Warning: contains plot details for Humans and Äkta Människor series one.
Humans: A dot of white light blinks on and shrinks away into a black recess. The shot pulls back through electronic camera shutters to reveal an unnaturally green eye framed by dark lashes. A trolley wheel squeaks along a reflective, sterile white floor, past rows of still upright bodies—male and female, all races, dressed only in underwear. The trolley-pusher disregards the ranks of people behind him as if they’re part of the furniture. He switches off the lights and the rows remain, unmoving in the dark. One, just one, raises her head to look up through a skylight at the full moon.
Äkta Människor: A middle-aged man drives down a quiet country road at night and takes a phone call from his wife. Momentarily distracted, his car hits a pedestrian, a young woman who bounces off the bonnet and rolls onto the ground, headlights in the darkness illuminating her unmoving body. The camera notes an aged, peeling “Real Humans” sticker on his windscreen before the driver gets out to inspect the woman, who is emitting a digital bleeping sound. The driver sees a group of people silhouetted on the horizon and drives away panicked, running over the corpse a second time. Once home, he loads a rifle and prepares for a siege attack. They’re coming.
While the opening moments of Humans cleave to the sci-fi tradition, the first scenes of its Swedish ancestor are classic horror. Äkta Människor or Real Humansestablishes the threat to human life represented by its ‘wild Hubots’ from the word go. When we first meet them, the android gang aren’t presented as fugitives, but as aggressors. Aside from overly made-up faces, there’s initially little to distinguish them from any threatening pack of home invaders. They could equally be a gang of burglars, murderers, vampires, or a Swedish S Club 7 gone rogue.
Humans, alternatively, waits until the end of its second episode before unleashing its killer robot, and longer than that to really showcase the growing resistance to Synths within English society. The change reveals a nuanced difference between the shows: Real Humans is as, if not more, interested in Hubots’ political status than the philosophical questions they raise. Humans vice versa.
Before delving any deeper into both series’ specific inflections, let’s take a look at the major points of comparison.
Hubots vs Synths
Hubots, with their doll-like faces, overly made-up skin and plastic hair, look much more unnatural than Synths, who are distinguishable from humans only by their eye colour, smooth, efficient movements and even voice tones. Hubots also behave in a more recognisably robotic way than Synths; their eyelids for instance, blink rapidly and emit a bleeping sound when they malfunction. While Synths are activated and deactivated under their chins, Hubots are turned on and off via a button in their armpit (perhaps the UK actors proved too ticklish?).
Hubots are also capable of super-strength feats that–Anita saving Toby’s life aside–we’ve not yet seen from Synths. One memorable scene in Real Humans’ series one finale shows a Hubot vaulting gymnastically over a car. Pris in Blade Runner, eat your heart out.
In terms of behavior, illegally modding a non-conscious Hubot seems to give them a kind of autonomy. A sex toy Hubot modded to show pain by her sadistic owner violently turns on him. A domestic Hubot modded to act as a bodyguard to, and have sex with, his owner, becomes arrogant and deliberately deceptive.
Another difference between the two is the existence of Hubot copies, versions of people who have died, made to comfort families of the bereaved.
Is it the same story?
Both dramas are set in a parallel present in which the Synth/Hubot is the only technological difference from our own time. Both focus on a middle-class suburban family (two parents, two daughters and a son) acquiring a female domestic Synth, Anita, who turns out to have more to her than meets the eye. Each has a group of Conscious Synths created by the same man, who resurrected his son as part-robot after he drowned as a child, who are on the run following a Synth/human murder. There’s a widower in both whose Synth is malfunctioning due to his age, but who refuses to have him recycled. Both feature a character whose marriage breakdown is partly due to his wife’s Synth replacing him at home. Both feature a Synth living undetected as a human police officer investigating Synth-related crime.
Inside those broad story outlines are other, smaller parallels. Like Laura Hawkins, Inger Engman is a solicitor asked to represent Hubot civil rights. Like Toby Hawkins, Tobias Engman (played by Let The Right One In’s Kåre Hedebrant), falls in unrequited love with Anita.
Only a handful of scenes in Humans appear to be straight translations of those in Real Humans: the first post-Anita breakfast in the Hawkins household, Odi malfunctioning in the supermarket, the way one Synth disguised as a human reveals her true nature… Even so, there are nuanced differences the two.
Lots. The Swedish show features a vicar and her wife, who shelter the Hubots for a time. There’s a radicalised group of Hubot haters, the Real Human Liberation Army, who commit an act of terrorism as part of a plan to have Hubots removed from Swedish society. Leo and Max take up residence in the Hubot brothel, illegally modding Hubots while they look for a lead on Mimi’s whereabouts. Mimi is subject to a sexual assault by a gang of teenage boys. The Hubot salesman who sells Mimi to the Engmans is a character with his own arc. The Swedish show also focuses on the stories of two women who mod their domestic Hubots to live with them as sexual partners and fight to have their Transhuman relationships accepted by society.
In terms of additions made by the UK version to the Swedish original, the tender storyline involving Dr Millican needing Odi as a vestige of memories shared with his late wife doesn’t feature in Real Humans. Neither does Laura’s backstory involving the death of her younger brother, Tom, and the subsequent guilt she harbours about it. Anita doesn’t save Toby from being hit by a car in Real Humans, and the Engman father doesn’t activate Anita’s 18+ capabilities and use her for sex, as Joe Hawkins does.
By the end of series one, both shows wind up in very different places. In the Swedish show, several of the main characters die, while their UK counterparts are still living.
Are the characters the same?
Leo’s story has two major points of difference between the two shows. Unlike the UK version, in which his mother committed suicide and attempted to take his life too, in the Swedish drama, she drowns accidentally and he dies trying to save her. Leo and Mimi in the original are lovers, not a surrogate mother and son (even though Mimi was Leo’s nanny, until, as she creepily puts it, “[he] grew up”.)
