Thursday, February 6, 2014

TV Review - Almost Human (Black History Month)

Karl Urban (left) and Michael Ealy
in "Almost Human"
The hot, kiwi actor Karl Urban stars as John Kennex, a police detective living in the year 2048. There's a lot of advanced technology to help the police fight crime and vice versa, but the main technology is the artificially-intelligent robots or androids at the police's disposal. Each detective is assigned one android for all their cases. The premise is very similar to I, Robot (2004), starring Will Smith. The difference is that Smith's character lost his arm and had it replaced with a robotic limb, whereas Urban's character lost his leg and had it replaced with an artificial one.

Smith's character had an android partner too, but his partner looked like a walking set of metallic parts. Kennex's partner isn't metallic-looking. He's totally human in appearance. His name is Dorian, and he's played by Michael Ealy, the 40-year-old black actor who was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for his performance here and I think it was well-deserved.

Of course, there have been plenty of actors over the years who have played totally human-looking and human-sounding androids. The quirk of Dorian is that he was programmed to have emotions, or what's referred to as a "synthetic soul," as to further help him associate with humans. If I had to identify Ealy's performance, I would put it on a scale between Michael Fassbender in Prometheus and Scarlett Johansson in Her.

As in I, Robot, the human cop dislikes the robot. Kennex dislikes the robots. Dorian, however, is a DRN-model, which is the robots with emotions. The other type is the MX, which doesn't have emotions. They're rather equivalent to Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation but with less of a personality. Prior to the start of the series, Kennex never met the DRN, so his dislike of robots is focused more on the MX models.

When he's forced to partner with Dorian, Kennex transfers some of that dislike, but what makes their relationship compelling is this tension. Dorian is smart enough and enjoys going toe-to-toe with Kennex's rough, wise-ass and bitter comments and behavior. Kennex is mostly resentful and resistant, whereas Dorian does what he can to playfully antagonize, to poke at Kennex and crack his tough exterior.

He's almost verbally trying to tickle Kennex who is a man who refuses to laugh because he's so macho, yet it's clear he does have a sense of humor, and it's fun to watch Urban and Ealy dance that dance with each other, a lot of it coming in the form of car banter.

Creator J.H. Wyman (Fringe) and his writing team come up with some great dialogue for the car banter as well as some great gags at times. The one line that absolutely sold me and had me almost die of laughter is the car banter in Episode 2, titled "Skin," where Dorian reveals he's set up an online dating profile for Kennex because Dorian knows Kennex hasn't been dating nor having sex. Kennex tries to lie his way out of it, but Dorian says he knows the truth due to having scanned Kennex's testicles and Kennex says, as Urban delivers the line both shocked and horrified, "You scanned my balls?"

Anthony Konechny as MX-43 '1'
in "Almost Human"
There is somewhat of a call back to this joke in Episode 5, titled "Blood Brothers," when Kennex visits the facility in the police station where all the androids go to be charged and renew their power source. Kennex walks into what looks like a high-tech locker room, not like the Borg alcove, again in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kennex walks into the room and sees one of the MX robots full-frontal nude and like a Barbie and Ken doll, the MX isn't anatomically correct. Later, in the car, Kennex asks Dorian if like the MX he doesn't have any testicles or genitalia at all.

Aside from Ealy, there are no other African-American actors in the cast that have leading roles. Many prime-time dramas or comedies will have at least one minority character. Therefore, one might wonder why I'm spotlighting Almost Human for Black History Month. While it contains elements that reaches heights as towering as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner or Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, it does boil down to an anthology, police procedural show not unlike C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation but set 30 years from now. It could alternately be titled Law & Order: Future Victims Unit.

After the first four episodes, I was set to write it off as a slightly, fun but disposable piece of entertainment. However, it wasn't until Episode 5, titled "Blood Brothers," that I realized something that the show was doing with regard to race and with regard to African-American history that I missed, even though it was staring me straight in the face.

It's in Episode 5 that Dorian starts to complain about having to live with the MX robots. He wants to either have his own apartment or live with Kennex, which Kennex doesn't want at all. This complaint is continued into Episode 6, titled "Arrhythmia," but is really hammered in Episode 7, titled "Simon Says."

In Episode 7, the city where they all live starts experiencing rolling black-outs. As a result, the androids are limited to how much they can charge and re-fuel themselves. Immediately, Dorian complains because he's not allowed to charge and re-fuel himself to the level of the MX robots. He's essentially being treated as a second-class citizen. In the episode, we see mostly MX robots that are white-skinned with Dorian being the only robot who is black-skinned. Dorian wants his own apartment, but he's told he can't because he's "city property." The MX robots are equally city property, but given Dorian's darker skin and his second-class citizen treatment, the obvious echoes of slavery and the discrimination of black people subsequently are a great metaphor here but played out among robots. What I would argue is that great sci-fi does echo or make metaphor actual things in our lives and history through futuristic symbols.

Once I saw that present here in Almost Human, I fell in love with it. It also helped that by Episode 5 and forward the cases that Dorian and Kennex investigated got extraordinarily better. The cases and sci-fi concepts weren't new. They were concepts I've seen in shows like The X-Files or movies like Vibes (1988), starring Cyndi Lauper, but Wyman and his writers were able to make the concepts their own and fun.

I also really appreciated Episode 5, which put co-star Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under and Hemlock Grove) who plays Captain Sandra Maldonado more in the spotlight. Kennex's flirtation but mostly awkwardness around Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights and Parenthood) who plays Detective Valerie Stahl was very cute. Kennex's anger in anger management group was very cool as well. Yes, this has become a very cool show.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-LV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Mondays at 8PM on FOX.

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