Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
No new broadcast-network series this fall needed to send several episodes to critics more than Almost Human did. What’s on screen in the pilot is serviceable enough, but it’s also a little boring, like too many of the pilots shepherded to the screen under the aegis of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions since Abrams departed active television development for the film world. Could this series turn into another Person Of Interest, overcoming a problematic pilot to find all the many fascinating angles in its sci-fi premise? Sure. But it’s also entirely possible it turns into the first season of Revolution, squandering what little promise there is to wander around in an endless rut.
Almost Human is equal parts typical cop show and Blade Runner riff. The series’ universe is one where being a police officer has become so dangerous cops are issued mandatory android partners that function as a weird amalgamation of a police dog, smart phone, and mobile detective lab. The androids do a little rudimentary police work and are more clever than they appear—it would seem some sort of “what is consciousness/sentience” master story arc is in the cards for this show—but they’re mostly there to take a licking before they stop ticking.
Tossed into the middle of this is generic, cop hero Karl Urban, whose partner died in an ambush that Urban is still recovering from more than two years later. He’s called back to the force by higher-up Lili Taylor, who insists he’s the only one she can trust in the wake of growing criminal boldness against the police department, suggesting some kind of betrayal or subterfuge. Urban is reflexively angry at androids, because the plot requires him to be, but he eventually ends up paired with outmoded, about-to-be-sent-to-the-scrap-heap Michael Ealy, whose programming made him seem a little too human (hence the title). Unbothered by this emotional uncanny valley, Urban takes to Ealy more quickly than one might expect for an odd-couple police show, and the two soon take to the streets to figure out the grand conspiracy that lies at the series’ center. (It has something to do with black market biotech.)
The series’ best card to play is Ealy, who is terrific as an android who’s slightly off and has lots of fun being irritating and endearing in equal measure. Fox has had great luck with another quirky, unconventional pairing this fall on Sleepy Hollow, and if Urban were up to what Ealy is doing, the show might be worth giving time to grow. However, in the pilot, Urban is simply too generic a character to care much about, particularly for anyone who’s ever seen a show in this genre before. He lost his partner. He’s addicted to pills. His fiancée mysteriously disappeared in circumstances that weren’t adequately explained to him. He even wanders around in the rain and munches on noodles like he’s in a one-man Blade Runner LARP. It might work if Urban brought some interesting layers to the performance, but he’s mostly gruff.
Generic cop heroes aren’t always a problem if the show around them boasts other interesting characters or an intriguing premise. Almost Human has both, but, sadly, everything else in the show’s universe takes more after the Urban side of things than the Ealy. The many supporting characters are all bland riffs on cop-show archetypes, and the actors assigned to them—including Minka Kelly and Taylor herself—don’t have the spark necessary to ignite them into anything other than what cop-show aficionados would already expect. (Only Mackenzie Crook as a lab tech escapes the creeping familiarity, and he’s basically playing “the Mackenzie Crook part.”) Similarly, the mystery and conspiracy feel like the Mad Libs versions of previous cop-show mysteries and conspiracies, and the big twist in the episode affects so little that it glances off of the proceedings—and Urban—like a stone. There’s a moment where Taylor tells Urban that she assigned Ealy to him because the two need each other, and it’s not remotely clear whether this indicates something sappy or whether it’s meant to be a potential Big Mystery. Either way, it’s boring and seemingly pointless.
There are enough interesting things in Almost Human’s pilot that people who enjoy sci-fi television might want to stick with a handful of episodes. The special effects are some of the best on TV, and there are moments when the series actually makes the most of its premise, as when Ealy jabs a needle full of blood that needs to be examined into his neck and sends it to the lab to do so. And there’s something to the scenes where Ealy attempts to not drive Urban nuts. Plus, J.H. Wyman, who helped take Fringe from a disappointing pilot into an enjoyable sci-fi series, created the series. Yet it would be nice to see another episode of Almost Human or two, to see if it will give in to the better Ealys of its nature or descend into being just another bland cop show with a forgettable twist.
Created by: J.H. Wyman
Starring: Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Lili Taylor, Mackenzie Crook
Debuts: Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox, before moving to its regular timeslot Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Format: Hour-long sci-fi drama
Pilot episode watched for review