Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Future Looks Bright for Fox's Almost Human

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 8, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Karl Urban and Michael Ealy stars in Fox's Almost Human

Good old fashioned fun is part of the recipe for the best new dramas of 2013. Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have already staked out that territory nicely (and, though it makes me feel a little dirty in admitting it, so has The Blacklist). And even though it came a little late to the party (premiering just three weeks ago), Fox's new science fiction crime police procedural Almost Human, is standing with the best of them. 

Almost Human has an ambitious concept on paper a futuristic drama with high tech wizardry and self-aware androids but at its heart it is a buddy cop show with consistently high production values and two engaging lead actors. Created by J.H. Wyman and produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Almost Human is set in Los Angeles in 2048, in an era when advancements in technology have resulted in a corresponding increase in criminal activity. Our hero is Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban, Star Trek), who returns to the police force after emerging from a 17-month coma, which resulted from a botched raid that cost him his partner, one of his legs, and parts of his memory. Almost two years out of commission, he finds the station a very different place. Every cop is assigned a mandatory synthetic partner rule-oriented and emotionless MX-model androids who seem to be watching the cops as much as watching out for them. With little patience for this new normal, Kennex quickly (and dramatically) dispatches his assigned android, and is then given a different kind of synthetic, one with more personality than the other models and arguably with more personality than Kennex himself.

Behind the camera, Almost Human has with a very promising pedigree, and I had some real expectations for the series long before it aired. Wyman co-showrunner of Fringe (with Jeff Pinkner) for most of that show's run has only one other creator credit to his name: Fox's cancelled-too-soon cop-out-of-water Keen Eddie. I generally know better than to come to the table with too many prejudgments especially of the positive kind but I confess this one was almost overwhelming: the speculative ambition of Fringe combined with the humour and energy of Keen Eddie? Sign me up! As a result, I was initially thrown by the pilot's first act. The show seemed glum and humourless, and as a main character Urban's Kennex was all gravitas and no life. This, it turned out however, was by design. About 15 minutes in, with the introduction of John's new synthetic partner Dorian (Michael Ealy, The Good Wife), Almost Human comes suddenly alive. Dorian or more precisely, Ealy, who oozes warmth and likeability in every scene not only brings wit and vigour to the screen, he also seems designed (perhaps literally) to bring out the best in Urban's Detective Kennex.

Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy in Star Trek
My only other context for Urban has been his take on Dr. McCoy in Abrams' two recent Star Trek films, but that has already shown well for him. Of all the rebooted Enterprise characters his 'Bones' McCoy is one of the more successfully realized, recalling DeForest Kelley's classic portrayal (in appearance and tone) and still bringing a new energy to the role. But Ealy's Dorian is the breakout character of the series so far: dry, sarcastic, and just plain cool. The more-human-than-thou Dorian is the perfect partner, and just the right fit for the moody, and even emotionally robotic, Kennex. 

Unlike Wyman's Fringe, which seemed almost designed to confuse and alienate the casual viewer, Almost Human is self-confidently a crime-of-the-week police procedural. The pilot lays the groundwork for a few big stories lingering betrayals (both personal and professional) and at least one vast criminal conspiracy but so far all have been on the back-burner. For all of its science fiction framing, it turns out that for every piece of near magical police tech there seems to be equal and opposite countertech on the criminal side. As a result, it's often good old fashioned gunplay and ass-kicking which keeps winning the day. (The Die Hard-inspired third episode was fun from beginning to end.)  All this makes the show reassuringly familiar and but surprisingly fresh.

True to the cop show formula, the precinct is populated with some familiar characters: alongside Kennex, a lone wolf and gleefully insubordinate detective, we have the stern, but regularly perceptive and understanding, Police Captain Maldonado (Lili Taylor, Six Feet Under); Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly, Friday Night Lights), a fellow detective and potential love interest for Kennex; and Detective Paul (Michael Irby, The Unit), the bitter and undermining fellow officer (who seems to have walked right off the set of Nicholas Wootton's now-cancelled Golden Boy). The supporting cast included Kelly who so far has done little but look concerned and pretty while providing some requisite technobabble exposition haven't yet emerged as full characters, but in the end, it is a buddy show and Urban and Ealy have more than enough charm to spare. 

Michael Ealy as Dorian in Almost Human
And fortunately the Blade Runner vibe extends beyond the set design and recurring references to Asian noodles, and classic sci-fi questions are posed: What does it mean to be human? Can a synthetic being have a soul? Or even be aware of their own mortality? Is the inclusion of emotion in androids an advancement or something to weeded out?  But for all that, this isn't a dystopic future. We get glimpses of a dark criminal underground, but generally the Los Angeles of 2048 is bright-lit and clean. The crimes are new (the uber-creepy second episode plotline involving the harvest of human skin stands out), but criminal motivations remain the same: profiteering and power. And quickly, the parts of the show's concept that had initially intrigued me the science fiction and Philip K. Dick inspired material began to take a backseat to something far more basic: simple charisma. For all the intensity of its plots, the show has a light touch, and the two leads are engaging and easy to watch. Their banter is breezy and sincere, and speaks volumes for the developing relationship between them, with Dorian regularly taking the piss out the self-consciously dour Kennex. (John: If I lived in a cabin, I'd kill myself. Dorian: You should buy a cabin, John.) 

The writing had been consistently solid, even though in good procedural fashion each episode has had a different writer come on board. That only way that can work is if the actors and the characters stay steady and so far they do. Urban and Ealy already know who they are, and their chemistry kicks in within seconds of their first encounter. No doubt the promised long story will emerge as the season progresses, but this is a show which has to work by the week and not the season. 

But if Wyman's résumé reveals anything, it is that he knows how to build a fictional world out of characters and relationships, and let it run. (What still sticks with me about Keen Eddie is the attention paid to even passing characters, with baddies of the week that were almost as eccentric and engaging as our leads.) As speculative fiction, Fringe maybe be a very different kind of show, and perhaps a typical Fringe fan isn't the ideal viewer for Almost Human with its bluntly formulaic structure. But Almost Human may for that reason succeed in that one way Fringe never did: actually finding a wide audience.

Almost Human airs on Fox (in the US) and on Global (in Canada) on Mondays at 8pm.