Science fiction has a long tradition of robots, computers and other logic-driven beings having more fully-rounded and beloved personalities than the humans around them. Among “Star Trek” fans, Data and Mr. Spock are more revered than their shipmates from Earth. In “2001,” the only character with an identifiable personality at all is the HAL 9000. If you pick up one of Isaac Asimov’s robot novels, you’re sure not reading them for the well-drawn human characters. This isn’t a surprise, since those who write and consume sci-fi are drawn to it precisely for the characters and ideas that differentiate those worlds from the one outside our windows.
That tradition continues to an extreme with FOX’s new cop show “Almost Human” (it debuts Sunday at 8 before moving to Mondays at 8 the next night) where the humans are forgettable to varying degrees and and the robot is the only reason to watch at all.
Of course, Dorian (Michael Ealy) might object to the term “robot.” He certainly complains when his new human partner John Kennex (Karl Urban) derisively refers to him as a “synthetic.”
Dorian has reason to have a chip on his shoulder. In a near-future where crime is so out of control that all police officers are required to work with an android partner, Dorian was part of a line of machines built with “synthetic soul,” able to experience human emotions – and simulate human intuition – to better do the job. The experiment was deemed a failure, and Dorian and the rest of them were bagged up and stored away for years on end, replaced with a more rigidly logical series.
Ealy has very precise, vivid features (it’s rare I notice the color of an actor’s eyes, male or female, but you can’t miss his baby blues) and a soft-spoken delivery, which he’s used to strong effect in past roles, like as takeover-happy lawyer Derrick Bond on “The Good Wife.” But he’s also great at wearing his heart on his sleeve, most memorably as the star of Showtime’s underrated thriller series “Sleeper Cell.” The role of Dorian(*) fits him perfectly, as he’s believable as both a robot and one that feels things so deeply his bosses had to shut him off once before to avoid a synthetic nervous breakdown.
(*) Though Urban’s character is mostly referred to by his last name, every now and then a scene will refer to him as John, and his partner as Dorian, which will cause confusion for any fan of “Scrubs.”
Ealy’s great. The rest of “Almost Human,” from J.J. Abrams and former “Fringe” showrunner J.H. Wyman, much less so.
Urban was the pleasant surprise of Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot as Dr. McCoy, evoking DeForest Kelley while giving an actual performance. Here, though, he’s stuck playing every cranky cop ever who doesn’t want to work with a partner who’s a robot/alien/immigrant/minority/woman/other, in a slightly futuristic world borrowing as many elements from Philip K. Dick movie adaptations (specifically, “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report”) as can be presented on a network TV budget and schedule.(**) There’s also an early scene where he evades the watchful eye of his initial robot partner that’s played as a joke, but which feels like it should be much more complicated given what we begin to learn about the synthetics through Dorian.
(**) FOX only showed the first one to critics, blaming incomplete visual effects work on later episodes – even though we often get sci-fi shows with rough VFX work (or, at times, no VFX work at all). If “Almost Human” doesn’t work beyond the spiffiness of the effects, it won’t work, period.
And Kennex – who wants revenge on the criminal gang that blew off his leg and murdered his human partner – is still vastly more interesting than the other cops on the show, or than the attempts to dress up stock police procedural stories with cool gadgets. (Dorian can, for instance, inject a blood sample from a murder victim into his body so it can be analyzed more quickly.) Minka Kelly from “Friday Night Lights” was for some reason cast in a non-robot role, which seems a poor creative choice unless it’s a surprise waiting to be sprung on us for February sweeps.
Basically, “Almost Human” is a formula cop show that just happens to feature a robot, and even that part only seems novel because of Ealy’s performance. In a TV world where even the straightforward police procedurals have a tint of science-fiction to them, and where you have the fantastical likes of “Marvel’s Agents of P.U.N.C.T.U.A.T.I.O.N.,” it becomes harder to stand out. Urban is usually a likable presence, and in time Kennex might calm down and start feeling like a person rather than a cliché, at which point “Almost Human” could settle into being an acceptable spin on buddy cop tropes. Right now, though, it’s Ealy or bust.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org