AMC's new drama “Humans” is a pretty good show with timing that isn't great.
In a vacuum, the series (it debuts Sunday at 9 p.m.) is a solid, if not thrilling, piece of classic science fiction, exploring questions about the line between man and robot, whether computers can have souls, and whether mankind is destined to be rendered obsolete by the machines we're creating. Familiar stuff for the genre, but articulated well enough in the show's depiction of a near-future world where “synths” – robots who resemble people and can perform various menial jobs that many actual humans would prefer to avoid – are the hot new gadget. The two episodes AMC sent to critics have an interesting look – particularly in the way the makeup artists render the actors playing synths to appear as if they reside deep in the uncanny valley – and some good performances from the largely British cast (plus William Hurt as a retired American scientist). It offers family drama, suspense, and philosophy in equal measure as we see the impact that the synths are having on modern life, and the problems that arise when it appears that some of them have developed free will.
But “Humans” (co-produced by AMC and some UK partners, and adapting the Swedish series “Real Humans”) is coming on the heels of a pair of British productions that approached these same themes in a more imaginative way: the sci-fi anthology series “Black Mirror,” and the film “Ex Machina.” Neither is identical to “Humans” – “Ex Machina” takes place at an earlier stage of development of artificial intelligence, while the one “Black Mirror” episode that gets closest (“Be Right Back,” which is that show's peak) is more about the limits a computer program has when trying to ape human behavior – but are similar enough in both content and release date that anyone who's seen one or both will likely have them in mind while watching the more straightforward “Humans.”
Writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (or perhaps their Swedish counterparts) have put a lot of thought into how a world with synths would operate. The British government, for instance, has made them part of their healthcare program, mandating them as caretakers for the elderly like Hurt, or the infirm like the injured wife of Peter Drummond (Neil Maskell), a police officer specializing in crimes involving synths. They are, of course, hugely popular in the sex trade, and the public has enough reservations about them that we see “No Synth Parking At Any Time” signs outside the local supermarket.
Of course, they're working with material that's familiar enough that they can insert a quick reference to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics – which suggest robots aren't allowed to injure humans, and which were first published in stories from the 1940s – and assume enough of the audience will get the gist without further explanation. The synths – particularly our central character Anita, played by Gemma Chan – look compellingly off, but their stories in the early going will be awfully old hat to anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction.
Where “Humans” could have stood out more is with its human characters, who – other than Hurt's irritable George Millican, who has a long history with the synth movement – are in many ways more generic and interchangeable than the machines they invite into their homes. This may well be by design – Stanley Kubrick famously made the HAL 9000 much more complex than the two human astronauts in “2001” – but as a weekly series where significant chunks of time are devoted to the tensions in the family that's purchased Anita, or between Peter and his wife, it can be a drag. And that's particularly the case in this early stage when it's unclear how much independent personality Anita has, while the other rebellious synths are relatively minor figures. There's a fully-realized world, but no individual story is strong enough to fully occupy it.
Great science fiction is about ideas, but it helps if it's about character, as well – whether flesh and blood humans or machines that are much more like them than anyone anticipated. It's not wholly fair to compare “Humans” to a close-ended movie, or a standalone anthology episode, and I plan to keep watching this one. But it was hard to shake the feeling through these two hours that I had seen almost all of this before, very recently, and done in a superior way that was as stimulating emotionally as intellectually.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org