B-

Almost Human: "Skin"

There are two scenes that indicate the best and worst of what Almost Human can do with its lead detectives in this second episode, and neither of them involve flashy, futuristic special effects. They’re both shot in alternating close-ups in Kennex’s car. In the first, Dorian bluntly asks how someone deals with telling a child a loved one has died, which hooks into a surface-level conversation about “a better place” and hope that clumsily lurches to the point that Kennex has not visited the son of his deceased former partner (who now suddenly exists). It’s a scene with absolutely no nuance, and because it suddenly adopts a serious tone in a drawn-out driving scene, it’s awkward and annoying.

The second scene in the car has a bunch of other information, but the pertinent item is that Dorian has scanned Kennex’s body and determined the man’s testicles are at “full capacity” from not getting laid, and he needs help unwinding. The topic flies in out of nowhere, does nothing to add to the plot, but still made me laugh a lot, from the way Ealy honestly divulges the information he knows to his defensiveness that he can’t help but notice Kennex’s problem. Karl Urban is great in the Star Trek films when verbally sparring with Chris Pine, and opposite Michael Ealy, he’s got another partner to build ancillary, ego-deflating comedy onto futuristic action.

The biggest strength of the pilot—the chemistry between Urban and Ealy—is even more heavily the focus of character development in “Skin,” to great comedic benefit. These guys are having a lot of fun tossing barbs at each other: Urban as a puffed up, super-serious cop and Ealy as a bluntly honest, socially awkward but entertaining newbie, desperate to stick around and avoid becoming scrap metal. Their repartee already has a nice flow, like the opening scene when Dorian impresses kids with his facial circuitry, and Kennex promptly scares them by stabbing himself in his synthetic leg. That entire scene walking to the elevator, discussing negative energy and Kennex’s cat allergy, is the baseline panache that has already made me start to care about these guys.

With the overarching contrived dread of the biotech crime syndicate from the pilot replaced by a case-of-the-week plot, it removes much of the tension in a looming mystery I didn’t find myself invested in after an hour. Sure, that case happens to pull directly from the police-procedural well of abusing and ogling women in danger—but at the very least it weaves in a thread of Dorian trying to get Kennex to understand dealing with androids and humans differently when investigating a case.

There are robots that look like humans, so naturally men have crafted robots to have sex with. Minka Kelly’s Stahl makes the entirely valid point that transition to androids hopefully keeps human women from being forced into prostitution. But her hope comes crashing down in another way: it’s illegal to use human DNA in an android (for some reason), but human skin is more alluring. So an "Albanian purveyor of sex bots" (seriously, the number of times the cops say that phrase to each other makes it sound like gibberish) is kidnapping women, drugging them in a lab, and taking extensive skin grafts to make android escorts. Kennex and Dorian are tasked with tracking down a woman who was abducted, leaving behind her young son Victor.

Kennex’s interaction with the kid is a nice reversal from his seemingly permanent gruff attitude. At first he uses generic tough cop talk, but then, in perhaps the best futuristic visual effect Almost Human has employed thus far, Kennex grabs the boy’s attention with a robotic toy giraffe. He’s doesn’t have the best people skills, but he can do what it takes to get the information needed—and the show’s futuristic setting allows that info to transfer quickly through Dorian’s analysis to immediate action.

The other highly intriguing interaction is the interrogation of a captured, unknowing escort robot named Vanessa, whose skin contains DNA from another captured women who’s been missing for months. This is where Dorian proves his worth once again, demonstrating to Kennex that interacting with an android isn’t the same as questioning a human. Kennex commits—rather robotically, for those conspiracy-minded viewers who already think he’s a robot and doesn’t know it—to a line of questioning about who owns Vanessa, instead of pursuing avenues a robot would understand, like Dorian’s question: “Where were you born?”

And again, however overtly it came across, there’s an element of race at play in the interaction between androids and humans. Kennex keeps asking Vanessa the wrong questions during an interrogation. He can’t get on the right mental wavelength to ask the right questions. As a fellow robot, and the black lead talking to the only black supporting character in the episode, Dorian knows what to say. I don’t think there’s some grand statement being made in these interactions, but there’s a pattern at play relating racial interaction in real life to how humans (or secret robots) interact with almost humans—Dorian’s robot with a soul, or the sex bots with human DNA in their skin—in the world of Almost Human. That is subtext I find most encouraging—that this show could have something complex to say.

More disappointing is the way the show has already marginalized the female characters. Minka Kelly was cast to be the pretty love interest, and you’d think the show would wait a few weeks before pressing that setup. But no; there are a few comic beats tied to Dorian setting up an online dating profile for Kennex (which is ridiculous, but funny nonetheless), where the latter becomes as awkward and stilted as a high-school sophomore after he starts to see Valerie Stahl as a possible romantic partner all of a sudden—a week after he’s so hung up on his ex-girlfriend possibly being a part of the syndicate that killed his former partner. And Lily Taylor’s Captain shows up at a few intervals to bark expository orders or summarize events. I like the chemistry between Urban and Ealy—and after all the sex talk, it’s not just a comedic connection—but the female characters can’t just be relegated to the tech specialist and the drop-in captain.

“Skin” is a giant hodgepodge of new material added to make the direction Almost Human will take this season even more confusing. Kennex still has guilt over his partner’s death—completing one of the many short arcs begun in this episode by visiting the deceased man’s wife and son—and now there are seeds for a wholly unnecessary romance with Stahl. Dorian learns too quickly over the course of a few beats that remembering someone after their death keeps a legacy alive—him talking to Vanessa as she unknowingly accepts deactivation is supposed to be poignant, but it’s just one of many hurriedly brief arcs that get thrown into this episode. There’s a lot of material to work with while building off the strong partnership between Urban and Ealy, but right now chances are about equal that Almost Human doesn’t get the right plot threads together in time.

Stray observations:

  • That twist from the original cut of the pilot doesn’t factor into this second episode, so I’m not going to mention it again unless it shows up, just in case Wyman and his writers have chosen a different direction.
  • If Kennex turns out to be a robot now because of that Lily Taylor line from the pilot (“He’s special…like you.”) foreshadowing a huge reveal, then the Philip K. Dick estate and Paul Verhoeven both have grounds for an intellectual property suit.
  • Look no further than Mackenzie Crook awkwardly interacting with a sex robot for proof that he’s essentially playing Gareth from The Office with way more robotics knowledge in the future. He's really funny again during his screen time, but maybe they could get him out of his lab a bit more often.
  • If this show was going to be subversive or surprising in any way, maybe a female sex robot inventor or a male bot (like Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe in A.I.) would’ve been nice to see, just to go against the grain of fumbling, awkward guys talking about bangbots.
  • Fox may not have made the right gamble by putting the two-night premiere on this week, since a couple marquee NFL matchups on NBC and ESPN could have taken a big bite out of the potential audience.

More TV Club