In You Should Be Watching, the staff of The A.V. Club advocates on behalf of the hundreds of TV shows you’re not watching but should.
Humans, whose third season premieres Tuesday, June 5 at 10 p.m Eastern on AMC. The first two seasons are available on Amazon Prime Video (with a Prime membership) and the AMC app.
Not to be confused with the increasingly doomed species, Humans is based on the Swedish sci-fi series, Real Humans. Creators Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have relocated the human rights allegory to a parallel present-day England, where synths (as in “synthetic life forms,” a.k.a robots) are at the beck and call of corporations and families alike. Over time, synth manufacturers have lent their products more of a human appearance, so much so that only their preternaturally green eyes give them away at first glance.
Whether or not sentience was ever intended as a widely available upgrade, synths have “awakened” or gained consciousness throughout the series, which most of humanity has written off as a malfunction. But in the season-two finale, synth creator David Elster’s consciousness code—which was completed by a plucky teen—was uploaded into the mainframe, thereby awakening more than a hundred million synths across the world. Season three kicks off a year after this “Day Zero,” with the conscious synths relegated to camps on the outskirts of town, where they live under threat from police raids and “human-first” groups.
Let’s just get all the Westworld comparisons out of the way now. Both Humans and Westworld feature the gradual awakening of robots, as well as the debate between organic and inorganic life forms. Both series raise provocative questions about consciousness and personhood, acting as allegories for the ongoing fight for civil rights. There’s no need to pick one over the other, either for viewing or championing—their diverging approaches mean the robot rebellion is being covered from all fronts. Of course, there are key differences: Vincent and Brackley’s series follows a much more linear path than that of Westworld, and it doesn’t have nearly as much flair and violence as that HBO sci-fi drama. But Humans’ storytelling and characterization are every bit as thoughtful, its themes just as thorny and heady. Although it takes place in the present, Humans is basically set in the aftermath of Westworld’s revolution—Niska (Emily Berrington), Mia (Gemma Chan), and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) have long since taken the robot struggle to the streets.
Although your interest in their characters is bound to vary, there are no weak links in the Humans cast, past or present. The show even managed to make great use of William Hurt’s halting delivery as the ailing Dr. Millican in season one. Gemma Chan anchors the series as Mia, who’s been through the consciousness wringer more than once. Chan’s performance has captured Mia’s (a.k.a Anita) awakening in ways both subtle and overt, her eyes, voice, and posture changing to reflect every new emotion. She’s one of several Doctor Who alums in the cast, including co-star Colin Morgan, who plays human-synth hybrid Leo, the would-be John Brown in this struggle. As Niska and Max, Emily Berrington and Ivanno Jeremiah, respectively, make up the rest of the synth “family” created by David Elster. Berrington brings much-needed nuance to Niska’s radicalism, while Jeremiah has been the calm at the center of this storm (until season three, that is).
The other family the show regularly follows is the Hawkins, including Katherine Parkinson as synth-rights lawyer Laura, and Tom Goodman-Hill as Joe, her estranged husband and the person who brought Mia (then Anita) into their home, thereby setting off the series-long chain of events. Along with the actors playing their kids, their dynamic is every bit as believable, though not quite as compelling, as that of the Elster family. Pixie Davies, Theo Stevenson, and Lucy Carless act like real siblings, but Carless is the standout here; she brings new urgency to well-worn teen rebellion.
Every series with even a hint of politics is being touted for its social pertinence these days, so the “timely TV” phrase above might already have you backing out of this post. But while entertainment regularly serves as escape, art has always generated discourse, so tough shit. Seriously, though, Humans is resonant and relevant, but its exploration of the definition of humanity and what rights are afforded to those deemed human is handled more elegantly than most. From the beginning, the presence of synths in the homes of humans has felt both natural and unsettling. Technology has increasingly become a part of even the most intimate parts of our lives, and these green-eyed workers (who have been replaced in season three with the purportedly innocuous orange eyes models) fulfill all kinds of roles. But the desire to have something so outwardly human under their thumbs raises all kinds of ethical questions.
The humanitarian crises and political debates that inform the show are woven into every aspect of it, including the evolution of Mattie’s feelings about the synths (she was initially concerned they’d “replace” her) and references to refugee camps and the Jim Crow South. But though Humans shows a lot of restraint, it never feels like a history lesson. The show acts as a powerful reminder that for many marginalized people, these discussions remain, dishearteningly enough, a part of everyday life.
The evolution of Humans has mirrored that of its characters, and is equally as impressive. The first season was the roughest, stumbling here and there in laying out its big questions, as well as the origins of synth consciousness (turns out, widespread consciousness was the goal of their creator, though he shared Mattie’s concerns in implementing the code). But it did give us so many great characters, as well as laid the groundwork for battles both physical and metaphysical.
Season two hit the ground running, with Niska on the lam then on trial for the murder of a client, while Leo, Max, and Hester (that wonderful monster) represented disparate points on the political spectrum. Although Max and Hester were on opposite ends, they committed to their beliefs, while Leo tried to find something in between. Niska and Mia both found love, though with very different partners (one’s a queer woman, the other a human dumpster fire). The humans of Humans have never been as compelling as the synths, but “synthie” Renie (Letitia Wright) helped make the case for spending time with organic life. Most important, the show handled its emotional beats with the same care as its political themes, which made it both topical and devastating.
The third season, which premieres tonight, looks like it’ll deliver on all fronts. Humans has pulled off some great action sequences, most notably the botched rescue of conscious synths from a Qualia compound late in season two, though they’re few and far between. But what makes season three so exciting, aside from great performances across the board, is the implications. Despite knowing what synths are capable of, humans are still using them as appliances (at least, the ones that have been deemed safe for use). The first two seasons echoed debates about slavery and bodily autonomy—it’s not for nothing most of the sex workers we saw early on were female synths—with the new episodes tapping into current discussions of disenfranchisement, authoritarian governments, and protests against them. Mia and Max seem poised for radicalization, while Niska looks like she’s backing out of the larger fight. And what will become of all the new “woke” synths, including the fiery Agnes (Holly Earl)? That remains unclear, but the show has wisely moved away from centering stories on Leo. Morgan plays the Byronic hero well, but as someone who’s part human, he shouldn’t lead this fight. Thankfully, Vincent and Brackley have recognized this, but in order to find out who will be the new face of the synth resistance, you’ll have to check out the season three premiere tonight.