Season one of Humans provides a classic TV lesson in “be careful what you wish for.” Not because of the onscreen moral implications of owning a human-looking robot. That still seems awesome somehow. Rather because of its 8-episode format.
Anglophile American TV viewers have been calling for shorter seasons of television since we all saw our first Misfits, Doctor Who or, if you’re really tardy to this sort of thing: Broadchurch. The so-called Golden Age of TV has largely obliged by shrinking episode orders from 22-26 to around 10-13. Usually this leads to tighter plotted drama and less filler. Now the episode counts just continue to get smaller. Wayward Pines became one of the summer’s biggest success stories with a lean eight episodes.
At a certain point, however, TV seasons just can’t continue to get smaller. There will be a law of diminishing returns and just like smartphones, they’ll go from down-sizing to up-sizing. At this point in its first season, Humans is already making the case that eight episodes may not have been enough.
Part of this is that the show has proven to be quite good, if a little derivative, so naturally more time with it would be welcome. But the other factor is that by Episode Five, a lot of scenes are starting to resemble jigsaw pieces instead of logical, dramatic acts. If the showrunners had the benefit of more time, we might be treated to more fascinating moments like Laura testing her synth for illegal modifications at a kitchen table or Mattie preventing a human-on-robot sexual assault at a teenage part. Instead, characters are joining back together in frustrating ways because this thing ends in three episodes whether we want it or not, everyone needs to get into proper position.
Niska said goodbye forever to her “family” two episodes ago then not only meets back up with them this week but also gets booted over to George and Odie Plot Island to log some time with Humans’ characters in need of the most TLC. Mattie (perhaps rightfully) took Leo for a creeper last week and just barely escaped but not is back in his good graces because damn it, we’ve got to get to the bottom of this Anita thing. And certainly not least of all, Joe had his unfortunate tryst with Anita last week and by the end of Episode Five has confessed and is getting kicked out of his house because we need a final act stunner comparable to Karen being revealed as a synth last week.*
*Last week I was a little baffled by what the sack Karen was pulling out of her throat was all about. I figured it meant she was a synth but didn’t quite understand the bag’s purpose. This week very helpfully implies that it’s where all the food she has to consume during the course of a day is stored because obviously she can’t digest it. Smart detail, Humans!
No! Stop! Slow down! Take off your coat and stay awhile, Humans. Call me a hypocrite for demanding that more plotlines start to converge as far back as Episode Two. I just didn’t expect it would feel so rote and demanded by plot convenience. To a certain extent a lot of TV shows contrive events to move the plot instead of letting characters naturally converge. They’re just usually sneakier about it.
One of the best examples is how much “Episode Five” leans on the law enforcement characters to keep things going. Pete was kicked off the job just two episodes ago for assaulting a reporter and now he’s right back in the field after making a peace deal with said reporter. It says a lot about the state of this fictional London police department that no one thinks to ask Pete to attend anger management classes. Just grab your e-cig and get back out in the field, D.C.I.
Pete is still singularly consumed by a distaste, if not hatred for synths. He is livid about the idea that he might have to continue paying for Simon now that the rental period has run out. Later he responds with cruel glee at the opportunity to scrap Odie. Thankfully, Odie somehow sneaks away after being spotted by a jogger. By episode’s end he is entering a smash club and not because of his ongoing investigation. No one has ever responded more poorly to being cuckolded who wasn’t actually even cuckolded. You’re a turd, Pete. Meanwhile, Karen is hyper competent in getting details about Niska and her smash club assault…which makes sense now that we know she’s a machine, but also pretty convenient for letting Pete be an ass and still somehow getting dragged along to the inevitable confrontation with the synths.
Hobb also gets an expanded role, an expanded backstory and more expendable shadowy government characters to boss him around. At first Hobb felt pretty extraneous due to the presence of similar law enforcement characters like Pete and Kate. But it’s clear that he’s part of the bigger Elster/Millican tapestry, as Niska finds a picture of him in George’s study and George makes brief mention of his being David’s muscle. He’s also refreshingly competent. He recovers enough of the phone call between Niska and Leo to derive Leo’s ultimate purpose. Then he goes along with Shadowy Government Characters’ ™ wish to torch the model they have in their possession, Fred. He appears to do so but as Theon Greyjoy knows all too well, burning a body beyond recognition is a good way to cover up that you actually didn’t kill the person you were supposed to.
Mattie’s joining with Leo is a bit of a dead-end. Of course Anita will have to regain memory of Mia so why not just do it now? As previously stated, time is running out in the season. There’s no need to forestall something that has to be done anyway. The only possible explanation is that Anita remaining an “un-enlightened” synth adds more ambiguity to the Joe and Laura situation. When Joe confesses to having sex with Anita he thinks he’s confessing to the equivalent of buying a fleshlight. To Laura though he has confessed to cheating. Anita coming back to the Hawkins household as a human being named Mya would have made the situation much clearer.
The most redeeming part of “Episode Five,” however, is surprisingly Niska. Niska has been a problematic character for the show as she can’t quite seem to figure out where she belongs thematically or just how villainous she should be. One could argue that’s understandable given her life thus far. Still I don’t buy her leaving the brothel with such clear-headed intentions of murder followed by indecision. That’s why her interactions with George are such a pleasant surprise, artificially constructed as the situation may be. William Hurt’s glee to be involved in a strong sci-fi project blends well into George Millican’s glee to be suddenly involved in the ultimate science project. George responds to Niska’s missives like “Experience is entirely subjective” and “True consciousness is not possible without suffering” with the serene, patient smile of a professor listening to a young student talk about how they can fix the whole world. It’s great.
Humans continues to do right by its own mythology. We get tantalizing details about the past with Hobb recalling how Leo died via drowning. And the show’s future is clear with a set goal of the sentient Synths needing to gather together to create a new species. If only the show had more time to focus on the present.