Almost Human Works a Unique Angle – What If a Cop’s Android Partner is Too Human?

Tonight’s series premiere of Almost Human (Fox, 8/7C, then Mondays, 8/7C) is a bang-up hour of buddy/cop tropes transplanted thirty-five years into the future, where all human police officers and detectives must be paired with android partners. The result is news kinds of technology, hence new kinds of crimes and new methods of fighting them – and even a new kind of cops.

Almost Human begins with a police raid going south when it appears the police were both expected and prepared for. Detective John Lennex (Karl Urban) sees his partner die and loses a leg to a grenade attack. The raid and its effect on him fade into a golden-tinged scene of a beautiful woman and we cut to a grubby lab, where Lennex regains consciousness. Everything we’ve seen up until now has been his memory – apparently assisted by the machinery in the lab. We learn that Lennex has been in a coma until recently – a coma he was in for seventeen months – and that he blames himself for the deaths of his team and partner in that fuzzily recalled raid.

The next morning, his boss, Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor), calls him in – a series of coordinated thefts appear to have been orchestrated by EnSyndicate, the same group his team was about to raid when things went bad. This is also when we learn that Lennex has a synthetic replacement leg. Since the events of that day, it has become procedure for all human police to be partnered with androids.

At work, we meet Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly) and Richard Paul (Michael Irby) – the latter of whom is of the same opinion as Lennex in regard to the deaths of his team. We also meet 785, Lennex’s new android partner – in whom he is not well pleased (and whom he disposes of not long thereafter, leading directly to his being assigned the last of the retired DRN series, Dorian (Michael Ealy). At about the same point, the question of a mole in the department is raised.

The world of Almost Human isn’t quite Blade Runner-esque, but it is similar in its rough-edged reality. Series creator J.H. Wyman honed his cop show chops on critically acclaimed one season wonder Keen Eddie and his sci-fi chops on Fringe, so we know that he is at home in both genres and his script for the premiere shows that. The procedural aspect of the show feels right – the dynamic of the precinct; the individual police officers and detectives look and feel familiar, even when paired with futuristic technology and crimes that have not been seen before.

Director Brad Anderson definitely has a lock on the kind of style that needs to be set for the series. He punches up the action sequences while keeping essential exposition from slowing things down. He also knows when to emphasize a bit of humor and when to hammer the drama. He has a knack for precision on close-ups to reveal character and the ability to go wide to give a sense of the show’s futuristic world.

Karl Urban and Michael Ealy have just the right chemistry to be believable partners – even if one isn’t human. Lennex isn’t especially likable at first, but Urban allows us to see enough of his vulnerability to watch him evolve as a character. Ealy beings an innocence to Dorian, who was created to be as close to human as possible. Each is frustrated by the other before they establish some common ground (Dorian’s tip on how to deal with his recalcitrant synthetic leg certainly helps).

Lili Taylor gives Captain Maldonado the gravitas you expect in a precinct head while not coming across as a cliché. She is generally, and rightly, known for her work in film work. The fact that she doesn’t usually work in television, combined with little hints in the premiere, suggest that Maldonado will be a richly developed character.

At this point, it’s hard to tell if Detectives Paul will be much more than the precinct prick, but Irby has shown some range in other projects (The Unit for one), so I’m expecting more of him. As an intelligence analyst, Detective Stahl already shows signs of being more than just another detective – and Kelly works best in an ensemble.

A show that features robots and androids requires a tech wizard to create, repair and maintain them and Almost Human has Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) – perhaps named for frequent player of 40s movies mad scientists, Herbert Lom Jr. Lom is smart, quirky, sensitive and perceptive – and Crook gives him nuances we might not have seen before, layered over/under traits we might have.

For the most part, the world of Almost Human looks and feels genuinely lived in; the tech ranges from that which is easily extrapolated from what we have now to that which is as alien to us as computers would have been to Marie Curie. None of it looks artificial – the visual effects, big and small, are seamless. There is a definite sense of real peril to that world. It’s a place where you could get run over by a bus if you jaywalked, or reduced to protoplasm by some new weapon.

The premiere sets up a three dimensional world with relatable characters, which make it easy for us to accept the stranger aspects of what we’re seeing. When we see the mechanics of something – like a robot or android, for example – they’re convincingly detailed.

Overall, the premiere serves notice that this will be a character-driven show that will layer in a mythology behind cases of the week; much like Fringe did in its first season. Here, though, Almost Human’s procedural nature will dictate less serialization, so it should be easy for it to grow its audience. It certainly deserves one.

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Photos by Liane Hentscher/Courtesy of Fox