What does it really mean to be alive? It’s a question asked by about a million scifi stories. The new TV series Humans is only the latest, but it does so with such indebtedness to the works of Isaac Asimov I’m kind of surprised everyone in the cast isn’t sporting the author’s trademark muttonchops.

Based on the very popular Swedish TV series Real Humans, Humans is not specifically based on any of Asimov’s works, but in its exploration of the blurring line between humanity and robots its clearly built off many of them, which is nicely acknowledged when the robots are revealed to have “Asimov Blocks” which prevent them from harming humans, much like his famous laws of robotics. But what Asimov would really love—and what sets Humans apart from all those other scifi tales—is how thoroughly the show looks to explore an otherwise normal world where stunningly lifelike androids named Synths are in pretty much every stratum of society and the complex personal issues they’d bring with them. Because in Humans, these Synths aren’t just taking jobs from people, they’re also taking their relationships, too.

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This is the key issue in the show’s first episode, which is mainly about introducing the many characters and conflicts that will inevitably collide over the course of the season; it’s a lot of exposition, but Humans manages it pretty effectively. Here they are:

1) The Hawkins and Anita

Laura (played by Katherine Parkinson, best known as Jen on The I.T. Crowd) is a lawyer who has begun avoiding her family; as such, her beleaguered husband buys a Synth to help with housework and such. This Synth is Anita, and when Laura comes home, she is skeeved out, partially because of the Synth’s close-but-not-quite-close-enough imitation of humanity, but also because of the ease at which and totality of how Anita inserts herself in her family’s life. Despite her increasing distance from her husband, she’s threatened by Anita’s effortless domesticity, especially with how much her youngest daughter Sophie takes to the Synth (most heartbreaking moment: when Laura trying to takeover reading Sophie a bedtime story, but Sophie wants Anita because “She doesn’t rush!” Boom). Laura gets pretty testy and mean to the Synth, who of course has no feelings… or does she? Either way, despite being ordered to leave Sophie alone, she takes the child out of her bed late that night and carries her down the road for an unknown purpose.

2) Dr. Millican and Odi

This elderly scientist and widower (played by William Hurt) has an older synth named Odi which acts as his caretaker. Apparently it’s been issued by the state, which wants to “upgrade” Millican to a new (humorously severe-looking) Vera model. But Millican has come to care for Odi like a son and doesn’t want to give him up, even though he continually malfunctions, even accidentally punching a woman at the supermarket. There’s some nice parallels in that both Millican and Odi have memory problems (only Odi says “Fatal Error!” when he can’t access his memories of Millican’s late wife), but the real kicker is when Millican thinks Odi is beyond hope of repair, Millican is about to bash Odi’s head in with a hammer because of “things” the Synth knows—things Millican can’t let others know.

3) Drummond

A Special Tech Task Force detective who investigates Odi’s supermarket accident, but allows Millican to take the Synth home instead of ordering it destroyed (which is procedure). His appearance in this episode is brief, but when he gets home, there’s a young, strapping Synth named Simon, who cheerily helps his disabled wife with her physical therapy; it’s clear the schlubby Hobb is worried his wife no longer needs—or even particularly wants—him.

4) Leo and Max

The Hawkins family may be the entry-point into the series, but it’s clear that Leo’s story is what will drive the series going forward. It begins with four Synths five weeks ago—Synths who can think for themselves and feel pain—and of course Anita is one of them, although her real name is Mia, and Leo and she are in love. Unfortunately, Mia/Anita and two other Synths are boosted—stolen and resold to others—forcing Leo and the remaining Synth, Max, to hunt them down. We know where Mia ends up, obviously; the only one they find is Niska, who has been resold to a Synth brothel. Although Niska is desperate to leave, Leo tells her that she’s safer there for the time being. Niska is 100% not happy about this.

5) Hobb

As for the third boosted Synth, his name is Max, and he’s captured working in an orchard by a man named Hobb, because you can’t have thinking, feeling robots without someone hunting them down. Apparently Hobb has known about the existence of these special Synths—that the Synth creator David Elster actually gave them their ability to think—for some time and Hobb is worried that they are the tech singularity. Among the things these Synths can do is ignore their Asimov Blocks and harm people—and we’ve seen Mia/Anita “accidentally” burn Laura with a steaming hot lasagna pan, and more importantly Niska the Synth has murder in her robotic eyes.

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But then, we’ve already seen Odi hurt a woman entirely by accident. Hobb may have humanity’s safety at heart, but Humans makes clear that in a certain respect Synths are machines, and machines can accidentally hurt their users. But the thinking Synths—well, they can intentionally hurt people. This terrifies Hobb, but are they really any different from regular humans in this respect? Humans also have the potential to intentionally hurt humans. So what makes these Synths any more dangerous than we ourselves are?

I fully expect Humans to continue asking this question and many more like it over the course of its 8-episode season (apparently, there’s a possibility of as second season, although there’s no word yet), and I assume Mia/Anita, Leo, Drummond, Millican and Hobb will cross paths, too. There’s a ton of potential here, and I, for one, am looking forward to it. But I’d look forward to it even more if everyone had Asimovian muttonchops.

Assorted Musings:

• Shout-out to both the Humans make-up team and the actors themselves for really nailing that not-quite-human manner of talking and moving. Apparently there was a special coach for the actors to make sure they lost the nuances that remind people you’re not a robots. Also, Gemma Chan does look a bit too-perfect-to-be-a-real-person, so great casting there.

• The show is a joint Channel 4/AMC production which aired in the U.K. first, which is why pretty much everyone has a British accent, if you were wondering.

• It strikes me as completely bizarre that William Hurt is on this show after already exploring the same territory on A.I. Dude must really like stories about humanoid robots.

• Millican using a dental pick to press the reset button in Odi’s mouth was a nice touch.

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• Both Hawkins the senior and his son give Anita/Mia’s ass a good once over, but the show does make sure this is played for discomfort and not a laugh. Additionally, seeing Joe pocket the “ADULT OPTIONS 18+” packet could just be him hiding it from his teenage son, which sure, or it could get much grosser down the line.

• Winner of best new scifi TV series with worst title: Humans or Mr. Robot? I’d say Mr. Robot by a nose, but hoo boy Humans is not a good title.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.