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Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: Humans

Yes, I'm back – but just barely. After surviving the onslaught of the flu I realized the deadline for my Polytech assignment was looming and so had to haul myself back into a motivated state of mind before the due date. I didn't actually achieve this, and so for most of this month I feel I've been dragging myself through sludge before handing in what's sure to be a subpar essay, but at least I can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.
I recently had an interview for a shelving job at the local library – and got it! I didn't want to say anything here or on my Tumblr until I was sure of the results, but now that I've received the confirmation phone-call I can celebrate.
And how do I celebrate things? By reading, watching and writing about stories – starting with Channel 4's Humans which wrapped up a couple of weeks ago.

Spoilers below the cut. Also: I was a little lukewarm on the show, so if you're completely enamoured, it's probably best to give this review a miss. 

I watched most of Humans while I was sick, but only recently got around to finishing the final episode yesterday. My overall thoughts are that though it's an interesting premise (based on an original Swedish show called Real Humans) it never really follows through on many of the questions and ideas it raises, with a final episode that does not so much close off this season as set things up for the second one. I'm not overly fond of cliff-hangers, but there's something to be said about not having any sort of hook at all, and Humans just sort of trails to a close without offering much incentive to tune in next year. Interestingly, opinion on the show seems to be quite divided: I09 is rapturous in its praise, while The AV Club couldn't be more scathing.
Set in the not too distant future, android helpmeets (or "synths") are the latest must-have technology spreading throughout homes across the world. They look like human beings, but they're programmed to do menial chores around the house, and are completely harmless, utterly efficient and unfailingly pleasant.
There's some elegant world-building done in the way the synths are designed and operate. Little things like their glassy green eyes, the flicking of their fingers as they charge, and the soft bleeping noises when they're switched on and off by tapping them under the chin give them an artificial yet realistic aesthetic (realistic in the sense that this is probably what androids would look and sound like were they available for sale) makes for interesting viewing as we're gradually introduced to what they're capable of and how they're utilized.  

