"If we can't learn to live together, we're gonna die alone"

Monday, November 25, 2013

ALMOST HUMAN - Ok its a Police Procedural, but god is in the details...or is it the ghost in the machine?

I like to think that I don’t “do” police procedurals. But over the last couple years I’ve been sucked into a couple of shows that play in that sandbox, just on the crusty edges where dogs have crapped and such. Plus, I grew up on the X-Files, the original cop/sci-fi crossover that set the stage, the bar, and the rankings for all the hard science fiction like Battlestar and LOST that made it to prime time in the 2000’s. So while I definitely don’t go in for the Sunglasses and opening credits tracked to The Who, I’ve seen every episode of The Shield, I’m good with Elementary and love the BBC counterpart Sherlock, I enjoyed 2012’s psychological cop thing “Awake” and I’d follow the Winchester boys to hell and back…have done so a few times, on Supernatural. Of course way out on the Fringe, there's Fringe.

   So first lets judge a book by its cover. Besides the sci-fi circumstance I was drawn to this show based largely on the productions credits. Created by J.H. Wyman of Fringe and Executive Produced by JJ Abrams and Bryan Burke, both of LOST. JJ also EP'd Fringe and he and Burkeboth have worked together in the Star Trek franchise, where the lead role for Almost Human was plucked from in the form of Karl Urban. I’m sure comparing notes for the rest of the crew listings would reveal several congruencies between JJ’s past projects and AH.

   I’m a strong believer that the best science fiction is predicated on the tackling of universal questions about the human condition, and to that end to be perfectly honest the jury is still out for Almost Human. But they’ve laid some pretty decent groundwork. Male lead Detective John Kennex (played by Urban who brings a touch of his Star Trek “Bones” in his sarcasm, but more subdued overall) has some questions for his higher power, having recently been majorly betrayed by his girlfriend - not just romantically, having been robbed of his girlfriend and similarly robbed of his right leg, both of which have been replaced by robotics, which is where the drama begins. Kennex must learn to put the utmost faith in machines he’s never trusted as they now make up not only part of his team, but part of his body. This is a fairly classic motif so from a strictly dramatic standpoint the writers aren’t breaking any ground (of the 4 episodes, 2 screenwriters hail directly from Fringe). AH owes a lot to the speculative fiction of Isaac Asimov particularly as it pertains to robots and how they interact with - or react to -  human beings. To date, the show hasn’t really gone hard down this road yet, but the Foundation is there (see what I did there? Isaac Asimov? Foundation…?)
   JJ’s projects have never been about entirely new concepts though, it’s how these concepts are unfolded to reveal new dynamics in the “human condition” conversation that have always made his projects so amazing. Conceptually, L O S T really begins the same way as Gilligan’s Island, but the voyage of Jack Shepherd, Kate Austen and James Ford touched L O S T’s fan base in a way most people weren’t prepared for when they casually began watching, right from the first episode.  This is where JJ’s touch seems to become so midas-like. Even in Fringe, by all accounts a much more rigid story and group of characters, I found an affinity for Peter Bishop who was portrayed by Josh Jackson - famously Pacey of Dawson’s Creek, an actor I really never thought would be able to evoke an emotional response from me.
So when Abrams is Producing or even EP-ing a project, I’ll always make time to put in the effort because the payoff is usually worth it. With the right elements in place, and they seem to be here, there is the potential for something special to happen.
   Almost Human hasn’t hauled me in full-blown after the first episode in the way LOST did. But I’m inspired to give it time because the sci-fi nerd in me, the part that likes science fiction not just for the exploration of the human condition, but for the gadgets and the gear, the showcasing of the tech that I’m always hoping is just around the corner in real life, that part of me has found a new favorite hour of television. Almost Human pays attention to the details; When Detective Kennex and his android partner Dorian walk through the door of a facility on the way to the scene of a new homicide case we see trailing behind them that the door has registered their identities via built-in hardware systems with floating holographic displays. The communications signal jamming system used by the law enforcement agents radiates a cool visual pulse (in a way that a real signal jamming device almost certainly would not, but it looks cool) - and they do this right, achieving the elusive "lived-in" feel that made Star Wars so amazing by not drawing attention to these details (the way I do) and allowing the story to flow around them. So often science fiction fails when the tech is written into the story. You can’t make the gadgets cool by having the characters talk about them, it has to be about how cool the gadgets are because the characters DON’T talk about them. The story will flow from there. 
   Caveat: If the gadget is the Millennium Falcon, it’s ok to write it into the story….what a piece of junk!
   What’s likeable about the world of Almost Human is at least some of the characters. Urban’s Kennex is world-weary and damaged, literally and figuratively. Coming to terms with the replacement of his leg is taking its toll. In this world the android limbs are quite convincing and the casual observer can’t distinguish the difference, but the impact on his body as well as his mind is clearly a large part of this character.
"Wait, did you say I'm a Robot?
 That explains why I was pissing motoroil..."
Urban shrouds Kennex in a veil of sarcasm, but his sharp wit is darkened by the tragedy he’s faced and he can’t hide the grief (the events that took Kennex’s partner and limb appear to take place several months before the pilot episode). Michael Ealy’s Dorian (DRN model Android Officer) is robot who’s type has been mostly decommissioned; they were designed to display a greater level of empathy and “feeling” than their newer models. Ealy plays this role well. The androids are meant to be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing but Dorian’s programming for higher emotion makes for - a more interesting story about a robot - and a more interesting experience in the portrayal. You can see in Ealy a just-under-the-surface tension due to his Pinachio-ic issues. The thinly veiled reference to other forms of prejudice is possibly made more clear by the fact that Ealy is African American, but either way the duo appear to have a level of chemistry that could build well.
   Lili Taylor’s turn as the gruff Police Captain Maldonado, on the other hand, lacks any form of chemistry and her completely generic “ranking-officer” shtick isn’t made any more palatable by the fact that she tones it down it bit. She’s still just going through motions. Mackenzie Crook, known for his supporting role as half of the bumbling deckhand duo from the Pirates of The Caribbean franchise also doesn’t make any Emmy plays as the technician who acts as a buffer between Kennex and Dorian. His role is essentially an expository one - simply making sure we understand any details of Dorian’s function we’re too dumb to pick up when its laid out in the story. I know he has chops but they’re not on display here. He’s timid but not in an endearing way. Then again, we’re only 4 episodes in and since most of the development has been between Kennex and Dorian, with a little luck he’ll find a way.

   End of the day, my nerd horns went up after the first half-hour of the pilot and they haven’t gone down. There is a lot of possibility here and essentially it remains to be seen if the writers will flesh it out properly. Given the chance, Karl Urban and Michael Ealy could make a memorable partnership as they have the right amount of cool, wit and gunplay to please standard issue action-jocks and the sic-fi backdrop coupled with enough tech wizardry to keep the Star Trek set tuning in or at least DVRing. If history has set any precedent it could be worth the wait to stick this out for the first season as JJ Abrams teams often really rev it up in the second season. But in today’s on-demand world here’s hoping FOX will have the patience. As for me, I’m in it for the haul. I’m not a big fan of Monday Night Football anyway.


Most of the Science Fiction Vehicles in the known multiverse TO RELATIVE SCALE

PANDORA's BOX - Some of what I'm Listening to..

Showing some of my most recent Pandora Station Selections. If you want a serious 90's hip-hop "fire-and-forget" party mix, I always recommend "Black Sheep Radio"