set of episodes is already in the works for 2016, and I can't imagine that we won't be getting more.

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