This week, Almost Human delivered an underwhelming season finale, one that dusted its core relationship in a layer of saccharine while barely touching its overarching mysteries. Almost Human could learn a lot about how to build a season from another weird science procedural, Fringe.
We don't know yet if Almost Human will be renewed for a second season. Judging by its recent ratings, it sounds like the show could go either way. This first season was a very uneven one, even when we ignore the fact that many of the episodes were aired out of order. Almost Human has a lot of sparks of potential greatness in it, with fun actors, some interesting ideas, and a mysterious backstory that the show has barely prodded at. But its ensemble has never quite gelled, it often takes the easy way out with its story lines, and its world lacks detail.
Watching this final episode, in which Kennex tries to solve his father's final case, I found myself thinking more and more about Fringe. Almost Human and Fringe are obviously very different shows. Fringe is set more or less in our present and focuses on themes of family, forgiveness, redemption, and how to adjust to a world that is radically changing beneath our feet. Almost Human is set in the future (or the retrofuture, if you prefer), and it tries to understand the ills of society through an exaggerated lens of speculative technology, exploring issues like slavery, exploitation of the poor, stratification of wealth, gun control, and dwindling privacy. But both shows are procedurals with long form mysteries lurking in the background (although Fringe's eventually came front and center), and Fringe was often successful in balancing the two while Almost Human has been clunky. While I would never propose that Almost Human should become a clone of Fringe, there are some cues that Almost Human could take from its predecessor:
Keep the Mysteries of the Week Weird While Tapping into Our Fears
Fringe was often built around disturbing set pieces: a fetus that transforms into a full-grown human within minutes, people who crumble into dust, a woman who causes people's brains to boil. But at the same time, they frequently tapped into very ordinary fears about sex, the power of our own rage, how the machines that help us might also harm us, and that our bodies might someday turn against us. As implausible as these weird science phenomena were, they could leave you unsettled, as if they could somehow happen to you or someone you love.
Almost Human, in its attempt to show a future not unlike our present, tends to err on the side of making its technology too familiar. On the one hand, we have Dorian, a synthetic being who acts and thinks like a human being. On the other, we have crimes involving mind-expanding drugs and guys who strap bombs to people's necks. And sometimes, Almost Human manages to present near-future technological violence in a way that's so far from the average person's experience that it ceases to be impactful. For example, in the episode "Disrupt," we see a couple killed by their own home security system. There are plenty of things in your house that can kill you, but these two are killed by an automated gun and a swimming pool that happens to have a glass ceiling. It hits home that these are wealthy folks who are killed by their presentation of wealth, but viewers would be more immersed in the episode if we could share in their terror. Since most of us don't have pools with deadly enclosures in our homes, it's hard to imagine being killed this way. Their deaths feel like the deaths of the other, not the deaths of people we could be.
Almost Human tends to do a better job when it deals with health and the human body. The idea that a sexbot could be wearing pilfered human skin is chilling for the simple reason that we imagine our own skin grafted to their bodies. (There's also that back-of-the-mind fear that there's more than a little human flesh spent on our own consumer products.) And last night proposed the neat ideas that someone could fake your death by printing a copy of your body and that the medical files used to ensure homeless people get the proper balance of nutrients could be used to exploit them, although the episode ultimately swerved into rather generic territory with its cyborg guinea pigs.
An Ensemble is Stronger than a Partnership
This goes for procedurals in general. Bones is fun not just because of the odd couple of Brennan and Booth, but because of the quirky employees of the Jeffersonian. Castle's author and detective team-up is nicely framed by both the NYPD and Richard Castle's family. And, of course, Fringe has the dysfunctional family of the Bishop men and their FBI coworkers.
Almost Human leans heavily on the relationship between the wannabe luddite Kennex and almost too-human Dorian. Some of the problems in relying on that relationship were the fault of the network, which aired the episodes out of order and therefore kept screwing up their emotional timeline. However, their relationship is more or less summed up in this video from last night's episode, which includes the line "I'm sorry I scanned your balls":
The rest of the cast was unfortunately underused, despite having a lot of potential—including a lot of ways that the writers could use them to explore the notion of being "Almost Human." The distantly polite Detective Stahl had remarkably little to do this season despite being a genetically enhanced chrome and a lot of emotional baggage as a result. Angry Detective Paul finally got a human moment last night during a friendly mocking exchange with a homeless kid, giving us more insight into his character than we got in the rest of the season. And Captain Maldonado, played by the wonderful Lili Taylor, has shown remarkably few signs of an interior life, although last night we did learn that she specifically saved Dorian (holder of the mysterious memories) from being sent to perform space labor, so perhaps she's just putting up an opaque front to hide something.
