Nov 19 2013 1:00pm

Back to the Future: Almost Human Premiere Recap: “Pilot”

Almost Human

Almost Human, FOX’s new sci-fi crime drama may have arrived a few weeks late, but it seems to be worth the wait. Not surprising since the show comes from an impressive pedigree—creator/executive producer J.H. Wyman (Fringe) and Emmy award winning (and general life-winning) executive producer J.J. Abrams (All The Franchises).

Almost Human is set in L.A. 2048, which looks similar to L.A., 2019 (and, to be fair, similar to a lot of future L.A.s). The rapid advancement of technology has resulted in a 400% increase in crime. To fight the rising tide of violence, advanced combat-ready androids are issued as partners to every officer in the police department (with, as we’ll see, varying degrees of success).

Warning: Spoilers!

We’re introduced to Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) on what is likely one of the worst days of his life—mid-battle at a police raid gone awry. His friend and partner Officer Pelham, has been hit and the MX-model androids accompanying them are programed to follow protocol, refusing to help Kennex save his friend. As they struggle to escape, Kennex’s leg is shot off and a shadowy figure emerges from the smoke, throwing a bomb to finish the job. The bomb explodes a few feet away, and the shot fades into Kennex’s golden-toned near-death vision of a beautiful woman’s face, which then dissolves into my theory that Kennex is an android too. But don’t go putting any money on that yet (or, while we’re at it, on any property in future-L.A.).

Almost Human Karl Urban John Kennex

We catch up with Kennex, two years later, trying to jog his memory of the incident by visiting a “Recollectionist,” a black market physician who operates some suspect looking machinery designed to help Kennex regain important details from the day of the ambush. But the machine has dangerous side effects and Kennex’s nose begins to bleed from the strain, just moments after he emerges. This time he remembers the call from Pelham, and his ex-girlfriend, Anna—the woman from his vision.

Back at home Kennex replays a video message from Anna, but the message is 738 days old. Before he can throw on “Pictures of You,” his nostalgia is interrupted by a call from his boss, Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor!). It’s time for Kennex to get back to work. Maldonado mentions a new case—a coordinated armed robbery—that she believes has links to the Insyndicate, one of the “violent, faceless, criminal organizations” that runs guns and drugs through L.A., and the same group suspected of ambushing Kennex’s operation two years earlier. (For anyone wondering how he’s been getting around after the leg injury—erm, and the bomb—his new bionic leg begins chirping at him, “synthetic calibration incomplete,” as soon as he stands up.)

At the precinct, we briefly meet Detectives Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly) and Pete Vogel (Toby Levins), who is mysteriously locked out of his case files. We also get a taste of some of the anti-Kennex sentiment that’s been flying around the precinct through another colleague, Detective Richard Paul. Seems like there are a lot of people who still hold Kennex personally responsible for the botched raid and think he should have been discharged. Stahl defends Kennex and is immediately established as a potential romantic interest with a long, lingering gaze across the room at (an oblivious) Kennex.

After running Kennex through his psych evaluation file (depression, trauma-onset OCD, PTSD, among other issues), Maldonado brings Kennex up to speed on the armed robbery case. The target was an armored truck carrying bioresearch. She also assigns Kennex his first synthetic partner, an MX-785 unit, much to his consternation.

At the crime scene, Kennex and the team discover that the truck was carrying programmable DNA (which can be used to grow organs, tissue, etc.) and a chemical called Myklon Red. This triggers a memory of the ambush for Kennex—canisters of Myklon Red were on the scene that day as well. The MX-785 observes Kennex grappling with the memory and later, on their way back to the precinct, confronts Kennex about it, threatening to report it. After the android asks one too many questions (two), Kennex loses patience and calmly pushes him out of the moving car, destroying him.

Kennex is assigned a new android partner, which requires a visit to Gareth’s Rudy’s Creepy Lab. Rudy (Mackenzie Crook) spins through a drycleaner-style rack of skin suits bags until he locates and unzips Kennex’s new partner, Dorian (Michael Ealy). Dorian is a DRN model—a line of androids that was discontinued due to their instability, replaced by the logic-based MX units. Rudy defends the DRN model though, attributing the problems to the fact that these androids were as human as possible—even capable of emotion (“synthetic soul”). They depart and one assumes Rudy is left to distribute lotion in lowered baskets.

Almost Human Rudy Mackenzie Crook

A quick cut to the Insyndicate’s evil lair reveals they are tracking someone and that they seem to be building androids of their own.

Dorian tries to bond with his new partner, but Kennex is having none of it, throwing down the S-word (“synthetic”) several times and trying to Siri Dorian off. Meanwhile, Kennex’s leg starts chirping at him, Dorian notices but says nothing.  Ironically (and intentionally) the first real character connection for the audience comes via the synthetic Dorian, as Kennex hasn’t yet discovered the “likeable” half of his “likable a**hole” character.

