TV: Real Humans (Seasons 1 & 2)

An unfortunate side effect of my lukewarm reaction to the British science fiction show Humans was that it mitigated my enthusiasm for the Swedish series that inspired it, Real Humans (2012–2014). Indeed, Humans is more or less a direct remake, so when I stumbled across Real Humans on Hulu, I thought twice about queueing it up. I’m glad I did, because it quickly became clear why the original inspired an imitator. Real Humans explores its core idea more organically and interestingly than Humans, and it doesn’t hurt that it scratches my itch for all things Nordic.

The show takes place in a future in which “hubots”—lifelike humanoid robots—have become a ubiquitous fixture of modern life. People purchase hubots to clean their houses, nanny their children, work menial jobs, and perform other various tasks—as well as some less-than-ethical uses. For the Ingman family, the line between consumer electronics luxury and sentient slave quickly becomes blurry with the introduction of Anita (Lisette Pagler) to their life. Anita is a hubot, but she’s a little bit different, a fact immediately noticed by Inger (Pia Halvorsen), the workaholic lawyer matriarch of the family, and impressionable teen Tobbe (Kåre Hedebrant), who develops a deep infatuation for his new synthetic housemate. Anita’s presence in the Ingman home becomes disruptive, to say the least.

Indeed, Anita is different. She is “infected” with code that renders her more autonomous and sentient than normal hubots, and she’s not the only one. Elsewhere, there’s a crew of rogue hubots, led by the ruthless Niska (Eva Röse), trying to make their way in the world while eluding the authorities. Niska has a hidden agenda for her posse, but her companions aren’t always on the same page. Flash (Josephine Alhanko), for example, has dreams of falling in love and marrying a human, while Gordon (André Sjöberg) develops a nascent religious faith when a kindly pastor named Asa (Sofia Bach) takes them in.

Unfortunately for these sentient hubots, not all humans are as kindly as Asa, or even the conflicted Ingman family. Their neighbor Roger (Leif Andrée) is a disgruntled warehouse foreman who is not only witnessing an influx of hubot labor in his workplace, but feels displaced by his wife’s budding relationship with her dashing hubot Rick (Johannes Bah Kuhnke). Consequently, Roger gets involved with hardliner cop Beatrice (Marie Robertson) and a small cell of the “Real Humans” resistance whose goal is to end the hubot menace, by any means necessary.

Real Humans lays all this groundwork efficiently, creating a quirky, immersive world that generates immediate interest for the seasoned SF fan. The show’s hubot actors do a spectacular job—better than their British counterparts on Humans, I think—of bringing an unsettling Stepfordesque underclass to life. The hubots are creepy and funny, oddly sympathetic, subtly menacing, and in some cases all of the above. In retrospect, there’s something quaint and old-fashioned about the hubot design: USB ports on the backs of their necks, retractable power cords, armpit power buttons. Technologically, it doesn’t hold up, but these simple, unrealistic design tropes actually contribute to the Uncanny Valley feel of the series, the unsettling border the hubots walk between objects and personalities. Like its English-language offspring, the show has plenty of drama, intrigue, social commentary, and speculative mystery, as the backstory origin of the rogue hubots plays out.

But when you look more closely, the comparisons die off. Real Humans feels like a deeper dive, with more worldbuilding inventiveness. It has a playful color palette and a wider tonal range, compared to the drab, humorless Humans. For all its serious content, it also isn’t afraid to lean into darkly comic moments that play up the absurdity of the odd social dynamics engendered by a world full of simulated humans. Inger’s cavalier husband Hans (Johan Paulsen), for example, is a doofy comic foil in the otherwise earnest Engman household. The show also gets sad, sideways humor out of Inger’s stubborn father Lennart (Sten Elfström), whose lonely life is given some small joy by his father-son relationship with a silly, malfunctioning hubot named Odi (Alexander Stocks)—and later, conflict in the form of a nagging caretaker hubot named Vera (Anki Larsson). Both of these storylines have their tragic aspects, but also provide weird, unnerving comedy. The world of Real Humans is complex, but it’s not joyless.

On points, I also believe Real Humans does more interesting things with with its sociopolitical backdrop. On the surface, the hubots are a transformative consumer electronics product, but the show frequently changes its viewing angle on them, paralleling them to other societal underclasses. They’re subjected to discrimination, abuse, prejudice, and other indignities, and the show is cagey in how it mirrors their plight to that of, say, the LGBT community, or minorities, or immigrants. A more permissive Scandinavian production also makes the show more unsettling, unafraid to depict the chillingly inhumane behavior of the average human toward their programmed robotic aides. The hubots are controversial, inspiring plenty of hate, and while the “rogue code” hubots give the humans plenty of reason for fear, most of the fear is imaginary, and causes more conflict than the hubots themselves do. In the end, then—and this largely seems the point—the hubots are no more dangerous than humanity.

Real Humans does go into a slight decline in its second season, probably due to premise fatigue. It spends much of its second semseter spinning its large roster of characters into new configurations. This leads to interesting new dynamics and a few intriguing storylines, such as a legal battle over hubot rights, but by the end of the series I felt it had over-said what it needed to say. Still, it’s a unique piece of work that leverages its science fictional concepts to thought-provoking effect.

Roger (Leif Andrée) berates a hubot on Real Humans

 

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