“Almost Human” TV Pilot Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Part CSI and part Minority Report, Almost Human successfully melds science fiction with the crime procedural.

Almost Human premiered November 17th on Fox, reinforcing the network’s interest in science fiction procedurals that started with The X-Files and continued with Fringe. Fox has high hopes for this series. It comes from a team with a stellar track record, including creator J.H. Wyman (Fringe), and executive producer J.J. Abrams, proving that abbreviating your first and middle name equates to success as a television writer. The pilot screened at Comic-Con earlier this year, receiving rave reviews from the fanboy audience. The response isn’t surprising. When it comes to appealing to the 18-to-30-year-old male, this show checks all the boxes and is poised to be a hit.

The series is set 35 years in the future, in a world where police officers are required to partner with highly evolved androids. The show knowingly draws thematic and visual inspiration from Blade Runner, but Almost Human is far less dystopian. Aside from floating touch screens and that whole human-like android thing, the world actually feels very similar to our own, and as a result, becomes much more accessible.

Almost Human centers on Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban), a tough guy veteran police officer, and his android partner, Dorian (Michael Ealy). When we meet Kennex he is a desperate man, visiting an unlicensed “recollectionist” (Hiro Kanagawa) in order to piece together details of the raid that resulted in the loss of his leg and the death of his fellow officers. Suffering from depression, PTSD, and rejection of his synthetic limb, Kennex hasn’t been cleared for duty. That doesn’t stop police chief Maldonado, expertly played with nurturing authority by Lili Taylor, from asking Kennex to investigate a new case that may involve The Syndicate, the crime organization that ambushed Kennex’s team.

Karl Urban, who’s been honing his sci-fi acting chops in Abrams’ Star Trek and as Judge Dredd, does a fine job portraying the gruff and pained John Kennex. Kennex distrusts androids to the point that he’d throw one out of a moving vehicle and Urban has the difficult task of making this somewhat bigoted cop likeable. He’s given a lot of “tough guy” scenes to play in the pilot. He loses a leg in battle, walks with a limp, slams a bad guy’s head into a table and makes a lot of grunting noises. He does it all well (and handsomely), but I expect to see his character soften as the series progresses, allowing the audience to see the greater range Urban possesses as an actor.

After unceremoniously disposing of his first android partner, Kennex is sent to see Rudy Lom (Game of Thrones’ Mackenzie Crook), a technician who sets him up with Dorian. We learn that Dorian’s model of android was retired from the police force years ago because it had trouble dealing with emotional issues. Apparently being “almost human” means this line of androids has breaking points.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian (and the show itself) springs to life with an electric shock. Unlike the newer android model, Dorian talks back to Kennex and has an attitude. He doesn’t like being called a “synthetic” and he’s not afraid to let Kennex know it. Dorian embraces his emotional side in a way that Kennex is unable to, making him the more dynamic and human of the two characters.

If you don’t know Michael Ealy yet, you soon will. In the role of Dorian, he has star written all over his ethereal blue eyes. He brings warmth and charm to what might have been a one-dimensional character. His perfect grasp of the humor written into Dorian is welcome levity in a pilot that was beginning to take itself too seriously. Perhaps most importantly, in a show that often lacks it, both Dorian and Ealy understand subtlety.

The police office is rounded out with Detective Richard Paul and Officer Valerie Stahl. Richard, portrayed by Michael Irby, is a bitter detective who has a big problem with Kennex. He blames Kennex for leading his team into danger and getting everyone killed during the raid. Aside from a scowl or two, Irby’s not given much to do in the pilot, but he’s clearly gearing up to be a thorn in Kennex’s side.

Minka Kelly plays Valerie Stahl. Valerie’s recently been on a date with a fellow detective that she’s no longer interested in. She’s far more impressed with the arrival of John Kennex, and she shows this by continually batting her eyelashes at him. Valerie is being set up as Kennex’s love interest, but as a fan, I’m really hoping for a love triangle between Valerie, Kennex and Dorian. Kelly gradually improved during her time on Friday Night Lights, so it would be great to see this role develop beyond “Sexy Detective.”

The supporting roles in the office will likely remain minor as the story and themes of the show appear to be directly linked to Kennex and Dorian. The question of what qualifies as a conscious being, and what qualifies, as “human,” is one that the show doesn’t shy away from. This conflict is highlighted in an exchange between Dorian and Kennex, when Dorian says, “I was made to feel and I do. As much as you.” Like Star Trek TNG’s Data, Dorian is an android eager to “be a real boy.”

The title of the series is likely meant to describe Dorian, but “almost human” can as easily be applied to Kennex. With his synthetic leg, Kennex is not quite human himself. Dorian does his best to identify with him, referring to the duo as “two cops from the scrap heap.” Kennex, however, is overly protective of his emotions and rejects his new partner, just like his body rejects his synthetic leg. He tells Dorian he is nothing more than silicone and carbon fiber. Dorian tells him, “Your problem is you don’t know yourself. You don’t trust anyone.” His words help to solidify the dramatic through line of the series, suggesting that both Dorian’s and Kennex’s character arcs will involve a journey toward become more human.

Over the course of a few action-oriented set pieces, Dorian proves himself effective in the field. After seeing Dorian upload and analyze blood work and prove himself immune to a chemical attack, Kennex starts to come around. He still might not trust these non-humans but he at least sees the usefulness of Dorian. It’s not giving anything away to say that in the end, Kennex and Dorian work together to save the day. It wraps a little too tidy for my liking, with Kennex telling Dorian to “call me John,” and Maldonado explaining that Dorian is “special, just like you.” Luckily, the celebration is temporary and the closing scene of the pilot, though somewhat out of left field, opens up the door to a deeper mystery and slew of new cases.

Questions remain as to how serialized the show will be. Fringe started out very procedural but didn’t find its legs or its audience until it became weirder and more serialized. Almost Human seems determined to leave the door open for serialized content, setting up not only The Syndicate, but also a mysterious missing ex-girlfriend (Mekia Cox, last seen in Abrams’ Undercovers) and more than one mention of Kennex’s father. There’s no mistaking that these elements are planted as through-lines for a serialized type of story. Whether they pop up now and again, like Red John in The Mentalist, or remain part of each week’s mystery is still unclear.

As with any series, the success of Almost Human will boil down to the likeability and sustainability of the main characters. When the novelty of floating touchscreens and synthetic limbs wears off, the character dynamics need to capture the audience and carry the show. If developed properly, Kennex and Dorian have a great shot at a long and fruitful partnership and Almost Human will be in for a lengthy series run.

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J.T. Saroufim Joseph Tony Saroufim is a screenwriter and reviewer of film and television. He has worked as a staff writer in Vh1’s creative lab and in 2011 he won the best writing award at the New York Television Festival. Most recently he produced and co-wrote D-TEC, a television pilot that won Samsung’s Second Screen Storytellers competition. His favorite TV shows include Soap, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Veep. His favorite film is Holiday, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.