What we look for in popular culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum; from the media we’ve consumed in the past, to the people we have encountered, it influences what we think about TV shows and how we connect to certain characters. This is why I tend to root for characters that get no screen time, while also never really falling in love with most of the lead characters on TV shows. I root for underrepresented characters, who are usually in supporting roles, but I try not to get my hopes up every time I watch something new, because most shows are not about the people I want to see. I end up getting especially frustrated when shows don’t explore the people I find captivating (usually the brown people and the women, especially the brown women).
That being said, I don’t think I am wrong with some of my frustration with Almost Human. I may be expecting too much as a creative person who loves science fiction, but on the surface, I have seen this show before, and I’m not alone in this. This TV show is I, Robot. It is Minority Report. It is the slick IKEA and Apple future that we all think of when we go 50 years ahead. It is also Total Recall with the navigation of the city’s technological underbelly, and Blade Runner with the gritty city exteriors. That’s fine with me, because imagining what the world will look like in 2048 is difficult, and I doubt the show writers should spend a ton of time trying to come up with a truly unique look for the city. I do want to have fully thought out sociology and characters, rather than a cool sandbox to play in.
For the most part, I am enjoying the sandbox we are being shown. It’s a simple story to follow, a case of the week that John Kennex (Karl Urban) and Dorian (Michael Ealy) solve, and it has great future tech. I especially love Dorian and the android mythos that is being created. I find the androids a great cipher for the “Other”, a way to mirror humanity and how we treat someone who is unlike most people. It’s a risky storytelling challenge, when you humanize something that is not human. It can result in a poignant commentary on our prejudices and how dehumanizing something can over time be worse than actual physical hurt. The other side is that the writing can place the non-human character as either the butt of jokes or a glorified tool. I haven’t decided where Almost Human is going to end up, yet I am leaning toward the latter.
This is not to say that they haven’t done interesting things in the first episodes with Dorian’s place as the “Other.” Dorian is introduced as the only resource that a curmudgeon like John Kennex could be paired up with. He is a DRN, which apparently is coded to be as human as possible. His difference from the standard police androids becomes an asset because he is constantly shown as essential to solving John’s cases: knowing about facemakers, able to do on location data analysis, and having patience with witnesses. We have also seen him sneered at by cops and celebrated by children on the street, something that a cop too good at his job could experience. In “Skin”, Dorian asks existential questions about death – who will remember him? – and he talks John through an android interrogation. I find it particularly interesting when he mentions that Sexbots can’t answer the questions “Where were you made?” and “Who owns you?” The Sexbots are programmed to feed off human emotions, yet they are also seen as mainly tools, and thought of even less than Dorian.
By the third episode, John and Dorian are equals in John’s car, bickering about coffee on their way to work. Through our brief foray into this world, we know that Dorian can change his voice, process DNA, and access video from destroyed devices. He is basically the closer, the one who always gets the job done when John can’t, because it is too dangerous. He is a really interesting character, but it would be good to know the broad history of android technology in this universe, and I don’t think we are going to get it.
Some remarks made in the first episodes allude to the fact that some people don’t trust the DRN technology. A common insult for Dorian is that he isn’t a man, isn’t human. As someone who has had ancestors treated as less than human, I’m immediately cautious with this narrative. The androids, as the “other”, are only able to come to the party to serve the guests. It’s obvious to me that this needs to be explored from the point of view of Dorian and other androids. The lack of exploration is my biggest issue with this show at the moment. I like the world we are in and the characters for the most part, but as an episodic, crime-of-the-week series, the show asks the big questions without giving enough time to answer them. The crimes take up the bulk of the show, and so far we don’t know how Dorian feels about being a glorified police tool, or how John feels about having a bionic leg, especially given his distrust of android technology. How exactly were the DRNs discontinued, and why was Dorian just lying in wait? There is also barely any character development for Captain Maldonado (Lili Taylor) or Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly), and I am still learning the names of certain characters four episodes in. The Law and Order nature of the show is overpowering its sci-fi elements and narrative potential.
I may be becoming pessimistic because we are only in the first season so my questions could be answered fairly soon, but I remain cautious. This show is on network TV, which means the desire for ratings probably is more important than telling a story. The lead character is Karl Urban’s generic surly cop, who we are supposed to connect with more than Dorian. Yet, I don’t. I connect with the guy who is not regarded as human, based on just small glimpses of his thoughts. I want the show that is like traditional sci-fi, where the future is more of a canvas to explore the world of today. I want a show that shows the android as a proper cipher for the “Others” of today and tells the audience that despite being the year 2013, people of color are still seen as a tool for white guys. I want critical thinking and growth and hard questions being asked and answered, whether completely or by raising more questions. Almost Human is a fine show with the potential to say things about society and challenge our way of thinking. It’s a show that could be great, but so far, it’s only almost.