'Almost Human' Is Sci-Fi by the Numbers

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It's been a while since network television had a good sci-fi show. NBC's Revolution has its moments, but that's really more of an action Western most of the time. The last great science fiction series on a broadcast network was probably Lost, though that show was anything but great toward the end. Which brings us to Almost Human, the new Fox series premiering this Sunday. It's a modestly ambitious series molded into a traditional buddy cop format. That's a clever way to blend sci-fi in with more typical television tropes, but the conceit winds up hobbling the series. Despite a couple of futuristic details, the feels too familiar; nothing is as wild or out-there as we want it to be.

Take the time period. Almost Human is set just 35 years in the future, far enough away to sort of convince us that hyper-realistic, sentient robots have been invented, but close enough that, y'know, the production designers can still use stuff that currently exists. There's nothing wrong with a tale set in the near-future, but the details need to be more thoughtful than they are in Almost Human, which hurries us along into its story without doing much exploration of the world that houses it. So, the story: I mentioned robots. Well, those robots (androids, cyborgs, whatever your fancy) are used by the LAPD to combat crime in a city that has spiraled into chaos. It's unclear what's caused this extreme spike in crime, but the city's a dangerous place, so each police officer is paired with a robot. Makes sense, right?

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Most of the robots are, well, pretty robotic. Though they look human, they behave like machines, functional and without surprise. But, of course, one very special robot is a bit different. He's Dorian, one of an earlier model of helper bots that was decommissioned because they were too human-like. They had emotions, like later TNG-era Data, I guess. What this means for the show, and for the actor Michael Ealy, is that Dorian is pretty much a regular person, and behaves as such. Maybe there's a synthetically smooth tone to his speech, but beyond that he's just like us. He gets mad, he can be offended. Sucks for his partner then, a gruff ace detective named John Kennex (futuristic name!), played by Karl Urban, who doesn't trust robots after one's cold practicality resulted in the death of a fellow police officer. So an emotional robot who stands up for himself is the last thing he needs. Or is it exactly what he needs?

By the end of the pilot episode, that question is answered pretty predictably, though the show is not without its mysteries elsewhere. John was in a coma for two years following a terribly botched raid in which his entire squad was killed, and now that he's awake and back on the force, he wants answers. Who tipped off the bad guys? And who are the bad guys? There's some sort of shadowy cabal of criminals frequently referred to, so I suppose investigating them will be the series' larger arc while individual episodes work on a more procedural level. Which is fine, I just wish the mystery didn't feel so generic and half-baked. There's nothing terribly compelling about this supposedly chaotic future; in fact, it doesn't even seem all that dangerous. So why should we take the time to care, when we are already inundated with so many knotty serial shows to keep up with?

I suppose if you're hungry enough for some science fiction, that might be reason enough to stick with the show. But beyond that, nothing about Almost Human grabbed me. The world is underdeveloped and the cast is bland. Beyond Ealy and Lili Taylor, as Kennex's superior, there's no one to really connect with. Urban rotely plays a character we've seen a million times, Minka Kelly fails to convince as a detective, and poor Mackenzie Crook, late of the original The Office and some marvelous stage work, is stuck playing yet another nerdy lab geek. It's a role that's as boringly formulaic as the rest of the show, at least what I've seen of it so far. When the robot is the most dynamic thing on screen, that might be a problem. Unless Almost Human livens up soon, it will only be a show that's almost worth watching.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.