TV: Humans (Season 1)

humans-premiere-announcement-1200For a show with so much going for it, Humans doesn’t amount to much. Based on a Swedish series called Real Humans, this one paints a world in which lifelike synthetic robots (“synths”) have become a ubiquitous underclass revolutionizing industries ranging from domestic assistance to home healthcare to prostitution. After years without one, the Hawkins family finally acquires its own synth when overwhelmed stay-at-home dad Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) gets fed up with the workaholism of his lawyer wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson). The synth, Anita (Gemma Chan), seems at first the solution to all the family’s problems—while also exposing several new ones. Meanwhile, Anita isn’t exactly what she seems: there’s something off about her, and her plight is tied into the motivations of several encroaching players destined to converge on the Hawkins household.

At its best, Humans is polished and professional, an attractive production generally well performed. The show is particularly good at selling the creepy, Uncanny Valley vibe of the synths. For a role necessarily flat and affectless, Chan is exceptional walking the line between robot and human, and while the Hawkins family is painfully generic, Parkinson and Carless, at least, show sparks of personality. The support is adequate, if unremarkable, on all fronts; most likable, perhaps, is William Hurt as an aging pioneer technologist, although his role is sadly inessential.

In a world swamped with excellent viewing options, though, I’m looking for more than polished and professional, so I probably won’t continue with this show. Humans lacks that certain something. It has all the earmarks of being the next Orphan Black, without any of the heart, charm, or structural ambition. But chief among its problems is that its take on the premise is superficial and unsurprising. Not only doesn’t it look deeply enough at the surface world-building of its synth-transformed landscape, but it fails to leverage that premise to deeper thematic effect. This, despite ripe opportunity, for certainly the callous and inhumane abuses heaped on the synths in the show parallel the unjust political conditions and power dynamics of the real world. Alas, Humans has precious little to say about that.

The result is watchable, but not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. The science fictional ideas here are more effectively and succinctly explored elsewhere (Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” among others), and more engaging drama can easily be found elsewhere.

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