“Almost Human” Review: Can The Show Go More Than “Skin” Deep?

“Almost Human” Review: Can The Show Go More Than “Skin” Deep? November 19, 2013

It’s hard to critique the second episode of most television shows. Like the pilot, their primary goal is often just to get more people watching, but they also need to give some indication of where the show could be headed. If the second part of Almost Human’s two-part premiere event is any indication, the series is indeed going to function primarily as a police procedural with sci-fi elements, following a case of the week with occasional small dabs at character development. I’m not sure that’s going to be enough to make the show appointment television (there’s a lot of great tv being made these days), but it could be a reasonably enjoyable romp.

“Skin” finds Kennex and Dorian investigating the murder of one of the country’s foremost designers of sexbots, androids designed specifically for, er, intimate encounters. The opening scene does a fantastic job of showing viewers that a lot more has changed between now and 2048 than the addition of robot police officers. We’re introduced to a variety of new technology, including a portable device that analyzes DNA, a spray that can render things unrecognizable to security cameras, and a small explosive that covers up a crime scene by showering it in with random forensics evidence (that final one is particularly clever—why erase the proof of a crime when you can just make it indistinguishable from everything else?).

That dedication to creative world-building has been the show’s greatest strength so far. Even if the characters and concepts aren’t fully fleshed out, there’s enough intriguing stuff happening to keep me interested, at least for now. It’s a bold move to introduce sexbots so early in the show’s run, not only because it might turn off more conservative viewers, but because it once again taps into the show’s central themes about identity, humanity and our growing intimacy with technology. These androids are specifically programmed to respond to the people around them; the line between machine and social animal is blurred.

My biggest problem with “Skin” is that the specifics of the sexbots’ programming aren’t explained. I’m still not sure what the guiding principle behind future L.A.’s development of androids seems to be. Dorian is by far the most humanlike android we’ve seen, and I can only assume that later models were limited as a result of the DRNs’ unpredictability. The MX models are capable of quick calculations and logical responses, but they lack the ability to emote and empathize. Sexbots seem even more limited, incapable of offering much information on the robots they work with and their origins. They react to the subtle physical cues of their clients, but they don’t seem to function as self-aware beings.

The law enforcement androids seem to know and understand that they are synthetic devices created to serve humans. The sexbots, in contrast, seem to have no sense of self at all. Why is that? There seems to be a fear of allowing robots to be self-aware when they’re placed in emotionally intimate situations, including sex. Dorian remains the one android who is capable of genuine feelings while also recognizing himself as a conscious being. Dorian understands the concept of “I.” The sexbots do not.

Dorian is arguably the most interesting character on the show as a result, but we also have yet to see what, if any, limitations have been programmed into him. In this episode, he’s capable of both lightning fast data analysis and working to improve his partner’s love life. Is there anything he can’t do? I’m concerned that by embodying the best elements of both humans and computers he’ll become a crutch for the show. Need to analyze a microscopic piece of evidence and quickly connect it to cases from years ago? Dorian’s on it. Looking for a date this Friday? He’ll be your walking EHarmony. Wondering about the average windspeed of an air-laden swallow? Calculation complete. Almost Human needs to start clarifying what each of its robot classes can and can’t do, otherwise all the tension will be sapped. Why even partner with Kennex if Dorian is capable of doing so much?

The sexbot mystery is intriguing but frustratingly vague (I’m still not sure what was happening there at the end with the titular skin stuff). The banter between Kennex and Dorian was a highlight of the episode, however, and the show will get away with it a lot if it keeps their dynamic light and fun. Much like with the two leads on Sleepy Hollow, there’s a refreshing willingness to not take the central relationship too seriously. When Dorian reveals that he’s been scanning Kennex’s crotch, it’s a moment of levity that works well precisely because it feels organic to the characters. If you have the ability to run bodily scans and want your partner to like you, why wouldn’t you use the size of his testicles to help offer him dating advice?

It’s nice to see the episode try to explore some new character threads—in this case, Kennex’s guilt over the death of his partner and Dorian’s inquiry into the purpose of religion—but it just doesn’t stick the landing. Structurally speaking, there’s just not enough time spent reflecting on either of those subplots for them to resonate. When Dorian tells the sexbot at the end that she’s going to a better place, it doesn’t work because, once again, we’re not entirely sure what she does and doesn’t understand. That moment also feels slightly condescending, as if hope in an afterlife only benefits dumber, less self-aware beings. The show seems reluctant to acknowledge that even intelligent adults might find solace in that belief, and I’m starting to wonder more about the role religion plays in this vision of the future.

Almost Human is off to a promising start, but it still feels like it’s struggling to find the right balance between its world-building, character development, and missions of the week. That’s not unusual, especially for shows early in their run (I’ll defend Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. more than most people, but it also still hasn’t found its groove). More than anything else, these first two episodes have done a good job establishing the dynamic between Kennex and Dorian. I’m sold on the partnership-turned-bromance part of the premise; it’s everything around it that’s now in need of fuller development.

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