Saturday, November 23, 2013

Almost Human: First Impressions

Fox's new sci-fi show, Almost Human, has a lot of cred. It's produced by the ubiquitous JJ Abrams, created & written by JH Wyman of the excellent Fringe, and the lead is Judge Dredd/New Bones Karl Urban (with one of my personal favorites, Lili Taylor, in a supporting role). It looks cool, too (trailer).

So why isn't it gelling yet?

Almost Human takes place in a relatively near-future that feels a lot like the future of Fringe (without the Observers/Invaders) with a smattering of Blade Runner motifs. Like so many other new sci-fi and fantasy projects, the show uses the frame of a police procedural, tracking the story of Urban's Officer Kennex (countdown to an "Officer Kleenex" joke) and his android partner Dorian (played by Michael Ealy, who hands-down is giving the best performance on the show). There's a crime syndicate story arc that the first episode takes pains to establish.

Despite every bullet point that should be snagging eyeballs for the network, though, the show stumbles out of the gate. There are three main challenges that it'll have to overcome over the first season.

1. Right in the second episode it falls prey to over-reliance on the police procedural format. Wyman and co need to skip quickly to the kind of case-of-the-week with multi-episode arc blended in that made Fringe so good once it hit its stride. The "it's like CSI with a robot" approach isn't compelling enough; the show needs to buy its own premise. Shows like Dollhouse and even early Fringe had the same problem at the beginning, and the most successful high concept shows of late throw all the crazy in your face from day one and benefit from it (see Person of Interest or Sleepy Hollow).

2. The future world doesn't make sense yet. Even in the second episode, viewers are left without a sense of how weird the case of the week was. Do these android things happen all the time? What kind of society is this? Sci-fi shows set in the present day (Fringe) or the very different future (Star Trek) have an easier time with this. Almost Human needs to tell us where this world is in relation to say, the kind of future of Blade Runner, Dredd (2000AD), Demolition Man, etc.

3. Right now Karl Urban is the weakest part of the show. He does well with the funnier moments, but he's awkward with the serious ones. This is a shame, because Urban's done so well with other roles, and it'll be frustrating if this one doesn't fit. Michael Ealy is trying to carry the show himself - and right now he is, but it can't last for long.

Despite its flaws, though, Almost Human isn't a bad show. It's an okay show so far... but that's a problem in the current market. As much as "genre" fans like to complain about the scarcity of shows that cater to them, there are a dozen other science fiction shows on TV of the same or better quality competing for viewers. If you add in the other kinds of shows sci-fi fans likely watch, we're approaching a real physical limit to the number of TV hours it's possible for humans to watch and still eat/sleep/work. The first-world problem now is that in this age of legitimately good television, viewers are having to cut out "okay" shows. Almost Human needs to distinguish itself from the pack.

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