It’d be an understatement to say that Fox’s Almost Human arrives on the airwaves with a bit of baggage. Shortly before its slated November 4th premiere, the opening episode was pushed back a full two weeks. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes, co-showrunner Naren Shankar (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grimm) officially left the show in September due to that ever-popular reason of “creative differences.” Such events would seem to spell trouble for the freshman J.J. Abrams-produced TV project. Yet, while subsequent episodes will truly indicate whether the series rises or falls, the pilot episode makes for a solid, albeit generic, first installment anchored by a charming, odd-couple pairing that prevents the show from taking a nosedive into boresville.
After a white-on-black title card informs us that, in the year 2048, a 400% increase in crime rate resulted in the overwhelmed L.A. police force partnering each officer with a combat-model android, we are thrown headfirst into a futuristic alley battle that feels straight out of a video game cut scene (in a good way). As gunfire and explosions go off all around him, officer John Kennex (Karl Urban) watches in horror as his entire unit, including his partner, is mowed down by the members of a nefarious criminal organization called the Insyndicate.
We then move forward to present day where we learn that the events of the attack put Kennex in a 17-month coma and left him with a synthetic leg to replace the one that was blown off. Despite suffering from all manner of scars, both mental and physical, Kennex returns to the job after hearing that the Insyndicate has resurfaced. Against his own wishes, he’s given the mandated android partner. After unceremoniously tossing his first new partner out of the police cruiser, Kennex goes to robot maker Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) for a last-minute replacement. Here, he’s granted a slightly unorthodox partner in the form of Dorian (Michael Ealy), a DNR model. Unlike the current crop of androids, which operate purely on logic and reasoning, the DNR were designed to actually replicate human emotions. Surprisingly, few others in the precinct seem to question or care why Kennex drags in such an outdated model.
While at first Kennex treats Dorian like a burdensome weight, the two—of course— eventually learn to work together and uncover details about the Insyndicate’s upcoming plan. If that weren’t enough, Kennex also discovers that his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Ella Thomas), may very well have played a part in the assault that killed his crew.
Created by J.H. Wyman, who ushered the cult Fox show Fringe through some of its best years, the show certainly has a nice visual pizzazz to it. Much of this can no doubt be attributed to pilot director Brad Anderson. Besides several stints on Fringe, Anderson has made his name off highly visceral psychological thrillers such as Session 9 and The Machinist. While Almost Human does not contain the level of grime or grittiness of his feature films, Anderson clearly wears his influences on his sleeve, from the neo-noir, rainy streets straight out of Blade Runner to the smooth and sterile interior decorations reminiscent of Logan’s Run.
Of course, cool production design can only get you so far. Unfortunately, take away the nifty futuristic elements and Almost Human stands mostly as your run-of-the-mill crime procedural. The show somewhat attempts to counter its potential staleness by tossing multiple episodes’ worth of content into a single 46 minute, block but that only results in it feeling overstuffed.
The one element that the show unquestionably gets right is the casting of its main characters. Designed as a cross between Bladerunner’s John Kimble and Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs, John Kennex is the kind of role that Karl Urban could do in his sleep. As expected, he steps into this character like a tailored shoe, capturing both Kennex’s gruff, brooding nature while still nailing his propensity for more light-hearted quips. Moreover, as Dorian, the robot-with-a-heart, Michael Ealy hits all the right notes, playing up the android’s funny quirks without ever veering into broad caricature or undermining the character’s emotional core. The scenes where the two banter and quibble stand as the episode’s highlights and give a nice shot-in-the-arm to the proceedings.
Aside from the central duo, however, most of the show’s supporting cast fails to leave much of an impression. Though Mackenzie Crook makes the most of his limited screen time and Lili Taylor certainly subverts expectations by playing Kennex’s police captain, Minka Kelly can’t help but feel miscast as the force’s behavioral analyst. Particularly when placed against Urban’s grizzled Kennex, Kelly just appears far too soft to be believable as a policewoman.
Ultimately, Almost Human does what any successful pilot should do and sets up the show’s proverbial sandbox. While the Insyndicate plotline and the mystery of Kennex’s double-crossing girlfriend will no doubt play out over the course of the next few episodes, here’s hoping the writers do not feel completely consigned to those arcs and take a few episodes to explore the nooks and crannies of the world they’ve created. It’s the future, after all, and the possibilities are endless.