“Almost Human”: The Sci-Fi Frankenstein Idea

It took a few episodes, but the Fox show Almost Human has totally won me over.

The premise is simple: In the near future, every police officer has an android partner. That had me intrigued from the start, but I wasn’t instantly hooked.

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John Kennex

Early on, I was skeptical about the lead character, John Kennex (Karl Urban) — one of those sarcastic, chip-on-his-shoulder types with a trauma in his past that he’s got to work through. He still hasn’t surprised me much. He’s trying to deal with his new cybernetic prosthetic leg. He’s secretly pining for one of the detectives he works with (Valerie Stahl, played by Minka Kelly). When he’s not saying something sarcastic, he’s saying some tough one-liner that may or may not make me want to laugh. But in spite of all that, I’ve come to accept him as the archetypal city cop. Urban plays the part well, and my favorite moments with him are always the ones that involve him telling some dorky personal story (like being called the “White Cheetah” in college) with total confidence. Lately, he’s become genuinely funny.

But the main reason Kennex is all right is because for me, the real star of the show is his partner, Dorian (Michael Ealy). Dorian is an android — a DRN-0167 model that was once decommissioned for being too unstable. That’s a euphamism for too emotional… too human. And that’s exactly why Kennex, who normally despises androids, is okay with having Dorian around.

I don’t know for sure if Ealy is the best actor on the show, but I can at least say that he steals it every episode. Like, every single one. Though he’s fairly stiff in early episodes with a dry, statistical sense of humor, Dorian (and perhaps Ealy) has loosened up in recent episodes. And if Dorian is the type of robot that learns by doing gifand adapts according to results, I’d say the primary lesson he has learned is how to push Kennex’s buttons. The chemistry between the two of them as they wind each other up is what keeps the show entertaining, even when the plots are a little off.

The show has been doing a pretty phenomenal job of focusing investigations on futuristic technology and culture. Some of it is a little predictable (sexbots, clones), but several episodes have really turned on my brain. The latest episode, “Unbound,” has been the best in that regard. It centers on an inventor, Dr. Nigel Vaughn (John Larroquette), who used to build robots. He built Dorian. He built all the DRN models. But after the DRNs were too emotionally unstable for police work, he built a new XRN model that was supposed to be more soldier than human. The result was a single XRN who went berserk and killed 26 police human officers.

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Dr. Nigel Vaughn

Now Dr. Vaughn is known as that-guy-who-built-that-robot-that-killed-all-those-people — or, as Kennex calls him, “Dr. Frankenstein.” So is Vaughn a villain? It’s an interesting moral dilemma and makes Vaughn a fantastic character in a sci-fi show that centers on robots. It brings up all those issues regarding just how “human” robots are — and who is responsible for their actions. Vaughn admits he built the XRN (Danica) when he was in a dark place, resentful and desperate to redeem himself after the DRNs were decommissioned. He was trying to save his reputation, but it backfired.

Still, Dr. Vaughn is playing god in ways that can be construed as loving or dangerous. He thinks of himself as a father to his creations and shows them real affection. For instance, he is overjoyed to see Dorian again and tells the DRN to “be careful” before leaving for a mission, just like a protective dad would. And some still view him as a genius who couldn’t help his projects going wrong. Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook), the police department’s synthetic tech specialist, reveres Vaughn and is actually nervous and honored to meet him in person.

Based on the way the episode ends — with Dr. Vaughn making an escape over a mysterious wall — it looks like we haven’t seen the last of him. I’m a big fan of ambiguous characters, and I’m excited that Vaughn may be a recurring villain with realistic motivations.

All that being said, Almost Human can be a tad cheesy and over-the-top at times. Some things just feel off, as if the writers are being lazy with the plot to keep things neat and interesting. Fortunately, they’re always small things — why is the internet audience so excited to see people being killed with bombs? why does a man say, “They killed me,” as he dies instead of trying to name the killers? — so they’re easy to forgive. There have been a few moments that made me cringe, such as when a criminal humiliates Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor) by saying he can tell she’s desperate for male attention… and then a guy gives her a compliment about how nice she looks, and she’s all flattered. That was just sexist and dumb.