In Real Humans, the widower, Lennart, is the grandfather of the main Engman family and unlike William Hurt’s Dr George Millican, has no links to robotics. His new matronly Hubot is forced upon him by his family when his original one fails, instead of being an NHS requirement.
Two characters in Real Humans have been merged to form the role of DS Pete Drummond (Neil Maskell) in the UK show. One is Roger, a neighbour of the Engman family who finds himself being replaced both at work and at home by Hubots. When he hits his wife, she leaves him and takes his teenage stepson with her, starting a new life with Rick, a domestic Hubot. The other half of Pete’s character is inspired by E-HUB police detective Ove Holm, partner to fellow detective, Beatrice.
Another merged character is Synth Niska, who seems to be inspired by two separate Hubots in the Swedish show (while Humans has four Conscious Synths plus Leo and Karen/Beatrice, Real Humans has a larger gang of Hubot fugitives, not all of them Conscious). Niska shares similarities with her namesake, a human-murdering Hubot styled after Lisbeth Salander, and Flash, a blonde Hubot who decides to leave the others to try to start her own life before being manipulated into prostitution.
Sex, nudity, violence and gore
When you consider that Real Humans aired originally on SVT, Sweden’s ad-free, licence fee-funded equivalent to the BBC, that old assumption about the Swedes being much more liberated and relaxed than the English when it comes to sex rings true. Put simply, there’s loads of gratuitous nudity in Real Humans, much, much more than in the UK adaptation. Most of the nudity involves the topless, pole-dancing Hubots working at sleazy sex club, Hubot Heaven (the Synth prostitutes all wear underwear in the UK version), but Mimi is also seen topless in the Engman household. Think Game Of Thrones/The Sopranos levels of background nudity.
More shocking than that for English viewers is a murder committed early on in Real Humans. No, not the Hubot who kills her owner to death during a sex game, nor the fly-blown corpses of a human couple with their throats slit, nor the bloody bodies dismembered using a chainsaw… The true shock comes with the murder of an Alsatian.
Remember the fuss made when a crossbow was merely aimed at a Labrador in Broadchurch? You simply can’t kill a dog on English TV. The nation wouldn’t stand for it.
A different tone
When Colin Morgan (Leo) was asked to define Humans’ tone, he called it a “gritty” drama, which hits the nail squarely on the head. The UK show is a straightforward episodic drama with thriller elements and lines of philosophical questioning.
The Swedish original, alternatively, also has a real thread of kitsch running through it. Scenes involving Hubots in the workplace, at the Hubot showroom, or in suburban homes take place against a backdrop of Stepfordian pastel colours and muzak. The Engman family’s street is presented like Tim Burton suburbia, an expertly maintained, identikit series of manicured lawns and perfect homes. The overall effect is of life inside a dollhouse.
The Hubot Market and supermarket, too, are played much more for satirical laughs than their UK counterparts. There are adult-sized dollies wearing frilly dresses, Bo Peep curly wigs, and outsized bows. There’s a display of seventies fancy-dress Hubots disco dancing. Unlike the UK version which used them only as part of the marketing campaign independent of the show itself, the “graceful, elegant, efficient” Swedish TV ads for Hubots are integrated into the episodes.
As well as posing philosophical questions, Real Humans shows a particular interest in the political status of its Hubots, a theme only touched upon in the UK version’s first series. (It’s worth noting that the original had much more time to fill than Humans, with ten hour-long episodes versus eight fifty-minute instalments.)
Through its vicar’s sermons and the hate-filled speeches of the Real Humans Liberation Army, Hubots are repeatedly aligned with real-world oppressed political groups. Real Humans’ vicar preaches Hubot rights to her intolerant congregation, drawing historical parallels between their treatment and that of those sold into slavery centuries ago.
In “Pac-Man”, the world of Real Humans even has its own racist epithet, hate-language considered hurtful and taboo by Hubots and their supporters. In “Hubbies”, there’s also a derogatory term to describe people who have sexual relationships with Hubots. An economic system is also growing up to support Hubot intolerance. One character boasts of buying “Pac-Man-free coffee”, a brand marketed like Fair Trade coffee, on not being the product of a Hubot workforce.
While Humans asks whether or not a Synth is capable of enjoying art (Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, to be precise), Real Humans appears more interested in the civil rights issues presented by Hubots. It uses them much as the first season of True Blood used vampires, to stand in for other historically oppressed groups – slaves, and women. We watch a powerful lawyer casually groping the breast of a female Hubot employed by his firm, and another hit her in the face. It’s provocative television, and the questions it provokes are the political areas of power and hegemony. Tellingly, its Conscious Hubots are termed “wild”, but refer to themselves as “liberated”.
Which is better?
The short answer is that they’re both pretty special. Arguably, Real Humans resolves its first series more satisfyingly than the UK version. As noted, Real Humans has also had twenty episodes in which to develop its world versus Humans’ eight (creator Lars Lundström has a third planned but no official order at the time of writing). It’s therefore a busier, more populated and more closely interwoven series than its UK adaptation so far. Perhaps it’s fairest to ask again after Humans series two, when there’ll be a better basis for comparison.
Both certainly have plenty to recommend them. There are some great performances (Gemma Chan and William Hurt were the stand-outs in Humans’ first series, while Pia Halvorson and Leif Andrée stood out in Real Humans series one), gripping thriller elements, probing lines of philosophical enquiry, engaging domestic drama…
Despite the broad strokes overlap, there’s enough difference between them to make it worthwhile watching both, even if it will mean losing some of the surprises of whichever you see second. Our verdict? If you loved Humans, you’ll enjoy going back to the source. Have your Swedish cake and eat it.