Kennex and Dorian find out that Vogel was abducted by the Insyndicate in broad daylight. Kennex decides that this is a good time to talk to the one suspect captured from the robbery earlier that day.  In the interrogation room, Kennex immediately resorts to beating the suspect, while Dorian uses the data to turn him. The suspect gives Kennex and Dorian the address where Vogel is being held. There, they discover Vogel trapped inside a bulletproof glass box with a strange device. Kennex notices they are being filmed, and at that moment the device is triggered, releasing a gas that melts Vogel’s face faster than you can push your android partner out of a moving vehicle.

Dorian Michael Ealy Almost Human

Back at the precinct, they discover one of Vogel’s cases was wiped from the records, probably when he was locked out of his files earlier that day. Meanwhile, Kennex continues to shut out Dorian. “You’re not like me, except in that I might be an android too and at the very least I have a synthetic leg that won’t STFU.”

Kennex gets a call from Rudy with the lab results of the gas that killed Vogel. The gas was a combination of the programmable DNA and the Myklon-Red, something created to specially target cops who are given a special inoculations to protect them from bio- and chemical warfare. This chemical agent works against that inoculation, it’s like “getting a hundred different diseases at once.”

Kennex returns to the Recollectionist, desperate to remember more about the ambush and the people behind it. He nearly dies in the process, but Dorian saves him. After all that, Kennex remembers one important thing: Anna was at the ambush, and worse, she was the one who threw the bomb.

Using a recovered data file from Vogel’s MX, Dorian and Kennex realize that the Insyndicate is after something in the evidence room, tied to Vogel’s missing case file. They call ahead to warn Maldonado, but it’s too late, the building has been breeched. Using an energy pulse to knock out all the MX units, the Insyndicate operatives begin to break in and start hooking up more of the anti-cop gas to the air ducts. Dorian and Kennex arrive to mayhem, but capture the Insyndicate’s team leader before he can break into the evidence room. Though Kennex & Co. don’t realize it yet, it seems like the evidence that the Insyndicate wants is a female android.

Later, Kennex asks Maldonado why she specifically chose to pair him with Dorian. Maldonado cryptically says, “He’s special, just like you who will also be revealed to be an android.”

The pilot did a good job of introducing the characters and their backgrounds without too much heavy-handed exposition. There were a few plot holes that were mildly annoying, but not so distracting that they threw you out of the show: Why would the Insyndicate reveal their secret weapon instead of just deploying it? How was the precinct so easily breached (pay no attention to the helicopter on the roof!)? If the MX units can be taken out with the energy pulse device, why hasn’t the Insyndicate just wiped the whole city that way? Why are the toilets equipped with electric levers, if the levers still need to be pulled? Inquiring minds want to know!

Sunday night’s episode also set up lots of tantalizing questions for Almost Human to answer in the weeks ahead: What is the Insyndicate’s true end-goal? With all the flaws being revealed (and exploited) in the MX model’s design, is it possible that these defects are intentional/sabotage? Is someone inside the police force collaborating with the Insyndicate? Who leaked the raid info? Did Kennex’s girlfriend really betray him?

With two charismatic leads (who maybe do not gaze at each other?) and fast-paced action, Almost Human may draw heavily on its dystopian/robot predecessors, but it is all done to refreshing and entertaining effect.

When Nancy Lambert  doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, she’s busy writing, cutting down restless draugrs in Skyrim, or putzing around online.  She finds it improbable that Segways haven’t been laughed out of existence by 2048.

Alan Dionne
1. amdionne
Missed it, but it sounds better than the Monday premiere that I saw. Hoo boy.
2. wandering-dreamer
Honestly I don't think there's any chance that Kennex is going to turn out to be an android, besides the fact that he seems to be biologically human the greater point of the entire series is a human working with a non-human, if you make both of them robots then you've effectively killed the series main theme and what sets it apart from a hundred other similar ideas.
3. Seven
Almost Human sounds intriguing. I look forward to watching the series.
Jim Brannick
4. divisionerror
Yeah, I think it would be a really bad idea for Kennex to be anything other than human, since the human/robot interaction angle is the foundation of the concept.

Also, my closed captioning had the violent, faceless, criminal organization as "Insyndicate" not "Syndicate" but I've seen multiple places saying just "Syndicate." Anyone else hear/see Insyndicate?
Mahesh Banavar
5. maheshkb
I saw it and could not help but think Caves of Steel. Baley, Daneel, and the story progresses.

So far, not impressed...
Ben Nash
6. sonofthe
Watched the first two episodes. They were fun, but once again, the science fictional stuff has little meaning beyond style.
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
@4; I heard 'InSyndicate' too. Maybe they're a spin-off of 'N Sync?

I haven't watched the second one yet but quite enjoyed the first, looks good, decent enough acting, and the technobabble was not too stupid.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@4: It was definitely Insyndicate.

And yeah, I don't get why some people are speculating that Kennex is an android, unless they've just heard too many "Deckard is a replicant" arguments (which, by the way, Deckard totally is). Given what we see of the android state of the art in this episode and the second one, I don't think it's advanced enough to allow the creation of androids perfect enough to pass for human on examination. Kennex's nose bleeds, his brain responds to the recollectionist's procedure the way a human brain would, Kennex undoubtedly had to pass a police physical before he could return to duty, and there's a line in episode 2 about Dorian scanning, err, a certain part of Kennex's anatomy which is decidedly human.

