Almost Human has a lot of hype to live up to. The nearly constant promos during high profile Fox broadcasts like the World Series and the delayed entry into the Fall Schedule have all raised expectations for this already highly anticipated show from JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe, Star Trek) and JH Wyman (Fringe). Does the pilot live up to the hype? Mostly.
We meet Detective John Kennex in the middle of a firefight. He’s in search of his human partner and when Kennex finds him, he’s mortally wounded, a fact dispassionately confirmed by Kennex’s “MX” android partner. Kennex wants to get his partner out even though he’s dying. The MX refuses because there are others who have a higher chance of survival and abandons them. Undeterred, Kennex is carrying his partner out when a bomb lands on his leg and explodes, killing his partner and gravely injuring Kennex. Kennex passes out, and when he comes to, he’s hooked up to machinery, and we learn that this was all a memory as he’s trying to recapture using an unlicensed doctor (played by the awesome Hiro Kanagawa, who played a hilarious Japanese game show host on Supernatural).
Kennex was comatose for 18 months and lost most of his memory of the event. He’s having problems with the synthetic leg he’s been fitted with. When he finally agrees to return to the force, he chafes at the new mandatory assignment of a droid for every human partner, since he blames the MX for not helping him rescue his partner. His antagonism eventually leads to Kennex throwing his MX out of the car at high speed. When Kennex is reassigned another android, we meet Dorian, a DRN. DRNs have a “synthetic soul” but the droids were decommissioned four years ago for emotional regulation problems, or in Kennex words, Dorian is “one of the crazy ones.” Regardless of the bugs in his programming, the arrival of Michael Ealy as the “synthetic” Dorian (“I’m not a huge fan of that term”) changes everything, for Kennex and for the episode.
The case involves the Syndicate, the same people who killed Kennex’s partner. I’m sure they will feature as the Big Bad for this season. The case triggers memories for Kennex and he realizes that the girlfriend who disappeared was part of the Syndicate. Kennex’s pain and anger over this betrayal is one of the highlights of the episode and I’m sure this will be important in future episodes. Another plot teaser is Kennex’s dead father, a cop who apparently knew the traitorous ex-girlfriend. We also get a taste of what the Syndicate is after: an android head currently in the Police’s custody. It’s not a bad start to a mythology and certainly has me interested.
The lead actors excelled in all their scenes together, particularly when exchanging witty banter in Kennex’s car. The chemistry between Dorian and John Kennex is palpable from their first scene together. The actors share an easy connection that shines onscreen and they are perfectly cast. Karl Urban is gorgeously grizzled; he does irascible, angry and impatient perfectly. Michael Ealy is physically ideal for this role. His skin is so smooth and perfect it looks synthetic. His eyes are naturally strikingly blue and the show incorporates this unique feature into its mythology. Every android has light blue eyes, but the MXs’ are cold and have a chip in the iris and pupil that makes them disturbing. It’s a subtle way to demonstrate that the improvements made to the MXs weren’t really better than the DRNs.
Separate from the lead actors’ chemistry, I had insta-love for both of their characters. Kennex is furious, guilt-ridden, heartbroken, and all the other things you want in a lead character. In a word, he’s complex. Urban gets across Kennex’s rage and bitterness, but we can see the sadness in his eyes. Dorian is similarly sympathetic and tragic – he understands and even feels emotions; he’s almost human but he knows he’s not. Ealy imbues Dorian with a palpable melancholy that isn’t maudlin or hopeless. Dorian’s joy at being activated and his irritation with Kennex for being a jackass are subtle and fit the character perfectly.
The similarities between Dorian and Kennex are clear and will drive the series. They were both put in limbo for years, they are damaged; they are perceived as somehow faulty; they both have synthetic parts. They are, in fact, “Almost Human.” Their characters differences are equally important – where Kennex is angry, Dorian is calm. Where Kennex is resentful and bitter, Dorian is content and hopeful. The new partners spend much of the episode bonding. Kennex gains respect for Dorian as Dorian responds thoughtfully and emotionally –and pointedly not robotically –to both people and tense situations.Several actors stand out in the episode. Mackenzie Crock as Rudy, the android-guru, is great. He gets the best lines and even when he’s just talking to himself, his dialogue is funny and his delivery is spot on. You can tell this guy has a background in deadpan comedy (he was the British model for Dwight on The Office) and many of his scenes offer the funniest moments in the episode. The chemistry he has with Urban and Ealy is also excellent. Lily Taylor is great as Capt. Maldonado. Taylor plays her without makeup or vanity and it fits the character well. Maldonado supports Kennex but reins him in when he’s being obnoxious and unreasonable. She seems like she’ll be a good foil for the leads as well. We also get hints that Maldonado is hiding details about Dorian’s background before he was deactivated. She’s a character to watch.