Naturally the chance to play a robot is a gift to any actor; Gemma Chan for example keeps her voice carefully modulated, her movements smooth but stiff, and her expression pleasantly neutral throughout all eight episodes. Every actor chosen for the parts of the androids seem to have been selected for their symmetrical features, nailing that Uncanny Valley quality of appearance that ends up accentuating the show's strongest element: the realization of a world in which synths are a normal-but-still-novel part of life.
That is to say, the show doesn't begin when the synths are first introduced as commodities to the general public, but long after they've become a recognizable and accepted part of society. There are some thought-provoking attempts to depict the "ripple effect" this would have on everyday life – naturally there are fight clubs where humans can beat the crap out of docile synths, brothels where customers can act out whatever kinky fetish they please with women tailored to their specifications, and pro-human rallies where people protest against the insinuation of synths into every facet of human existence.
But all this works better on a more intimate scale – that is, during the scenes which revolve around the arrival of a synth into the Hawkins household. Husband Joe wants one to help around the house and to free up some time that could be better spent with his family, though he coincides the purchase of "Anita" with the convenient absence of his wife Laura. Teenage Mattie is suspicious, prepubescent Toby is horny and youngest Sophie is delighted at the live-in babysitter and housekeeper, though the most important set of reactions come from Laura once she returns home from her business trip.
Naturally she's annoyed that Joe purchased a synth while she was away, ostensibly because she a) doesn't believe in stinting on household chores, b) is concerned about the cost, and c) thinks it'll have a detrimental effect on the kids, but it's not difficult to read her insecurity about the fact her husband has just introduced a young and attractive woman into the household without even telling her first, much less asking permission.
The show is at its best when it focuses on this scenario and takes the time to explore some of the advantages and difficulties of having a synth around the house, burrowing right down into the details and long-term effects of what it would be like. Laura is afraid the kids will grow lazy since they no longer have any chores to do, and Mattie carries this apprehension to its logical extreme, asking why she should bother with schoolwork when in a few years there'll be a synth to do everything from menial labour to brain surgery.
Laura also has to grapple with jealousy over Anita not only being a potential rival for her husband's attention, but for the way she's supplanted Laura's role in her youngest child's affections – naturally Sophie has an obvious preference for a woman who reads slowly, never raises her voice, and obeys her every whim. To her, Anita is like a life-sized dolly; the ultimate toy and playmate.
Then there are the little things. Does one have to say "thank you" or "sorry" to a synth? Should they be referred to as "it" or "she"? Is it wrong to name one after a real person?
It's the relationship between Laura and Anita that makes up the most intriguing part of the first handful of episodes, particularly once Laura notices something is slightly amiss about the household synth and begins probing her with questions in the attempt to catch her out. It follows the familiar but suspenseful sci-fi trajectory about whether or not the advanced technology in a person's household can be fully trusted, but with the twist being that Anita is benign and not malicious.
It makes for a compelling family drama – so much so that it's almost disappointing when the more overt science-fiction plot comes a-knocking. In fact, this particular storyline makes a pretty fatal stumble early on, in which a "five weeks earlier" flashback featured in the first episode introduces us to a group of runaway synths and their kidnapping at the hands of black market dealers. It instantly establishes that Anita is more than what she seems, but why the writers would chose to give the game away so quickly instead of allowing the question of Anita's true identity to be built up gradually over the course of several episodes is anyone's guess.
What plot twists remain are reasonably easy to infer. The synths were designed by a man named David Elster, whose wife passed away when his only son Leo was still a baby, leading to the creation of a surrogate synth family to help raise him – ones capable of both love and independent thought. When the still-young Leo nearly drowned, the act of saving his life required Elster to implant his son's body with robotic parts, essentially making him a cyborg. Following Elster's death, rumour got out that he had created synths with consciousness, and so Leo and his family are forced to go into hiding – only for the aforementioned black market dealers to forcibly separate them.
It's reasonably complex backstory, but as a result of that first episode's flashback (which reveals or at least hints at all of this) we're simply left waiting for the Hawkins family to catch up with what we already know, while Leo and Max wander around the place trying to track down their missing family members, their enemies in turn trying to track down them.
It's not hugely engaging, especially when our antagonist's motivation is finally revealed as wanting to deliberately give synths consciousness so that people will pay more for companions that are capable of genuinely loving them while still existing under their total control. Which not only doesn't make much sense (why and how would a self-aware synth truly love their jailers?) but is also so cartoonishly evil that it's hard to take seriously.
The only thing missing is him tapping his fingertips together.
The show is at its best when it's dealing with the collective character development of the Hawkins family, particularly in Laura, Mattie and (to a lesser extent) Toby. Laura and Mattie start as two seemingly unpleasant individuals with an aversion to synths who gradually grow into more sympathetic and even loyal allies to Anita's extended family, while Toby is revealed to be a surprisingly sensitive and insightful pre-teen despite some gormless behaviour. On the other hand, Sophie remains the same adorably precocious child from start to finish, and Joe is on the receiving end of a plot development that's never properly resolved and which casts him in a sleazy light that he never really emerges from. Not only that, but years ago I saw the actor on another show playing the whiniest tool imaginable and I've had an instinctive aversion to him ever since.
But it's difficult to see how any of them could be involved in series two (except perhaps Mattie and her hacking skills, or Laura if she's utilized in her capacity as a lawyer) considering the whole point of them here was that they were simply ordinary people trying to cope with a shift in their domestic environment. When it comes to the season's anti-climactic final episode, they're given virtually nothing of importance to do and are reduced to simply standing around as the more overt sci-fi plot takes over. If next season is all about Niska starting the synth/human war, then I'm not entirely sure why the audience would remain invested in the goings-on of a middle-class suburban family.
