“Almost Human,” a new FOX series presented at press tour, promises lots of action and, more importantly, an uneasy working relationship between grumpy cop Det. John Kennex (Karl Urban, “Star Trek”) and android Dorian (Michael Ealy, “Sleeper Cell”). For some in the audience, it all brought back memories of the 1989 TV series “Alien Nation,” but creator/executive producer J.H. Wyman shrugged off any similarities to any specific scifi influence, mentioning inspiration was drawn from “so many sources.” “We wanted to do something that was a bit different…” he said, adding that the decision to create put a fresh spin on the typical android pining to be human storyline was very intentional. “It was better to have a robot that was more human than he could handle [instead].”
Press Tour: ‘Almost Human’ to have robot ethics, but maybe not robot sex
Ealy addressed what it took to play a robot. “You tend to draw on your human instincts and your background [for a character]… the hardest thing in terms of playing Dorian is to act like I don’t have that. To bring that innocence to him,” he said, adding that he and Wyman agreed the trick was to “make him as observant as possible.”
Wyman, who executive produced “Fringe,” was eager to delve into a futuristic space for “Almost Human.” “I think it’s such an incredible arena to tell great stories about the human condition… I think we can find some areas that have not been examined on network television. Everyone flocks to the cinema to see ‘Conception’ but they’re iffy on television scifi. But it’s the right time… maybe not too far in the future, but you can imagine the direction we’re going in.”
“There’s monsters and vampires and very little real futurism,” added executive producer Naren Shankar (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”). “We’re living in a time that’s so technologically focused… there’s nothing like that on the air right now.”
It may also be the right time for cost reasons. “As far as the vendors we were using on ‘Fringe,’… we’re in a position to be on the cutting edge of… what’s possible to see on the screen. Now you’d be amazed. I’m really hoping for some 12-year-old kid to make some incredible film on his Mac because the technology is there,” Wyman said.
“Literally you could not have delivered a pilot like what we’re doing now even a few years ago,” said Shankar.
As far as how the show will deal with the moral issues of robots, Wyman said that this area will be deeply explored. “We had the good fortune of talking to someone at M.I.T. who was in robot ethics. That’s their job. The scope of the program is investigating… what is human.” He mentioned the idea of a pedophile using robotic children to satisfy his desires. “Is that still wrong?”
What this question of what constitutes humanity means for Ealy’s character will be a hot topic as well. “When John throws his MX out of the car [he doesn’t think of him as anything more than a tool], but in the long arc of the show is he will discover Dorian is a sentient being,” Wyman said.
“It’s something we can’t really conceive,” Ealy aded. “We can’t step outside and imagine. It’s so hard to step outside of ourselves. To me… I tend to reduce Dorian sometimes, I make him somewhat childlike. His innocence in observing what’s going on around him… it’s interesting to play someone who’s trying to grasp something he’ll never have.”
Lili Taylor (“The Conjuring”), who plays Kennex’s boss Capt. Sandra Maldonado, explained her relationship with him. “I don’t know if I’m an older sister or younger sister, but I feel almost like I am the boss… I value his opinion so much… we just did a scene yesterday where he usurped my power, and I think she’s giving him a lot. If it’s really important, she’d say… she’s the boss, out. But he’s so special in his… ability to think outside the box, she’d be a fool not to take in his insight.”
One question had to do with the pilot, in which it’s inferred Kennex’s father was a robot. “You might have seen a version that was different,” Wyman hedged “This was designed to be a sales tool… JJ and I have the intention of that storyline being somewhere; his father being involved in the mythology. So now [that we’ve been picked up] we can tell that story at a pace…[that will] improve it. The truth is, we wanted to be as provocative as we could.” But wait, can robots have babies? “That would presume his father was a robot forever,” Wyman said.
He also explained the differences between this series and “Fringe,” in case anyone was unclear. “Mythology was very key to tell that story… it was something that turned into something else and then again something else. This is a police drama… and we’re hoping people care about the [characters]. We’re more interested in knowing about these people’s lives…. there is a mythology. It wasn’t something I would conceive if there wasn’t a mythology. We’re going into this as a cop drama.”
“If you can see the case on another cop show, we’re not going to do it,” Urban said. “This stuff is coming, it’s coming down the pike.”
“There are a lot of technologies out there the public doesn’t really understand, and it’s going to change our lives…” Wyman explained. “As smart as our technology gets… criminals have that much more to use against us.”
Finally, questioning turned back to character. How did Ealy feel about playing a pretty much sexless character? “The more I embraced the character, the more I realized this is a good thing. Stretch yourself, play something different. I’m having a ball.”
Wyman confirmed that Ealy won’t be getting an upgrade that makes him want to have sex, either. “Maybe there are sex bots, but he’s not one of them.”
We won’t be seeing Ealy having robot sex, but we will see a big, red ball. After the panel discussed that Wyman demanded a hanging ball be included in the show, the creator promised that, though it isn’t paid off right away, audiences will need to wait for the reveal. “I learned a valuable lesson on ‘Fringe,'” he said. “We figured out a little goes a long way.”
Wyman also gave the audience a dose of backstory for ‘Almost Human.’ “It’s when crime becomes out of control… and policemen are dying at a rate that’s unacceptable, someone says… what we should do is have these incredible androids that will be the cannon fodder. They can in two seconds find out from a satellite where people are inside a building. The best way to get that across, so public distress isn’t an issue, was to make them as human as possible. This is great! People love them, they work, people can get used to androids among them… this is good. But then once everyone’s accepting of this, it becomes how to make them more efficient. The truth is the DRNs were too human and had issues. We’re going to learn about this. They had compassion. An MX43, they don’t have the compassion. It’s all about black and white. I don’t feel, so I don’t care.”
“We’re not stepping into a new situation. We’re endeavoring to deliver a cinematic quality experience week in and week out,” Urban said. “I feel really, really blessed.”
Though several people in the audience mentioned dark properties like “Blade Runner” and “Battlestar Galactica,” Wyman made it clear his vision of the future is a little brighter. “We’re not presenting a dystopian vision of the future. This is immediately accessible. In this slightly futuristic vision, society is dealing with elements and difficulties are just a little beyond the curve for us… the wonderful thing the show does is question us. It makes us as an audience ask what does it mean to be human.”
Later he continued, “[Other] writers are saying look, humanity really messed up. That’s not what I’m interested in. I believe in hope, I believe we’re good, and I believe we’re smart and we’re going to stop anything terrible from happening. Humanity has to deal with some advancements, but I do think we have the tools to deal with them.”