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While a lot of people — with good reason — have glommed on to the compelling artificial intelligence stories that permeate HBO’s Westworld, it’s important to remember that AMC’s Humans beat that series to air and was exceptional at expanding and redefining the genre in, well, human ways. The series returns Monday in what is, impressively, an even more thoughtful and dramatically creative way.
The concept of AI and robots is an old one that has fueled science fiction for a very long time, but until Humans, the AMC, Channel 4 and Kudos co-production, appeared in the summer of 2015, few iterations of the concept had left a mark, particularly on the small screen. What the relatively under-the-radar Humans was able to do was creatively reimagine the impact of robots/AI in everyday life.
Air date: Feb 13, 2017
Based off a Swedish series but invigorated by the thoughtful work of British writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, who wrote six of the eight episodes in season two, Humans is wholly different in its concerns than Westworld currently is. Where the latter focuses mostly on the abused android “hosts” in a futuristic theme park and expands on the original movie’s idea of ethical human behavior, the former begins in our modern world already populated with “synths” (short for synthetics), machines designed to ease the everyday burdens of humans, set in Britain. The synths are an accepted part of people’s lives in Humans because they’ve been integrated into British lives for decades, newer and better models replacing the outdated ones, doing the housework, cooking, cleaning, driving the kids to school and functioning in all kinds of jobs where a robotic presence (who looks human, except for the bright green eyes and just slightly-off demeanor and physical gait) might be helpful.
Not cordoned off in a theme park, the synths are already part of society (which could be a concept tackled next season on Westworld). What made the first season of Humans (currently available on Amazon) so compelling was that Vincent and Brackley set up a number of scenarios with a very strong cast of characters and tackled, in the early going, seemingly simple ideas about connectivity. How does an already crumbling marriage survive the arrival of a synth who cooks better than a harried working mom, and what happens when the younger child starts preferring the always available to read bedtime stories synth to mommy? What happens when dad starts looking at the hot new synth in that way? How can an already recalcitrant teen be pulled close to the family when she’s annoyed at all synths because they represent the future working force of Britain and studying for school seems pointless?
At every turn, the writers were able to take these — and so many more — ideas and put them into effective storylines, creating one of television’s better surprises in an already crowded field.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an android/AI/robot/synth type of story if probing the biggest issue of the genre didn’t happen — what if these artificial humans gain intelligence? What if they become conscious? What if they wake up, so to speak, and turn on us? It’s the logical endgame of this sci-fi genre, but the better series (and movies) tackle this thoughtfully and with intellectual alacrity. Westworld essentially built to that conclusion in its first season, but what helped Humans stay nimble was that it was always gurgling, creatively, under the surface of the other storyline in season one. It, too, eventually got to the point where it readily had to address the issue, but its arrival was made so much stronger by the fact it had already focused on how some groups of humans were protesting the influx of synths in society, variations on human-synth love had thoughtfully been told and viewers were able, on multiple occasions throughout the season, to build sympathy for the synths while also realizing that, just like humans, they were all different (some good, some bad, some harmless, some dangerous, etc.).
The second season of Humans picks up where the first ended, but new viewers who want to jump in now can do so with only a rudimentary understanding of the first season: Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) Hawkins, and their teen kids Mattie (Lucy Carless), Toby (Theo Stevenson) and young Sophie (Pixie Davies), had their lives upended last season by the arrival of Anita (Gemma Chan), the synth Joe bought to help out with the housework.
Through a series of compelling events, the family discovers that a small group of disparate synths, including Anita, are linked as “a family” to the pioneering researcher who created them, Dr. David Elster, whose own son, Leo (Colin Morgan), allegedly died and was brought back by his father as the only known human-synth hybrid. Leo’s goal is to round up Anita and the others while the government tries to track them down.
Humans successfully made this disparate group of related synths about as different as possible — gender, skin color, disposition, purpose, etc. and tackled the complexities of what “a family” really means (again, the ability of the series to focus on complicated gray areas rather than some humans vs. synth simplicity is what fueled its excellence).
Though the first season ended in a way that could have allowed for it to be a one-and-done, getting picked up for a second season allowed the series to approach the bigger picture it was always aiming for, which was “consciousness” in the synth population and how that might be addressed along moral and ethical lines (with a lot of action and dramatic tension, of course). But true to the nuanced nature that writers Vincent and Brackley bring to it, Humans doesn’t immediately get to or stick on the clash between humans and synths, instead delving into the character-driven emotional ramifications of what happens when, slowly, it’s clear synths are waking up.
Again, the failure of well-worn tropes in the AI genre is that, historically, most have led to a simplistic “us vs. them” endgame, with the brisk race to that clash eliminating nuance or character development along the way. The beauty in Humans is in the pausing, the ability as a continuing series (and season two makes it clear the show can keep going) to explore the deeper everyday challenges that might come up. The show was phenomenally adept at this in the first season and has a number of well-thought diversions (in the same manner that has defined the rigorous extrapolation of similar themes in Black Mirror) to muse over in this second season. One of the touching and intriguing topics, for example, is how to deal with humans who begin to self-identify as synths, a riff on queer-culture that the show explores through a young black girl at Toby’s private school who he becomes infatuated with. It’s another example of how the series tries to tackle new wrinkles in the AI genre. The ability to keep a lot of stories in play while servicing them slowly has been an underrated aspect of Humans, which covers a lot of ground in a relatively short (eight episodes) amount of time.
The cast here is excellent, with Chan continuing her breakout performance last season with yet another composed and thoughtful examination of what it is to feel connected (or not) and how to modulate new emotions. Parkinson and Goodman-Hill (along with William Hurt last season) were the more established actors, but Humans unveiled a number of wonderful performances (in particular, the series has managed to find three kids in Carless, Stevenson and Davies who nail their characters and avoid being cloying). Season two sees the addition of Carrie-Anne Moss as Dr. Athena Morrow as a leading AI scientist from the U.S. and Marshall Allman as the Silicon Valley tech billionaire funding her research, with both of their motives in question.
Humans, which is plate-spinning a number of compelling character-development stories in addition to the big-picture themes, is a series that is primed for a larger audience as it improves on its already impressively complex and nuanced story. It’s a welcome return.
Cast: Gemma Chan, Emily Berrington, Colin Morgan, Ivanno Jeremiah, Katherine Parkinson, Tom Goodman-Hill, Lucy Carless, Theo Stevenson, Pixie Davies, Carrie-Anne Moss, Marshall Allman, Neil Maskell, Ruth Bradley, Will Tudor, Sonya Cassidy, Sam Palladio
Written by: Sam Vincent, Jonathan Brackley
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)
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