About the "electric" toilet handle, I assume the lights we saw were some sort of sterilizing field. Although I agree, why have levers at all when so many public lavatories use hands-free sensors? (There's also a silly bit in episode 2 involving a drawer full of cords and chargers. By 2048, most devices will probably charge wirelessly or off of ambient heat, sound, and motion.)
9. tigeraid
I hope they don't move from "Blade Runner pastiche" to "Blade Runner ripoff" by making Kennex into an android. It doesn't suit the story, anyway.

I am cautiously optimistic about the show. I love Karl Urban, and I love the setting and visuals, so far.
Lianne Burwell
10. LKBurwell
I enjoyed the first two episodes, but if they reveal that Kennex is really an android (or a lot more mechanical than just the leg), not even Karl Urban will keep me watching.
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
One other thing to keep in mind is that Blade Runner replicants weren't androids in the current SF sense, but more in the original dictionary sense of synthetic biological humans. They were flesh and blood, but their organs and tissues were synthetic and designed to be superior in performance to the natural equivalents. So in that context, it was plausible that someone could be a replicant and not know it. But in this show, the androids are clearly mechanical under their skin. So in this show's universe, there's just no basis at this point for considering it possible to pass off an android as a human complete with nosebleeds and other biological attributes. I seriously don't know where this speculation is even coming from.
12. Alright Then
Looks like an interesting show. Will have to check it out.

Hopefully they steer clear of the "human is really an android" idea. I thought it was a bad idea when Blade Runner did it. Sure, makes Deckard a bit more interesting, but takes a lot of meaning out of Roy Batty's "tears in rain" speech. If Deckard is a replicant, Roy sharing these thoughts with him are no more meaningful than transferring photos from one hard drive to another.

But I digress.
Fake Name
13. ThePendragon
It's a surprisingly promisong sci-fi show. I expect we'll hear about it's cancellation sometime this week.
Christopher Bennett
14. ChristopherLBennett
@12: Good lord, you've totally missed the point of the movie, then. It's meaningful because replicants are human. It doesn't matter that they're synthetic in origin, they still have thoughts and emotions and a right to exist. Ultimately the film's a racism metaphor. The lesson Deckard has to learn is that the distinction between human and replicant, the distinction he's been trained to kill to perpetuate, is a lie, and that there's really no meaningful difference. Deckard is just as much a person whether he's a human or a replicant, and so are Rachel and Roy and Pris and all the others. (And of course, as I said above, replicants are flesh-and-blood organisms, just bioengineered and grown in labs rather than conceived the old-fashioned way.)

This show is probably going for a similar theme; of course we're supposed to identify with Dorian as a real person, even if androids are considered lifeless machines in the society portrayed in the show. Although at this point it's a little vague how any AI-rights questions are going to play out in the series.
Jenny Thrash
15. Sihaya
ChristopherLBennett: I suspect that, beyond the visual clues form the Blade Runner look and the fact that Kennex has a robotic leg, the brain just wants to turn the name Kennex into KNX. But I agree with you that there's really no reason to think that he's an android at this point, unless everyone he knows including his off-the-books doc is in on the conspiracy to hide his physical nature. It's possible that he's the result of "programmable DNA" in science fantasyland, but that just doesn't seem to be where they're going with that plot.
16. TheMadLibrarian
I couldn't decide if I was getting more of an "R. Daneel/Caves of Steel" vibe , or a J. D. Robb near future police procedural feel from it. Still, it looks like a good start, and we are still going to call Dorian, R. Daneel :)
17. Alright Then

Geez, no need to get in a twist over it. I understand the point of the film. For me, it's more meaningful when the gap between man and another sentient being is wider. That no matter our differences, intelligent life can appreciate beauty and the quality of mercy.

And that's why I do enjoy and appreciate Blade Runner, in case you misunderstood my previous post. I just prefer... my own cut.
Robert Dickinson
18. ChocolateRob
Well I watched both episodes last night and while the plot of the second was squicking me out I've just got to say -

KARA, KARA, It's Kara!
Quantic dream didn't make it into a game they made it into a cop show.
Mig Archey
19. Quilld
Yep, it's defintely 'Insyndicate.' That's how it appears on the show's official webpages. You can see it in print at the show's tumbler.
Nancy Lambert
20. NancyLambert
Thanks all and @Quilld, thank you for the link, we've updated accordingly.
Pernilla Leijonhufvud
21. Therru
I also fail to understand the "Kennex is an android" speculation. The whole point of the show (which becomes clearer in ep 2) is that a human who acts like a robot is paired with a robot who acts like a human -- or at least more human than his human partner. I think people are drawing too many parallels to Blade Runner. The setting is obviously an homage, but the robots/androids in this series are definitely not the replicants of BR. Much more like the Caves of Steel, as TheMadLibrarian said.

I also saw the term "robromance" somewhere in connection to this show, which is a term that truly deserves to be disseminated into the world.

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