Mr. Robot is the sleeper show that everyone keeps saying “you need to watch”. Humans is the show that no one is telling you to watch. Yet.
Here’s a little background on the show. It’s a BBC 4 production (that’s the BBC’s smarty pants channel) based on a Swedish science fiction show called Real Humans. All of those esoteric factors may be part of why you haven’t heard much about it. But it’s currently airing on AMC, so expect people in this country to start taking notice. The concept is simple: in the near future a corporation has nearly perfected robots. They can look like us, understand normal speech, and take over mundane jobs and activities that people of means simply don’t want to do. It’s next level outsourcing. The drama comes from the fact that there’s a very small group of robots that appear to have achieved sentience. They can disobey the Asimov Laws and do what they want. Even more astounding, they can want.
My first thought when I started this show was ‘Hey, this sounds just like Utopia‘. Indeed, Cristobal Tapia de Veer did the music for both series. For both shows he does a very intense editing trick which is to cut the music as soon as the camera goes to the next scene. There’s no fade, and it can happen mid-riff. It’s jarring and more than a bit unnerving. The music in Humans isn’t as abrasive as, well, everything in Utopia is, so it’s not as disconcerting but it is enough to keep you from getting comfortable.
Where Humans really shines so far is how it unrolls its plot. Another great show of late is Sense8. The biggest weakness in that show, though, is the big conspiracy theory. Yup the weak point in Sense8 is the plot. But where Sense8 has these great characters and a standard big bad thrown on top of them, the world of Humans seems completely, if you’ll pardon the pun, organic. There are androids on the run, but it’s from the police and the corporation that builds them. These are both groups that A) publicly exist and B) have an interest in recovering these characters. The police don’t want robots out there that can violate standard operating procedures and commit crimes, and the manufacturer doesn’t want this “defect” of consciousness to spread to the rest of production. I realize that this is still only halfway through the first season, but if it does get more sinister and secret-board-of-shadowy-figures it seems like that threat will come from a grounded and real place.
And then there’s the cast of characters. Gemma Chan is ethereal in her physicality. Yes, she looks too pretty to be real, but her movements are amazing. There’s a stiffness that utterly sells her as a robot without any special effects. Beyond that, she manages to squeeze incredible amounts of acting into small mouth an eye motions to show her personality cutting past her programming. Emily Berrington is likewise amazing, but from the opposite end of the spectrum. Where as Gemma’s Anita is a robot struggling with twinges of humanity, Emily’s Niska is this explosion of emotion. Niska, who struggles to remain robotic while in hiding and can pass for human with ease, plays out her emotional growth as a mix of human developmental stages. She has the angst and indignation of a teenager along with the boundary testing and unrestrained outbursts of a toddler. Hers is a painful arc, and her reactions can seem both cruel and yet completely understandable in context.
That is where this show is living so far, exploring the edge of humanity. People, likewise, sometimes veer into preprogrammed behavio. It’s this assumption of roles, both of how the people are supposed to act and how they should treat the other that are androids among them, that causes most of the drama. Yes, there is that urgency from the chase of law enforcement, but the slow and drawn out suspense kicks in when an emotionally neglected husband, played in alternating turns of sympathetic and predatory by Tom Goodman-Hill, has to inspect his robot for damage. He repeats that she’s not real, but that idea breaks down quickly as he looks over her very human looking body. To what level can he acknowledge her for what she is before he crosses a line while she remains perfectly passive? There’s a constant feeling of two steps forward, one step back. For every amount of progress that the people show while dealing with these sentient robots, there’s a dehumanizing angle as they struggle to overcome (or succumb to) a more comfortable power dynamic.
The fact that this is where the show digs in, and not some large action packed chase, is why this show is a must-watch. It downplays the broad strokes and pulls off the fine points of character work with finesse. There’s a careful balance struck to keep things moving, and from being too uncomfortable to keep watching, and it keeps the show incredibly tight. There’s no room for lazy tropes or bland characterization when a misstep in to either side can loose the thread. It’s dense with ideas, and still manages to keep a slick pace.