There are always exceptions to the general rules of narrative television, but rarely does a show get away with flying in the face of “Show, don’t tell.” Almost Human clashes with this idea immediately before showing a single frame of its near-future world. Drugs and weapons flood the streets and schools, controlled by “violent, faceless, criminal organizations,” causing the crime rate to rise 400 percent. How do we know this? A single title card packed with information before the story even begins. It’s certainly an economic info-dump, but it’s an easy way out that doesn’t leave much room for world building. That’s the choice Almost Human makes: shorthand expression over mysterious depth.
Almost Human takes place in a generic future where all human police officers are paired with an android partner, programmed not to have the risky emotional responses of humans, but to make cold, logical decisions to complement (and diminish) the effects of human emotion while combating crime. It’s such a generically robot-filled world that the title card might as well read Isaac Asimov’s Almost Human, like the Robot City book series that bears his name and challenged other writers to come up with compelling stories in the sandbox Asimov created.
Karl Urban is the headliner here as Detective John Kennex, dipping from roles in franchises like Lord Of The Rings and Star Trek to his first series TV job since Xena: Warrior Princess. His career suggests that he can be both the physically domineering presence needed for gruff police action (The Bourne Supremacy) and the quip-heavy attitude (Bones in Star Trek) to make that hard outer shell suggest something endearing. But for most of the pilot, Almost Human shunts Kennex into to the part of the PTSD-riddled cop who’s too old for this shit.
The opening shot of the pilot is from Kennex’s POV, looking down the barrel of his assault rifle like a first-person shooter. The first few minutes sketch out everything needed to understand Kennex’s attitude: He loses his partner in a raid on an organized crime syndicate, blames an android partner for abandoning him, loses a leg in a grenade blast that also lands him in a coma for nearly two years. After that violent incident, he’s prejudiced against all “synthetics,” creaking around with an artificial leg, and pining for his missing ex-girlfriend. He pops pills—but just one at a time, even if it’s a scary-looking bright red—refuses to deal with his improperly calibrated artificial leg, and seeks black market medical attention to relive a memory over and over again.
His former captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor, a long way from Cameron Crowe movies and Six Feet Under) calls him in to investigate another crime syndicate incident with some of the same markers as the raid from two years ago. For some reason, the police department is hung up on that one incident enough that the captain only trusts Kennex—characterized as the typically mentally unfit-for-duty cop—to get back in the game and redeem himself. He’s complaining about his android partner from the get-go, appealing to Taylor that he wants to ride alone just like his father. But once he shrugs off his first, generic, annoying android partner—by shoving him out of a moving car—Almost Human shows that it has a few entertaining tricks up its sleeve.
First, Urban goes to see Rudy (Mackenzie Crook), a robotics scientist/technician who brings up an old model android nearly doomed to be scrapped by NASA for the materials in his spine. Crook is at his best in these kinds of parts, squirreling around with some intriguing character traits—like pushing back against Urban’s generalizations about all robots. And then Dorian (Michael Ealy) gets woken up, and immediately starts stealing scenes from Urban. Dorian realizes very quickly that getting in with Kennex is his one shot to avoid the scrap heap, and he takes to being a cop almost immediately. Almost Human takes advantage of its futuristic setting in vague ways—confusing biotech-overarching-villain plot—but grows subtler once it introduces Dorian. For example, the scene where he jabs a syringe of blood into his neck to send information to a lab, thus skipping the wait-for-the-results step in a standard procedural.
The exact plot details of the pilot don’t really matter here, since it will all be teased out over the course of however many episodes Almost Human gets, but there are flashes of excitement. A kidnapped detective falls victim to a deadly trap that gets into some of the advanced biotech Almost Human wants to deal with. But the title suggests that this show, in putting Urban and Ealy together, wants to delve into the age-old question of what it means to be human. Ealy can’t really sell a line as stilted as, “I was made to feel, and I do, as much as you,” but he earnestly tries, and Dorian is funny enough playing off Kennex’s unforgiving persona that I want to see how that detective partnership develops. Elsewhere, Minka Kelly is wisely relegated to a technical support role, an analyst who will probably factor in more as the series progresses, but hopefully in smaller doses than Crook and Taylor.
And I think it bears noting that this is a show titled Almost Human where the only black main cast member is an android partnered with a guy who harbors deep prejudice toward robots. Kennex slings “synthetic” at Dorian like an epithet in one of their first conversations, and Dorian is constantly required to impress Kennex by defying him because he’s an android, and isn’t capable of full human interaction and deduction, no matter his nearly human programming. That level of near-human emotion also makes Dorian an outcast among androids, not the logical new model that populates the police station, but a “loose-cannon” more on watch than the drugged-up Kennex. The race factor is the one part of the Almost Human pilot that touches on something many science-fiction shows don’t engage with right off the bat, even unintentionally. And that’s what I’ll be paying attention to most as the show progresses, along with the compelling partnership between Urban and Ealy.
In the Fringe pilot—which, like Lost, was a two-hour affair that allowed for much more digression and development—the final scene isn’t a gargantuan twist, but a leading question about a shadowy corporation that points to a much deeper world to be explored. Lost’s pilot ended on this this kind of moment too, with the revelation that the mayday signal had been broadcast on a loop for 16 years. That flair for teasing intrigue has not been extended to Almost Human.
The original cut of the pilot that circulated after Fox picked up the show contained a ludicrous twist, the kind that just flies out of nowhere to stamp a giant question mark on a sketch of a television series in order to induce viewers to commit to another episode, without tying into the central question of the show. I don’t really want to reveal it, since I’m worried that it will factor into the second part of the show’s two-night “premiere event.” The final minute of the original pilot has been shaved off, ending instead with Kennex telling Dorian to call him John, a final beat suggesting this is the start of a tumultuous but beneficial partnership. It’s a thudding final note to go out on, and not one that demands viewers find the show in its ongoing time slot on Monday night.
When I saw the pilot for the first time, I thought the original ending was absolutely ridiculous, but that’s part of the cheesy and schlocky way Almost Human is going about dealing with robots. Now I think the choice to cut it and either delay it or remove it entirely speaks to how creator J.H. Wyman (a writer and showrunner on Fringe) wants the partnership between Dorian and Kennex to take focus. I’m intrigued enough by the little things to ignore the foundational inconsistencies and stick around to see what this show looks like when it picks up a case of the week while trotting out little bits of futuristic technology.
- I almost didn’t watch the Almost Human pilot a second time, so convinced was I that my notes after the first viewing would be sufficient. After the change to the ending, I am incredibly glad I watched again, because otherwise everyone would've been confused.
- The number of times I went to type Almost Human and ended up with Almost Famous is astounding. I really wish this show were called Robot Cops to go along with the Manning brothers in Football Cops.
- The pilot was directed by Brad Anderson, who helmed The Machinist and Transsiberian, but also the woefully abysmal Vanishing On 7th Street.
- It bears noting that the CGI work is some of the best I’ve seen on television in a long time. It’s still television quality, and there aren’t too many big sequences, but it’s visually impressive.