Consistency is often the bane of network shows, and Almost Human is no different. The pressure of having to deliver more episodes per season than a cable series inevitably leads to some slumps, rote storytelling, and general predictability, usually during this time of year. It’s difficult to tell when that’s happening with Almost Human, though, since FOX has been defiantly (and infuriatingly) airing it out of order. Nevertheless, “Unbound” is a solid episode of Almost Human, with little of the network procedural laziness that has marred several episodes this season. There will be spoilers in this review, so be warned.
It’s about time that we’ve had a proper evil robot for the boys to square off against. When a highly-evolved android killing machine (guest star Gina Carano) makes her presence known, the police have a bit of a fit: considering that this model was long thought destroyed. As she continues to upgrade herself and procure more technology, we’re introduced to Dr. Nigel Vaughan (John Larroquette) the creator of the DRNs (and thus, Dorian), as well as the rogue ‘bot, who is far more Terminator than Austin Powers fembot.
John Larroquette is such a welcome sight. Whatever Almost Human’s weaknesses are, the cast is never one of them (I have praised Urban and Ealy in virtually every review I’ve done, so there’s no need to get into it again here), so adding Larroquette in a recurring role should only elevate the proceedings even further. The relationship between Dorian and Vaughan is more Pinocchio/Geppetto than anything else, and when Dorian “meets his maker” it, of course, sets off one of his inevitable existential crises. Especially when it turns out that Dr. Vaughan is hiding some dastardly secrets of his own. I’d like to think that the title of this episode “Unbound” is a reference to Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound, but perhaps I’m reaching. However, the old “if only I had access to some of my old tech I could help” line is such a telegraphed “he’s the bad guy” gag that some writer should have to put five bucks in a penalty jar somewhere.
Perhaps accidentally, Almost Human will occasionally touch on just how powerful the police presence is in this version of our future. I mean, aside from the fact that drones are everywhere and the police department has a budget that includes an army of fantastically advanced androids. The opening of “Unbound” depicts a mugging and murder, which appears to be a simple street crime (it isn’t), but the immediate police response is both impressive and a little scary. I often remark on how the future of Almost Human is one in which we might want to live, but the fact that an entire SWAT team can descend on an individual within minutes of perpetrating any crime is food for thought. I wonder if they’ll ever get around to exploring the larger implications of this.
Despite the first genuinely menacing villain we’ve seen in a few episodes and all the high-powered implications of her presence, “Unbound” is often a rather talky piece of TV. There’s lots of talking about Dr. Vaughan’s history, his fall from grace in the robotics world, Danica’s past crimes and what it all led to. While I suppose that’s all necessary, it felt like an awful lot of backstory to cram into one episode. I almost wonder if “Unbound” could have been better served as a two-parter.
But that quibble is quickly forgotten by the episode’s climax, which is a stunning battle between the cops and what is, essentially, a Terminator. Here is Almost Human’s budget on full display in a spectacular array of gunfire and stunts. It’s really great, and I’m not sure any male lead does the “I’m really getting my ass kicked, here” face and body language quite as well as Karl Urban does it. I realize that a shoot ’em up sequence like this would lose its impact if done every episode, but damn…they sure are fun.
Can I take a moment to point out a really specific, dopey thing that I enjoy about Almost Human? The gun sound effects. Whenever there’s a proper gun battle on this show, the traditional rat-a-tat of automatic weapons fire is mixed in with what sounds like the occasional laser blast. I don’t know what kind of heat these characters are packing, but it sounds like stuff you’d sometimes hear on the early days of the classic GI Joe cartoon.
So, while there isn’t much in the way of stunning originality here, and while the episode is a bit all over the map, at least Almost Human is playing to its strengths with “Unbound.” Almost Human always works best as a sci-fi show, despite its police trappings, and since there are so few pure science fiction shows on network TV these days a familiar sci-fi plot feels fresher than a warmed over cop show story with some robots thrown in. If a show like this is going to borrow ideas or go to the well, at least do it loud and proud within a genre that isn’t so well represented on television.