The one character who has been spotlighted is the brilliant but graceless technician Rudy Lom, but he isn't played effectively off Kennex or Dorian. Instead, he is portrayed as loner weirdo who attracts little more than the occasional sideways look from his coworkers. I had hoped that pairing Rudy and Dorian as roommates would be good for both characters, giving Rudy a chance to grow and showing what life is like for a synthetic learning to live a human life as an adult—but that hasn't panned out yet. Rudy needs an Astrid to his Walter Bishop, someone who understands him in a way he doesn't understand himself.
Good People do Dubious Things—And They Have to Live with the Consequences
Frequently in Almost Human, there is a sense that the wrong person has been punished and that there are larger institutions at fault. And that's fine—that's great, actually—as long as everyone's actions have some reverberations. The aforementioned episode "Disrupt" has shades of the Trayvon Martin tragedy; a teenage boy takes a shortcut through a smart house yard and is killed by the home security system. When we meet one of the makers of these security systems, she tells Kennex that she got into home security because she herself was once attacked. From there, Almost Human seems uninterested in exploring the morality of automated defense systems or the rich are punishing the 99 percent for minor transgressions. When a natural girl at an all-chrome school kills herself after taking a perception-altering drug, Almost Human saddles her drug-dealing chrome boyfriend with neither crippling self-blame nor a sense of emotional emptiness that suggests he's been raised without empathy for the non-enhanced. Too often, the show presents big moral problems, and then dodges them in favor of hunting down the person who broke the law.
It also fails to give Kennex much in the way of consequences. Forget the legal and financial consequences of shooting a person or repeatedly damaging MXes—what does it say to your synthetic partner if you treat other synthetics as target practice? When Walter insults Astrid or Peter—even by accident—they have to decide whether to ignore him or deny him something that he wants. So much of Almost Human has been about Dorian winning over Kennex, and while Dorian certainly has a more sedate personality than Kennex does, he also has feelings and wants to be treated as a person. Even if he has to toe the line a bit with Kennex because his continued police service depends on it, it would be nice to see him have more emotional responses to Kennex's bad behavior.
That's something that could come up as Kennex and Rudy are keeping a secret from Dorian, a secret about the memories stored within Dorian's synthetic brain. Even though they want to protect Dorian, they continue to treat him as something less than human, and at some point Dorian has to recognize that. But, as Fringe has taught us, even characters who have done terrible things can be forgiven—but they have to want that forgiveness.
The Larger Storyline Should Connect Emotionally with Our Main Characters
Perhaps the weakest aspect of Almost Human has been the subplot involving Anna Moore, Kennex's ex-girlfriend who is apparently a member of the criminal organization inSyndicate. Kennex is tormented by the idea that Anna betrayed him, and that his failure to recognize her as a criminal contributed to the death of his last partner. The problem is that we don't know Anna; she appears in flashbacks, but she's only loosely connected to the Kennex we know now.
As Fringe progressed from its self-contained episodes to its wider mysteries, we gradually began to understand how the characters connected to the wider nature of the universe. Walter became aware of the alternate universe and performed experiments on a young Olivia to prepare our universe for battle. He stole Peter from that other universe in order to save his life after his own version of Peter died. The more we uncovered Fringe's mysteries, the more we learned about the characters, and the more invested we became in their personal joys and tragedies.
Almost Human has its own mysteries. We don't know much about the Wall that divides the City or what lies on the other side. We don't know why there are errant memories floating around Dorian's head. We don't know what the roboticist Nigel Vaughn is planning to do with the synthetic souls he stole. But what's important isn't just the answers to those questions, but also how those answers will affect the various characters.
Oddly, that failure to connect the plot emotionally to the characters is what made this season finale so disappointing. There was an attempt to make this case personal for Kennex, since it was the case his father was investigating when he died. Other procedurals have done this, had a detective character look into the mystery surrounding a parent's death or fall from grace, but it's a trope that tends to be used later in a series, when we have a firm understanding of how that parent's death or dishonor affected the character. Here it feels too early, something tossed in to let Kennex end the season on a warm and fuzzy note. There are other mysteries that Almost Human could have solved, mysteries that would have opened new emotional doors for its characters and left us excited for a second season. Instead, as is so often the case, Almost Human reached for something far below its potential, spinning a happy fable about a cyborg and synthetic who become friends rather than examining the complexities of two people trying to cope in the rapid technological change of their world.