But a lot of the sci-fi staples make the show fun to watch, and there are occasional surprises. Some of the technology has a spark of innovation, such as that featured in the episode “Blood Brothers” — when the police try to force a deal with criminal clones by pretending to release a prisoner using a hologram projection. While Maldonado walks the prisoner down a prison corridor (with limited space), the criminal clones are elsewhere, outdoors, seeing a projection that makes it look like Maldonado and the prisoner are headed their way. It’s just a new way to play with the idea of holograms, a sci-fi staple that can otherwise feel stale.

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Another fun episode was “Arrhythmia,” which has criminals performing illegal surgery to provide people with mechanical hearts. What the people don’t realize is that these surgeons are putting tech inside the hearts that will cause them to break whenever the surgeons want — so the criminals can blackmail the transplant recipients into paying them more and more just for the opportunity to stay alive.

The only thing I’d like to see more of is actual detective work. While episodes involving hostages, the threat of bombs, and mysteries are successes, a few episodes have been slow, and there hasn’t been enough ass-kicking for my taste yet. I would love to see more from Stahl and Maldonado too; at the moment, the show feels a little testosterone-heavy, with most of the women being victims or eccentrics or grieving widows and girlfriends.

Valerie Stahl
Detective Valerie Stahl

But where the show really surprises me is its moving movements. My favorite so far happens in the episode “Blood Brothers,” when a young woman named Maya says that she underwent a procedure that supposedly allows her to speak with dead people when she comes in contact with their possessions. She wanted to be able to talk to her dead parents, but everything they owned burned in a fire. It’s a bit of a silly story, really — but the performance by Megan Ferguson makes it truly touching. And when Dorian brings her police evidence from that fire, her reaction — even the simple way she says hi to her parents when she sees them, although though we don’t — almost made me tear up. TV shows don’t do that to me very often.

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Dorian

It sounds like Almost Human’s ratings put it in danger of being canceled, but it’s too early to tell. I hope it sticks around, because I feel like it’s just starting to find its stride. Although some of the predictable moments feel a bit shallow, the show has always revealed hints of how much moral depth it’s capable of plundering. Vaughn talks about the idea of a “synthetic soul” that makes each mechanical creation unique — that’s what I want to see explored. And in talking about androids, Rudy sums up the Frankenstein approach that makes the show so interesting:

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Rudy Lom

“It’s about passion, passion in your work. It’s science, yes, but it’s also an art. Ingredients are ingredients but if you go quiet and you just listen… they start to talk back to you. And they tell you want they need. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Take your robot, for instance. So many disparate ideas and concepts that all need to come together. But if you’ll approach your work with reverence and put your very soul into it, it starts to get a life of its own. And, dare I say, you can grow very fond of that creation.”

With that theme as a backdrop, Almost Human is able to make one of its key points: there are good robots and bad robots, just like people. I can see so many fascinating episodes threading from that single idea…

— Ashley

5 thoughts on ““Almost Human”: The Sci-Fi Frankenstein Idea”

  1. I just wrote a blog on this as well (cheap plug!). My enjoyment of this show actually cooled off a bit in the middle of this season. Mostly because of the lack of serialization. But this latest episode was my favorite yet and gives me a bit more hope for some stronger long-term storylines. I was a bit worried about its renewal chances at first, but things have stabilized pretty well ratings-wise and I’ve become fairly confident in a renewal now. I hope it does get renewed because there is a lot of untapped potential here I think.

    Also Dorian is the best character for sure. Totally agree there. Great blog!

  2. I’ve really enjoyed the show so far. It does suffer from Fox airing the episodes in non-sequential order, making the show lose any serialization that is built in.
    The best part of the show is definitely Kennex and Dorian’s relationship. They work well together, and are just fun to watch. The great thing about Karl Urban is that when his dialogue is mundane or kind of lame, the way he delivers it sells it.
    I hope it gets a second season aired in the right order.

    1. Yeah, you make a good point about Karl Urban — he can really sell those over-the-top “tough” lines better than a lot of actors! I also think he’s become really funny in recent episodes, which makes his character a little more likable and well-rounded.

      Definitely looking forward to more serialization, like you said, especially with some great recurring characters like Vaughn. You’re totally right that airing the episodes out of order from when they were shot hurt the show a little in this first season. But I’m glad you’re liking the show too! =)

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