In all, the show does better with which I'm going to call its "set pieces" than its overall story. There are plenty of subplots only tangentially connected to the central drama, but on their own they're fairly compelling glimpses of what life with androids would be like.
William Hurt does his usual venerable mumbling as his character (an old college of David Elster) copes with the aftereffects of a stroke and his subsequent reliance on an outdated synth who retains the memories of his late wife that he does not. He's also the victim of a subtle but harrowing home invasion in which the health department assigns him a medical synth, one bearing a certain resemblance to Nurse Ratched, beautifully capturing the marginalization and victimization of the elderly by those "who know best."
Elsewhere, police inspector Pete Drummond finds his place in the home unexpectedly usurped when his injured wife ends up preferring the insurance company's (buff, helpful, unconditionally attentive) synth to her own husband. Oh, and Laura has a deep dark secret concerning someone called "Tom" who is eventually revealed to be her younger brother, killed in an accident while under her care.
Thing is, virtually none of this is connected to the central drama – at least not in any fundamental way. Laura's secret in particular has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story, and so has little dramatic depth as a result.
It makes up part of my issues with the show as a whole. In a programme called Humans, the underlying theme is naturally the question of what makes us human. As such, the synths become mirrors that reflect our behaviour back to us. How cruelly would we treat something that looked, sounded and occasionally acted like a real human being if we knew there would be no consequences? And would it even matter considering they're inanimate objects? Things like Mattie shooting the neighbour's synth with a BB gun, a couple of drunken teenage boys trying to disrobe their household synth, or a man asking a synth in a brothel to act young and scared – if the object on the receiving end of this conduct is an unintelligent and emotionless simulation, then it's all just the equivalent to smashing up toasters. 
But of course, this drama rests on the premise that there is consciousness in a select group of synths, and that they now have the technology to grant that gift to more of them. As such, the mistreatment of synths at the hands of humans is treated as an affront to human dignity; a moral failing if not an actual crime, and the first step on the road to open warfare between humans and the new breed of synthetic models.  
At least that's what we're led to believe in the season's final moments, depicting Niska abandoning the rest of her family with Elster's advanced technology in her possession. Everyone else is more or less exactly where they started: the Hawkins back at home and Leo's extended family on the run (though they leave one of their number abandoned under a sheet in the basement of a church).
The show naturally tackles plenty of the other themes that always go hand-in-hand with AI-centric stories. How far should respect be extended to machines that only look human? Is it adultery if a married man has sex with a synth? Do we lose more than we gain from having androids do all the work for us (like say, our self-esteem)? What separates a human being from a self-aware robot?
But in all these cases, the show raises such questions only to let them fall by the wayside. Some almost feel shoehorned in, like the aforementioned drunken teenagers debating whether or not to have sex with the family synth – Mattie intervenes and explicitly calls it "rape", but the situation isn't dwelt upon and the boys never seen again. I'm not one to insist on answers when these types of questions are put forward – after all, a good story allows us to make up our own minds on such things, but a show should at least explore the issues that they raise. Stuff like Joe activating Anita's "adult mode" and having sex with her (much to the disgust of the rest of the family when they find out) or Niska telling the Madame of the brothel: "everything your men do to us, they want to do to you" are included, but not interrogated to any great extent. As a result the show in its entirety is best described by this comment made on the AV Club review:
It felt almost like a prequel to a show that hasn't yet happened. Where the real show begins, I think, would be what would happen when consciousness gets unleashed to all the synths, like a virus, and suddenly people are confronted with real questions about freedom and slavery, consciousness and the soul.
I enjoyed Humans, I really did. Despite the somewhat well-trod subject matter, the premise of humans having to adapt to androids seldom gets played out through the medium of television, which made this feel like an innovative and unique drama that could unfold at a leisurely pace. The acting was good (especially from Gemma Chan) and the world-building full of fun details and perspectives. But it worked better as a family drama than a science-fiction thriller, in which consciousness is represented by a tree, the synths sneak through a crowd of virulent anti-synth protesters unnoticed and unmolested, Anita wins over her greatest opponent by saying "please", and everyone just sort of casually goes their separate ways at the end.
The thrilling climax: sitting and standing.
I can't have been the only one left thinking: "that's it?"
Miscellaneous Observations:
Humans is still currently airing on New Zealand television (I think it started two weeks ago) and is eerily well-timed considering one of our news stations recently ran a story titled: "could you lose your job to a robot?"
How did I guess that Karen was secretly a synth? Her hair was way too symmetrical for a normal person.
Mattie was an accurate portrayal of a teenage daughter save one in one crucial respect: she gives her mother a hard time for being away on a prolonged business trip. Please. Teenagers LOVE it when their parents are out of the picture.
Something else that rang slightly false: that of course the medical synth brought in to care for the elderly George is played by a dressed-down Rebecca Front instead of one of the young and attractive synths that frequent the brothels (or even one that looks like Anita). I suppose you could argue that it was a deliberate in-universe decision to hand out synths that wouldn't be used for any other purposes beyond their original design, but the design and characterization of Vera felt a little too obvious in its attempt to make her a formidable Battleaxe Nurse (heck, even her name isn't as appealing as Mia or Niska).
A lot of people (or at least those on Tumblr) may have tuned in for Colin Morgan, though I felt that Leo wasn't a particularly interesting part for him. He didn't get much to do beyond searching for the other synths, and I'm getting a bit tired of seeing him in these gloomy roles. Put him in a romantic comedy already!
If anything, this has made me interested in tracking down the Swedish original drama, which by all accounts is darker and grittier – and despite my aversion for that trope, it may not be a bad thing when dealing with this subject matter.
One question remains: why on earth did Anita carry a sleeping Sophie out of the house at the end of the pilot episode?


