The biggest problem that FOX’s new sci-fi cop procedural Almost Human will face in the coming weeks is the undue burden of expectation. Creator and showrunner J.H. Wyman previously helmed the late, lamented Fringe, while Almost Human‘s promos have heavily featured its geek triumvirate of executive-producers: Wyman, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. Another unmistakably major draw is Almost Human‘s recognizable cast, led by Star Trek‘s Karl Urban and Sleeper Cell‘s Michael Ealy.
With many talented individuals working in front of and behind the camera, the heat was unmistakably on for Almost Human to arrive on Sunday as a bona fide television event, featuring awards-worthy performances, stellar special effects and a compelling storyline to complement its already high-concept hook. Does it check all of those boxes? No, of course it doesn’t.
It’s simply inane to expect a show (particularly one on a commercial broadcast network like FOX) to premiere to that level of confidence and quality. Instead, what we got with Almost Human last night was a thoroughly decent pilot that holds the promise of a much better show somewhere down the line. And in a television season that has seen anticipated shows flop one after the other, from CBS’ Hostages to ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, I’m pretty happy with Almost Human just not being terrible.
Set in 2048 Los Angeles, Almost Human opens on a technologically-advanced, crime-ridden future not unfamiliar to fans of I, Robot and (more recently) Dredd. Humanlike androids have become standard issue in the LAPD in an attempt to combat unprecedented amounts of criminal activity, though their cold efficiency removes the human component of law enforcement. This does not sit well with detective John Kennex (Urban), who lost a colleague and his leg during an ambush because of an unyielding bot. Returning to active duty after two years in recovery, Kennex is reluctantly partnered with an unusually compassionate android named Dorian (Ealy), whose kind had been previously retired after it was discovered that near-human levels of emotion interfered with their effectiveness in the field. Together, they work to discover the perpetrators of the ambush.
The show’s strongest asset, aside from its top-notch production qualities (which I expect will taper off in future episodes), is its great cast. Urban, so terrific in Dredd even with half his face obscured, is both a skilled character actor and a capable leading man. Playing a gruff, angry cop, Urban is believable but never cartoonish. There are definite, unexplored layers to his character that I hope Almost Human will flesh out in the next few episodes. Ealy is also very entertaining as Dorian, though his casual attitude and conversational manner of speech don’t exactly sit well with me if he’s meant to be bought as a robot. He does get the pilot’s coolest moment, however, when he injects a syringe of infected blood into his neck in order to immediately analyze its contents. The chemistry between Urban and Ealy is also, to my great relief, potent enough to support Almost Human‘s buddy-cop set-up.
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Supporting cast members hardly get any screen-time in the pilot, though Lili Taylor pops up in a few scenes as the warm-hearted Captain Sandra Maldonado, Kennex’s only remaining friend in the LAPD. Detective Richard Paul (Michael Irby) comes off as a dedicated but suspicious cop, while Mackenzie Crook appears to have taken acting classes at MIT, ensuring that his robot specialist Rudy Lom will be purely classified as tech support. Unfortunately for Minka Kelly, her wide-eyed human intelligence analyst Valerie Stahl has yet to leave any sort of impression, which isn’t a great sign if (as her moon-eyed gaze in the pilot suggests) she’s being groomed as a romantic interest for Kennex. Almost Human has a better-than-average crop of supporting actors, and the action-heavy pilot didn’t leave much time for elaboration on their roles, so I’m inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Almost Human‘s visuals are more impressive than anything I’ve seen on a network show in a long while, and it’s clear that Wyman put nearly his entire budget towards crafting a believable setting for the show. Futuristic cars zip through the streets, the action is flashier and more engaging than anything else currently on TV and advanced weaponry adds an unpredictable edge to the pilot’s shoot-outs. Meanwhile, the androids themselves are solidly designed and surprisingly distinctive (likely a tough obstacle for the show’s make-up department to overcome). Unfortunately, I can’t see Almost Human maintaining its high-quality special effects in future episodes, which means that the dynamic between Kennex and Dorian will be front-and-center. Luckily for the show, Urban and Ealy are up to scratch.
I do hope, perhaps naïvely, that Almost Human will take the time to properly explore its futuristic setting. Androids patrol the streets, but what that actually entails is still unknown. Advanced technology in the police force opens up new channels for abuse of power. Meanwhile, a mysterious Syndicate menaces the police force with organized attacks and dangerous technology (the pilot’s biggest ‘ick’ moment comes when an unfortunate cop gets sprayed by a poison gas compound they cooked up). However, Almost Human really requires a menacing villain for its protagonists to cross swords with. There’s a hint of one towards the end of the pilot, but bold storytelling is unmistakably the key to Almost Human‘s success, and that’s simply not on display yet.
The show also needs to establish itself in order to come out from under the shadow of I, Robot, from which it has lifted most of its story so far. Wyman showed a lot of originality while working on Fringe but, good-looking though it is, Almost Human feels disappointingly derivative. With two talented leads and an intriguing blend of sci-fi action and buddy-cop banter, the show has the potential to improve on its pilot and create a truly enjoyable show in future episodes. For now, however, Almost Human is unexceptional, if adequate.Previous