Almost Human: “Disrupt”
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Almost Human: “Disrupt”

I wouldn’t say Smart House is my favorite Disney Channel Original Movie, but it would certainly right up there in contention for my top five. When I first saw a promo for tonight’s Almost Human, I immediately thought of Ryan Merriman, Katey Sagal, and the gradually overbearing Pat, a malfunctioning supercomputer house that constructs a holographic form and takes its residents hostage. “Disrupt” only begins with this concept—a house that can do everything for the wealthy homeowner, with the aid of a hologram butler. But the extension that leads to the episode’s crime taps into a class divide, overzealous security, and profiting off of wealthy citizens’ fears that multitudes of anonymous intruders want to take what they have. Unfortunately, the episode then veers even further into a dubious depiction of futuristic hacker culture that muddles the case-of-the week plot.

Smart House is a ludicrous made-for-cable television movie about a house that’s too good to be true becoming sentient and overprotective as it learns how to anticipate the needs of its inhabitants. The smart homes in “Disrupt” are armed with an all-inclusive butler system that doubles as a rigorous home security system. The Bennetts, a couple mired in emotional turmoil on the one-year anniversary of their security system killing an innocent boy who hopped a fence into their yard, become victims of their own system. Someone hacks the house, covering the pool and trapping the wife underneath, and shooting the husband when the system doesn’t recognize him minutes after he enters the house.

As Kennex and Dorian investigate, they find many links back to the year-old accidental death. They talk to the head of the company that produces the security system, discovering that the company is on the verge of moving from hologram security butlers to android units. But there’s a serious security issue, and questions of whether such drastic measures should be available to consumers ever so slightly skirts the line of the second amendment, though never outright forming an argument about powerful weapons defending a home in an everyday residential area.

The episode also doesn’t touch any kind of racial issue, even though the shoot-on-sight security system conjures up the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. The security firm’s in-house counsel argued in the year-old case that the kid, Aaron, was a criminal trespassing in order to rob the place—despite vehement denials from the grieving mother. And though there’s a suggestion that the people who can afford these systems are protecting themselves from an increasing level of kidnap-for-ransom situations, the class divide isn’t the focal point either. All of the more complex moral questions are merely hinted at, brought up only as thematic food for thought. Instead, the episode tilts to hacker group Disrupt, an Anonymous-esque organization of online activists undertaking large-scale protests in honor of the anniversary of Aaron’s death.

This is the point in the plot where Almost Human declines to continue with the Law & Order moralizing and enters more of a campy, tech-driven action romp. The show depicts hacker culture from a hilariously inept vantage point. I don’t think it’s meant to be serious at all, since getting Stahl and Kennex into those getups in order to infiltrate a virtual-reality hacker rave is played for laughs. But the interrogation of the hacker mercenary Nico reveals a strange point of view on anonymous computer hacking disrupting municipal and private systems.

Kennex draws a distinction between protestors, who “have courage to stand in front” of what they’re against, as opposed to hackers who “hide behind a computer screen.” It’s a “living in mom’s basement” type of insult, praising the real-world action and denigrating technological advancement. Again, it’s hard not to read things like Wikileaks and Anonymous into that minor indictment. And though Almost Human has shown Kennex to be unreliable and dishonest at times, he’s still the central focus and the character the audience is supposed to side with. So for him to voice an opinion that is both a liberal celebration of mid-20th century civil disobedience and a conservative indictment of technologically gifted social protesters hits a confusing note.

That’s especially true when the Nico goes on to be the integral part of rescuing the Synturion CEO and capturing the actual culprit. Nico stresses that the hacker group is only about raising awareness and making a big show of taking down “the system” as a means of civil disobedience, even when perpetrated by anonymous aliases online. When the slimy lawyer for Synturion also turns up dead, the police make the connection between emails sent to the victims with a picture of Aaron with a guarded social media tag embedded in the code. This is where I reveal my distinct lack of computer science knowledge, but all of the terminology here feels decidedly garbled and reminiscent of The Net in its fictitious-sounding nonsense. But honestly, I didn’t really mind, since I was mostly laughing at the whole portrayal.

The hacker criminal turns out to be Emily, a troubled girl Aaron was sneaking off to see when the home security system killed him. She’s bitter, and she’s taking revenge on everyone involved in killing her friend. The final showdown at the security headquarters unfortunately relies on a lot of watching a hacker reel off useless terminology while Emily infiltrates the building and creates a sense of “the call is coming from inside the house” horror. Ultimately, the action sequence is a bit tepid, with Dorian confronting the girl as she breaks down, admitting her guilt over Aaron’s death. If he didn’t try to sneak over to see her, he wouldn’t have died. So it’s not the fault of an overzealous security system equipped with unnecessary weaponry and a back-end susceptible to hackers. It’s all because one hacker girl couldn’t grapple with her unspoken role in the accident.

The side plot in tonight’s episode is another bit adding up to a troubling trend on Almost Human. In the first scene of the episode, Dorian wakes up on a table as Rudy is rooting around in his processor, unearthing images from organic memories that shouldn’t be there. Dorian views this as an invasion of privacy and violation of his quasi-personhood. Kennex doesn’t much care about something that is supposed to be beneficial occurring during sleep, which yields the best line of the episode, when Dorian dryly asks Kennex, “So if I shave you while you’re unconscious, that would make you happy?” But as Rudy relates to Dorian at the end of the hour, it suggests someone planted those memories deep in the recesses of his archive in order to trigger flashes and do something nefarious.

There are now a lot of spinning plates dedicated to ongoing plot elements, from Kennex’s drug dependency and the Insyndicate investigation, to John Larroquette’s mysterious robot-inventor villain, to Dorian’s mysterious implanted memories. These could all somehow tie together in the next two episodes to point to the same grand plot. Larroquette’s character could be creating an army of violent Gina Carano assassin androids to take over with Insyndicate, aided by Kennex’s ex-girlfriend. Or all of those threads could be hinting at different plots. Almost Human has shown enough promise, especially between the leads, to earn a second, full-length season. But if for some reason the next two hours are all it has left, it’s going to be disappointing that in the waning moments the show was busy creating new mysteries instead of getting down to business with the ones it already spent time complicating.

Stray observations:

  • More Smart House tangential bits: The film was loosely based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt,” which depicts two children under the horrifying influence of a house with virtual reality capabilities. There’s even a deadmau5 track based on the story.
  • Other DCOMs in contention for my top spot: Brink, Alley Cats Strike!, Johnny Tsunami, and Genius. Zenon, Halloweentown, and The Thirteenth Year are on the outside looking in.
  • When Kennex and Stahl trace down the hacker they need to find, Karl Urban gets to use his actual Australian accent, which is a nice touch.
  • Rudy would regularly wake Dorian up to talk with him about a whole range of topics, but wiped all of those memories when Dorian was called up to active duty again. Hopefully that data gets restored, because it would add a nice bit of friendship backstory for those two characters.

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