The visuals on this episode are interesting and dynamic. The squad room is airy but feels claustrophobic, like all good cop shows’ squad rooms do. The freeway shots offer opportunities to hit pause and digest the similarities and differences to our own. The skyline (it looks like New York on steroids) is breathtaking. And the “mythology” of the androids is fascinating and worth further exploring.
The episode is witty, offering a perfect sprinkling of sass and humor to offset the violence and tragedy and it keeps the episode from getting too dark. Urban in particular has a deadpan and dry delivery, and hopefully this is something that future episodes will exploit. I also liked the case; it was completely unpredictable and just when you thought you knew what the bad guys were up to, they surprised you. It was refreshing and unexpected, which is rare these days with all the formulaic procedural dramas on television.
A few of the directing choices stand out. In particular, the scene in the noodle shop where Kennex and Dorian talk after Dorian saves Kennex’ life was notable for the directing choices. The characters sit side-by-side instead of across the table each other. It’s an unusual visual that catches your attention, and it adds important layers to an already important scene. The physical closeness echoes the growing emotional closeness between the two leads. The way they are sitting reminded me that Dorian is an android who won’t be eating or drinking. I wondered if Dorian chose to sit next to Kennex because he doesn’t understand the interpersonal dynamics and expectations of humans to sit across from each other. All of that character exposition without one word of dialogue. It was subtle and very well done, and I hope this kind of thoughtful direction continues.
I also appreciated the visual juxtaposition between the “human” humans and the perfect androids, Dorian in particular. We can identify the androids on sight; they are just preternaturally beautiful (especially the ones in the second episode, Skin, but more on that later). It makes me wonder about Minka Kelly’s character, the (allegedly) human Valerie Stahl. She’s not like the other humans, at least in her appearance. Kennex is rumpled and grizzled. Maldonado is scrubbed clean with no-nonsense hair in a bun. Rudy wears glasses, has rumpled clothing and looks like he hasn’t left his lab or seen the sun in years. All three of them come across as very human. Stahl is smoothly beautiful and perfectly groomed. Could she be an android, too? Since she’s clearly intended to be Kennex’s love interest, it seems unlikely, but wouldn’t that be a fun plot-twist? Some theories being put out that John Kennex is an android – “synthetic calibration incomplete” is announced by a robotic voice from Kennex’s prosthetic leg at regular intervals. While that’s an interesting concept, I think it’s even more unlikely than Stahl being an android. But I’m never good at predicting plot twists, so who knows?
There is a lot to appreciate about this pilot – an interesting backstory for the hero, a unique premise, a setting that is both familiar and unknown, and two incredibly attracting and talented lead who have fantastic chemistry, all with some witty banter. There was a lot of exposition, as would be expected for a pilot, and it’s to their credit that it didn’t feel awkward or preachy. The episode raised questions I want answered and made me want to come back for more. So why didn’t it totally work for me?
I didn’t like how one-dimensional characters some of the characters were. Minka Kelly’s Det. Stahl is earnest, smart and beautiful. Frankly when the camera focused on her I missed all of her dialogue because I was too distracted by her perfect beauty (hence my android theory). Stahl should be compelling – she’s the analyst who predicts behavior, is very supportive of John Kennex, and helps solve the case. Despite Kelly’s acting skills and beauty, her chemistry with Karl Urban felt flat to me and she was almost too earnestly good to believed but not in the fun “foreshadowing” way. In the same one-note vein, we have the “villain” of the squad room Det. Richard Paul (Michael Irby). In his first scene, Paul is called a prick, but we get the point and he spends the entire episode lobbing insults at both of the leads. He was as bad as Stahl is good.
Unfortunately I would also place Dorian in the category of one dimensional. Dorian is Almost Saintly instead of Almost Human. He’s practically flawless. If Dorian is too perfect, that sweet smile of his may start to seem condescending. Hopefully we’ll discover that Dorian has a few flaws – they’re definitely hinted at in the reactivation scene. I’m sure this is more a quality of a pilot, where characters are drawn very broadly but painting characters in black and white is boring and quickly becomes predictable. Complexity is always more interesting.
Finally, I disliked how quickly the tension and mistrust between Kennex and Dorian was resolved. They shouldn’t be furious all the time but there was a little too much love, too quickly. Having them at odds is more entertaining. John Kennex is more compelling when he’s angry and annoyed, especially when he’s angry and annoyed at Dorian and Dorian is funnier when he’s poking at the angry bear that is Kennex. More of this, Show!
Overall this episode was well done for a pilot and I’m willing to give Almost Human the benefit of the doubt on the stuff that didn’t work. It quickly established the background, hooked the viewer with hints and details that should get them coming back for more, and exploited the entertaining chemistry of its charismatic leads. I rate the episode a solid B.
That’s what I thought – do you agree? Think I’m totally insane? Just watched it to drool over the hotties? And here’s the key: will you watch Almost Human again?