Almost Human, Ep. 1.01, “Pilot”: Action-packed beginnings achieve story but rush to establish character

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Almost Human, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by J. H. Wyman
Directed by Brad Anderson
Airs Mondays at 8 P.M. ET on FOX

Set in the year 2048, Almost Human takes on an immense challenge by attempting to introduce a cast of characters in a futuristic world and construct a plot that explores the possibilities of technology that fuels fast-paced action and a “big picture” mystery. While it’s not the first series tasked with such a large-scale set-up, it certainly has some distinguishing qualities that help bring its debut hour to life.

The most noteworthy element is the special effects. While the characters are hard at work populating the screen, it is the setting in which they all exist that pulls the viewer into their world and sets a high bar of expectations for the series’ visual aesthetics. The digital gadgets and robotics are not only visible in nearly every frame, they almost bombard each scene with flashing lights, moving pieces, and illuminating screens and projections. The degree to which the technology has advanced is certainly more appropriate here than in some crime dramas set in present day, but the overwhelming presence of CGI makes this an uncomfortable reality to imagine, going beyond practical to emphasize the contrast of humanity with artificial life, the main conflict of the episode and the underlying theme for the series.

The opening flashback sequence is an impressive science fiction shootout spectacle that serves as the introduction to the supposed hero, Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban). Kennex is the newest addition to the long list of network television leading men whose authority issues and questionable moral standards make them the go-to guy for acting with an “any means necessary” mindset. The glimpses of his disastrous last mission provide a reasonable explanation for his attitude towards the android partners assigned to him and every other human police officer, but the resulting emotional trauma, his physical impairment, and his naturally gruff demeanor do not make him as remarkably unique as a crime-fighting amputee could be, given that his pill-popping habit and sarcastic personality are common traits of several well-known figure in pop culture.

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Dorian (Michael Ealy), the second android or “synthetic” assigned to Kennex is pleasant enough in his “awakening” to the world after years of being deactivated. His chosen path to moral high ground makes him easily more likeable than Kennex from the start. With the destruction of his first android partner, brutal interrogation of a suspect, and a typical tough-guy persona, not only is Kennex unlikeable, he’s also a bit boring. None of his violent behavior is justified and his one-liners are hardly clever, partially due to a bland script that gives Urban and the rest of the cast very little to work with and make into something more. The unfortunately-lifeless dialogue limits the other characters who range from one-dimensional outlines to vaguely-interesting individuals.

As the first episode of the series, the pilot has a lot of ground to cover. Kennex’s ex-girlfriend, the uncertainty surrounding the criminal organization, and the relationship between Kennex and Dorian are all pieces worth examining before hurrying up to solve the giant puzzle. The main problem here is that everything happens so quickly that there is no time for the tension to build up to an explosive confrontation that has any satisfying pay-off of genuine character growth. Good intentions power the motions, but a sense of actual accomplishment is lost in the rush to accomplish everything that doesn’t really need to be done in such a short amount of time. Kennex’s change of heart ends up being the most disappointing turn of events, since his time with Dorian hasn’t even seen them through a day before he decides to accept his new partner.

Almost Human is off to a strong start technically, style-wise, and with the aid of a good cast which includes Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights), Mackenzie Crook (The Office, UK) and Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under). Thankfully, this is only the beginning and while there is room for improvement, there is plenty of time for the show to get into a rhythm of sensible character beats and story progression. It has a chance of being another great series from a team of storytellers who have a history of successes in the same creative vein, if they only take a minute to flesh out the characters, human and android alike.

What did you think of the premiere of Almost Human? Did the J.J. Abrams’ brand name product live up to your expectations? Did you think the futuristic elements were well-integrated into the procedural format? Do you think Kennex’s rejection of his artificial parts will snowball into a bigger issue down the road? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!

-Amanda Williams

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