Warning: Spoilers below!
J.J. Abrams certainly has his hands full these days. Between directing “Star Wars: Episode VII” and producing “Mission: Impossible 5,” he’s slated to own the 2015 holiday box office.
But there’s a surprising sci-fi series, produced by Abrams, that is flying under the radar right now. “Almost Human” premieres Sunday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
The futuristic buddy-cop dramedy does not disappoint — in terms of “lens flares,” the cinematic technique of flashing blinding lights. (It’s Abrams’ thing. There are a lot of them.)
Created by “Fringe” show runner Joel Wyman, “Almost Human” is set in the year 2048, a time in which the crime rate has risen so drastically that police officers are paired with combat-model androids to help protect Los Angeles.
Karl Urban, best known as Leonard “Bones” McCoy in Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, employs his gravelly voice and eternally pissed off expression in the role of Detective John Kennex. The former LAPD hotshot returns to the force after an earlier attack by an anonymous group placed him in a coma. He suffers from PTSD, memory loss, rejection of his prosthetic (his leg was amputated in the explosion), and a laundry list of other instabilities.
Kennex especially hates the idea of working alongside androids, which he calls “synthetics,” a derogatory moniker. These machines look human but are distinguished by their monotone voices, strictly rule-based sense of reason, and skin that looks like sheets of bubble gum pulled taut.
His first “RoboCop” partner is a deadweight, and in a moment of frustration, Kennex shoves him out the car door and onto the freeway. Then he meets the partner that will stick. The latest android model is essentially on back order, so they dust off Dorian — an earlier generation model who looks, speaks, and has feelings like a human. His model was decommissioned when their incredible likeness to people — particularly their emotional responses — began to interfere with their purpose.
Dorian, played by Michael Ealy (“Think Like a Man,” “Common Law”), radiates warmth on screen. Until he’s activated 20 minutes into the episode, the show is a jumbled sequence of flashbacks to the attack and scenes showing Kennex wallowing in isolation. Dorian’s efforts to engage in colloquial conversations elicit the most laughter from the audience, and his readiness to take a hit in the field and insistence on interrogating without torture earn our loyalty. He particularly tugs at the heartstrings when he informs Kennex, “I can’t say that I was born or grew in a womb or had a childhood, but I was made to feel. And I do.”
The show’s special effects are solid, given it has the production budget of a TV show rather than a sci-fi franchise. The police’s floating digital screens, powered by hologram-like devices, are stunning. And when the camera took the perspective of an android, the viewer gets a glimpse at how they gather information and digitally project it into their line of vision.
However, the pilot falls short in establishing a grand-scale, “LOST”-like mystery that excites the viewer. We’re supposed to care about the origin of the attack that emotionally and physically wounded Kennex, but we don’t know enough to be invested.
Urban’s Kennex was too cold to garner empathy, and it’s impossible to swallow his cheesy threats in such an “I mean business” voice. He weighs down any sense of heart — a trademark of Wyman and Abrams’ cult favourite, “Fringe.”
When “Almost Human” previewed at New York City Comic Con last month, the audience’s reactions varied on Twitter. Particularly in regard to Kennex’s robotic performance:
Minka Kelly also stars, although her brilliant detective sidekick character was hugely underdeveloped. She fangirls all over Kennex upon his return, and her watchful glances hint at a future love connection.
Overall, it’s safe to say Ealy’s performance as one of the most charming robots since C-3PO is worth tuning in for, for at least a second episode.
Watch the trailer below:
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