The premiere of Almost Human feels more like a movie than the first episode of a television show, and that’s certainly by design. Maybe it’s the extraordinary production values that would feel right at home at your local multiplex, the presence of a big screen talent like Karl Urban (who has already established his sci-fi bona fides as Dr. McCoy in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek franchise and as Mega-City One’s primo badass in Dredd), and a script that manages to set up season-long (and potential series long) story arcs organically. Or maybe it’s the way all the pieces work together to immediately drop you right into this familiar-looking near future.
Karl Urban is John Kennex, a police detective who has been out of the loop for several years after losing his partner (and his leg) in a firefight. This is what kicks off the episode and it is plenty loud and plenty violent and the RoboCop comparisons are as unavoidable as they are deliberate. Kennex, upon his return to the force, sports a synthetic leg graft and a desperate need to unlock the truth of what went wrong on that day. How desperate? He’s seeing a shady doctor in a sketchy part of town for some unsanctioned and dangerous hypnotherapy.
Kennex has little patience for the android partners that are now a requirement on the force…and dispatches one with gleeful abandon. Regardless of the fact that these aren’t living beings, it’s still a fairly brutal way to go, and it goes a long way towards establishing just how damaged and unstable Kennex is. But when he’s paired with Dorian, an earlier, less robotic (and thus, more prone to instability) model, we meet the real center of the show. Michael Ealy plays Dorian with a charm that many of the more “human” characters lack, and he’s neither the naive Pinocchio of a Lieutenant Commander Data nor is he a relentless Terminator-like automaton. This could be a buddy cop scenario worth watching.
We also get the obligatory mystery set-ups that should resolve (or not resolve) as the series progresses. Frankly, neither of these (John’s ex-girlfriend and the nature of the ambush that cost him his leg) feel like they’re exactly going to keep viewers coming back in breathless anticipation of a resolution. But what should is the excellent special effects and Almost Human‘s utter devotion to establishing a fully realized science fiction world on network television in a way we haven’t seen in quite some time.
There’s no shortage of action on display in the pilot, from the opening firefight flashback right on down the line until the credits roll. And when we aren’t immersed in such loud pyrotechnics, the slick, well-rendered future world does its best to prevent your eyes from glazing over. Director Brad Anderson (who helmed The Machinist, and is a veteran of a number of episodes of Fringe and The Wire) gets the most out of all 47 minutes on display, despite what is really a fairly standard plot. What’s impressive, though, is that there’s very little of the usual “first episode syndrome” where every character and their motivations are explained and telegraphed to high heaven. In some cases, it leaves us wanting more (like with Lili Taylor’s in-the-know Captain Maldonado), while it leaves other characters (like Minka Kelly’s Detective Valerie Stahl) rather shortchanged.
While nobody is likely to mistake Almost Human for a terribly original concept, all of these other factors work to keep viewers so entertained (and so busy looking at all the science fiction eye candy) that all is immediately forgiven. For genre fans, Almost Human is handily the best looking science fiction show on TV right now. And while it owes considerable visual and thematic debt to RoboCop and Blade Runner the total package is far too appealing to avoid.