'Humans': TV Review

AMC Humans - H 2015
Des Willie/Kudos
"Synths" (short for synthetics) are the new human-like artificial intelligence robots that everybody wants. But when one British family gets one, it opens the doors to all kinds of trouble — for the family, for the synths and for other unseen hands. 

New AMC series takes a familiar sci-fi idea and gives it new life.

There's nothing particularly new about the premise of Humans, the AMC series about “synthetic” humans or robots with artificial intelligence. But for all its imagination, sci-fi is certainly a genre that recycles concepts. The intrigue lies in the execution and the re-imagining of them. We've certainly seen plenty of robots wreaking havoc on humanity. But Humans finds a way to bring intrigue to a very familiar conflict.

Humans is based on a Swedish series called Real Humans, created by Lars Lundstrom. British writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley deliver the AMC/Channel 4/Kudos co-production, and what they immediately get right is the real-life worries and emotional connections that surface when “synths” are part of everyday life.

When Humans begins, we see harried Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) struggling to deal with the day-to-day rigors of running the family while his lawyer wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is away on a work trip. Joe’s got three kids: teenage daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless), adolescent son Toby (Theo Stevenson) and young Sophie (Pixie Davis). And like any busy parent, Joe struggles to balance their hectic lives with his own job — particularly when Laura, who was supposed to be gone for only two days, ends up away for five.

Joe decides to get the family a synth, even though Laura has previously forbidden it, and picks out Anita (Gemma Chan), who happens to be gorgeous. AMC only previewed two episodes for review, so it’s not clear if writers Vincent and Brackley tackle the idea of choosing a synth based on looks; the first episode implies buyers don’t know what they get until they buy it. In either case, young Sophie is delighted because getting a synth seems like a great idea, and Toby is happy because Anita is a knockout (he’ll later try to fondle her breast while she’s recharging). But teen Mattie is immediately dismissive of the whole concept of a synth and — not unexpectedly — when Laura returns from her business trip, she’s less than thrilled that Anita has made the house a lot tidier, cooks effortlessly great meals and waits on the kids when they should be doing chores themselves. She's also not wild about the fact that Joe is so happy with Anita.

In those initial scenes, Humans makes clear what’s at stake in this new world. Laura feels like she’s a lousy mother and might be easily replaced. Sophie thinks Anita is perfect; she takes her time reading Sophie stories and is always there when she needs her.

Mattie represents England’s future generation; synth labor has made the once-scholarly teen feel like it’s pointless to get an education because synths are able work better, faster and cheaper. As she sees it, they have written her out of her own future.

All of these are familiar reactions to artificial intelligence in the modern world, but Humans raises the stakes even more by implying there are larger issues at stake. For example, Professor Edwin Hobb (Danny Webb), is a synth scientist and co-creator who has worked alongside the man most responsible for the brilliance of the synths. Hobb now believes that a core group of the robots are evolving beyond the limits of the science — becoming capable of emotions and intelligence beyond the operating codes, demonstrating a kind of free will. He’s been tracking them down — but we don’t know for what purpose.

Humans doesn’t get into the bigger mystery or mysteries that begin to arise in the first two episodes. But in addition to the Hawkins family and Professor Hobb, we also meet Leo (Colin Morgan), who is trying to free the synths, believing they are more than just scrap metal with motherboards. We learn that he once helped free Anita only to have her rounded up again. As Leo continues his quest to find her again, that creepy feeling Laura’s been getting from Anita starts to make more sense.

What makes Humans work beyond its familiar concepts and genre constraints is the connection viewers will make with those in the synth world. Anita is immediately intriguing for her broader, non-programmed interest in what’s out there in the world (she stares at the moon in a way that makes Laura believe even more that something’s not right) — and Chan is exceptionally good at conveying both the smoothly-robotic nature of a synth with “human” qualities and the wild card we know she can be. The entire cast is strong, particularly Goodman-Hill and Parkinson, but Chan is both compelling and alluring at the same time, giving viewers an 'in' into the synth world.

Also standing out is William Hurt, as Dr. George Millican, an engineer on the original synth project and owner of Odi (Will Tudor), an out of date model that the government is looking to recycle. But George can’t bear to part with Odi because he's come to feel like family, and in spite of his faltering and sputtering, still recalls memories that George himself no longer can.

Hurt imbues George with a sense of loneliness and regret — he doesn’t like the idea of upgrades destroying the connections that families have to their synths — and brings humor to the role as he suffers through his new, no-nonsense model Vera (Rebecca Front) who strictly monitors his diet, etc., while trying to hide Odi in the house.

By bringing those kinds of touches into the episodes, Vincent and Brackley succeed in making Humans, well, very human — concerning itself not only with the humanity of the real people we meet, but with the humanity of the synthetic ones, too. 

The promise of the early episodes makes it look like AMC was smart to get involved in this co-production because, despite the familiar premise, Humans is a keeper.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine