We don’t ask much of the average summer TV series. We actually made it all the way through the entire first season of Halle Berry’s Extant last summer, even though it was obvious from early on that it was going to be a disappointment in a lot of ways. And it was! And we have no real intention of revisiting it when it comes back for its second season later this summer! But at the time, it fulfilled most of what we wanted from that particular kind of summer series: lite sci-fi with pretty people and a couple of unfolding mysteries to propel you into each successive episode. It’s never about generating OMG levels of engagement, because that’s really hard to do when the sun is out until after 8 and there are burgers and hot dogs and baseball games and all that other beer commercial crap going on outside. Instead, it’s about generating a mild enough interest to get you to tune in again when you’re totally not in the mood for a pretentious prestige cable drama like say, True Detective (don’t even get us started). Sometimes you just want something a little fun and maybe even a little silly if you think about it too long. Sy-Fy’s got a couple new options on that front with Dark Matter and Killjoys, if you’re into that sort of thing, but you really have to dial down your IQ and just go with the cheapness in order to enjoy shows like those. Humans has a little bit more to it – and it looks pretty great.
Hey, we never said we weren’t shallow when it came to our light entertainment.
Honestly, we think the image above probably tells you everything you need to know as to what the setup and backstory is, because there’s absolutely nothing new or surprising about it from a genre perspective (it all borders on cliche, actually). But here it is in a nutshell: Human-like androids have been perfected, hundreds of millions of them have entered the workforce doing everything from childrearing to housework to street-cleaning to prostitution and even serving as companions to the elderly. Some have gained sentience and human emotions but almost no one knows that.
Like we said: not exactly a genre-busting or wildly innovative tale. But a good lite summer series doesn’t have to be innovative. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. A really good summer sci-fi series should engage the viewer first, challenge them second. And that”s why Humans works so well; because the basic setup has been seen in dozens of stories before and in a lot of ways, you could probably make some reasonable predictions as to where it’s going to go. But what makes it engaging is the brisk confidence of the storytelling, the smooth and slick professionalism of the production (i.e., it just looks good), and the competence of the cast.
Regarding that last one, attention should be paid especially to Gemma Chan, who manages, against all odds and reason, to give a performance that is funny, poignant and terrifying all at the same time – while barely registering any emotion on her face at all throughout the entire episode. You never know if she’s screaming or scheming on the inside. If she’s something to be feared or someone to be pitied. She’s absolutely mesmerizing – and a huge reason why the story works right now. There’s no shortage of “What is love? What is pain?”-style android portrayals throughout science fiction, but she manages to find some way of portraying this (literal) walking cliche that seems fresh and charismatic. The actors portraying the Hawkins family, her ostensible owners, are all engaging and interesting in their own way but they seem to all be mouthpieces for various reactions to the android phenomenon, from father Joe, who thinks she’s great (and secretly thinks she’s hot), to mother Laura, who is suspicious of her and worries about her effect on the children, to teenage Maddie, who figures she doesn’t have to study in school anymore because “we’ll all be poets” once the “synths” take over all the decent jobs to young Sophie, who’d prefer “Anita” read her stories rather than her own mother because the android doesn’t rush through it. In other words, the actual humans in the story all tend to circle around the androids and their character arcs all tend to be about how they react to synths and what their presence means to them. What’s surprising is the ways in which that setup can be used to portray truly poignant and emotional interactions such as the one between William Hurt, who gives a wonderfully sad performance as an elderly man with a failing memory, and his synth, who he calls “son,” and whom he relies on to remember his dead wife for him. Unfortunately, his android is long past its retirement age and beginning to fail, and the gist of their scenes together come across (quite deliberately) like an old man caring for a developmentally disabled child. That such poignancy can be wrung out of a cobwebbed old concept like this one says a lot about this show’s potential down the line.
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[Photo Credit: Photo Credit:Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4]
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