Almost Human: Playing the uncanny valley

[Interesting consideration of ‘Computers Are Social Actors’ telepresence issues; this is from Pillow Talk TV, where the post includes several more pictures; more information and full episodes of the series are available on its official web site]

"Almost Human" graphic

Almost Human: Playing the uncanny valley

December 5, 2013
By jcodner

Fox’s new futuristic cop drama Almost Human, from power-house J.J. Abrams and creator J.H. Wyman, steps into the gaping hole on network television left by his previous Fringe and not quite filled by shows like Arrow and Revolution. Starring Karl Urban, Minka Kelly, Lili Taylor, Mackenzie Crook, Michael Irby, and Michael Ealy as “synthetic” Dorian, Almost Human is straight science fiction unfolding in a time not too far away from our own in a social and political climate that seems all too plausible as a potential future.

In 2048, society is in the beginning stages of a major shift, tipping precariously over the edge of the world we know today and into one resembling that of Blade Runner‘s. The world of Almost Human is recognizable to us as a natural extension of our own — one where crime is becoming more dangerous and unruly, and dangerous technologies are hard to regulate. A smart move by Abrams and crew is making it something we recognize, both visually and culturally. It’s more (mentally) accessible to your average viewer than, say, the world of Defiance which focuses on a dystopian future with aliens and a terraformed Earth.

In the vein of RoboCop, the law enforcement of this near future has implemented the use of sentient robots, or “synthetics,” to offer support to the police crews, who are becoming increasingly insufficient in the face of black-market technological terrorism. The force went through a few synthetic options before settling on the cold and calculating MX-43 model over the more human and empathetic DRN’s, which have been packed away in storage.

When we meet him, Urban’s Detective John Kennex is in recovery after a nasty run-in with a notorious crime organization known as the Syndicate. During the encounter, his human partner is killed. John blames the synthetic MX-43 assigned to them for not possessing enough empathy to save his friend’s life. After all, the life of one does not outweigh the life of many. When John wakes up from his injuries, he finds that the love of his life is missing, along with his leg. He struggles with the physical, mental and emotional damage done to him, as well as his obsession with the strange connection between the Syndicate and his ex.

Detective Kennex has an understandable disdain for the MX-43 models and is assigned a DRN named Dorian in the hopes that it will not only be a good fit for him professionally, but mentally and emotionally as well. As their relationship grows, it becomes clear that Dorian does become more like a therapist and a true friend to Kennex, perhaps even more so than a real human.

Almost Human utilizes the infamous uncanny valley expertly. The relationship between robots and the uncanny valley is a well known one. Historically, humanoid robots have been made to look more mechanical to avoid the awkward feeling of something man-made feeling too organic, almost the same way a human clone would make some feel uncomfortable. Do they have souls? Feelings? Rights?

The MX-43s in Almost Human fall slightly into that valley. They look like humans but speak and move unnaturally, intentionally giving viewers an uneasy feeling. As you watch, you automatically feel distrusting of these machines, and you get the feeling that this isn’t going to end well — that maybe they are threats, and there could be a sentient rift from humans where they rise up, iRobot style. Granted, we’re only four episodes in, and the main concern is the dubious Syndicate at this point, but my gut is telling me to pay attention to that uneasy feeling the MX-43s give me.

In direct contrast, Dorian, the early-stage android with synthetic emotion, is constructed to be almost indistinguishable from humans. He is the new Data for this generation. He is more human than many people I know, and the buddy-cop relationship between Dorian and Kennex is touching. The audience is able to forget that Dorian is man-made. We believe he has feelings when he looks a bit hurt after Kennex laughs off the idea of them being friends. And it doesn’t even bother us when he uses his synthetic technology to gather information on a case. Although, it was unsettling when he shot contaminated blood into his own neck in order to generate a toxicology report on the spot.

Our dynamic duo has been busy fighting off standard assignments-of-the week, armed with witty quips and banter, and a penchant for disobeying Captain Maldonado’s (Taylor) orders. They’ve already clashed with the classic tropes of dirty cops, drug rings, prostitution empires, and crime syndicates in just four episodes. We’ve even had a Die Hard-esque episode! But none of it feels tired because the character’s chemistry is undeniably fun to watch, and every over-done story line is fluffed up by the futuristic spin the show places on them. Not to mention the production quality is probably the best on network television at the moment, with incredibly well crafted CGI and graphics.

Almost Human is well written, funny, fascinating, and highly entertaining. It has a solid premise made new and interesting with the endless possibilities that come with the future. The character relationships are interesting and hold great potential, and in true Abrams fashion it looks like a larger conspiracy is brewing. Urban is his usual surly yet charming self, and Ealy is fabulous as Dorian, skirting that line between human and machine. The supporting cast is nothing to sneer at either, with Taylor, Kelly and Crook all pulling their weight.

The one thing missing from this mid-season hit is meaningful social commentary. Perhaps that’s smart of the producers (no one wants to polarize their audience), but what science fiction has always done better than any other genre is brought to light our social and political weaknesses in a more available way. It would be nice to see that happen in Almost Human, and hopefully it will stick around long enough to allow it to evolve into something more than just a wonderfully produced, highly entertaining show, because it has that potential.


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