  1. Congratulations on the job! my first library job was as a shelver! You'll know Dewey off by heart soon
    We're currently experiencing the second wave of this flu, surely Spring is just around the corner and we'll be over it soon.

    I'm with you here on Humans - I didn't read all the AV Club reviews, the initial ones seemed very positive (and of course there was just too much snarkiness on Digital Spy to be worth reading)
    One of the things I'm curious about is why they decided to focus on families - judging from the interview from Channel 4 head of programming, it seemed that decision came from them, not the showrunners. (I could be wrong in interpreting it that way) and I think that was mostly detrimental instead of focusing on people finding their way in this new society.
    I'm still side-eyeing strongly the decision to put Niska in a brothel in the first episode, and then just having all the humans (looking at you JOE!!) really, horrible people.
    I agree about Mattie - seriously - a teenage concerned about how long the parent is away for? and calling her out on her mothering? (and, Laura is absolutely correct, there are some things she is not entitled to know about).
    Still, I did come to like Mattie in the long run.
    I also feel they really backed of on what could have been a really interesting point - Mia and Leo, but, by making her the "mother figure" they couldn't go there.
    Am also disappointed we didn't get Leo working the brothel (and "fixing a synth so she ends up killing the man who hurts her) and the lesbian vicar with her wife. Vera was such a waste here! (as was Silas - the guy who moded - or whatever it was - synths)
    But I'm more disappointed we didn't get the human mother/daughter, or sisterly relationships that developed in the Swedish one. Here it was as if it was Laura's "duty" that she had to help Mia and the others.

    Still, they kept the main focal characters female, which I'm glad about. And Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington where amazing - and I'll be keeping an eye on what they are doing in the future.

    I know they tried to make it a very different show, and they told a very different story using the same universe, but they shoe-horned some questions or threads in, letting them drop in an unsatisfactory way. And some things - like the dead brother Tom, where SO obvious. I was somewhat annoyed that they tried to build up the mystery of exactly what Leo was, only to resolve it by using a conveniently timed intercepted phone call, which answered all there questions in 2 minutes! Others - like the Beatrice/Karen thing, they just turned on its head in a very lazy way.

    Here's a link to season 1 with subtitles -

    1. Spring can NOT come fast enough. Everyone I know is or has been sick. There are signs up at the local kindy where I work BEGGING parents to keep their children home if they can help it because the staff are getting sick, getting better, coming back, and catching the illness all over again.

      But I'm more disappointed we didn't get the human mother/daughter, or sisterly relationships that developed in the Swedish one. Here it was as if it was Laura's "duty" that she had to help Mia and the others.

      From what you say, it sounds as though the original series had a lot more going for it. Personally I could buy Laura's turnabout regarding her attitude to Mia/Anita, as it felt as though once she accepted she was sentient, all her lawyer-instincts and knowledge of human rights kicked in. Like I said in the review itself, if the Hawkins are going to be used in the second season, I expect Laura at least will be used in her capacity of a lawyer. (The less we see of Joe the better).

      Thanks for the link!

    2. nothing worse than sick kids being sent to kindy or day-care - everybody just ends up sick over and over again.

      If that link doesn't work, I know somebody uploaded it the subtitled version onto Vimeo, unfortunately its broken down into clips 15-20 minutes each
      While the Swedish version isn't perfect, it's certainly more coherent.
      Interesting what the show-runners have said about next season - it will revolve around the Hawkins family again.
      Also the fact that there's another 4 or more hours of footage left on the cutting floor (which could be the reason why some things didn't make much sense.

      "The less we see of Joe the better hear hear!
      As a comment said on io9 - that Mia stopped in the middle of everything to give Laura marriage counseling was a bit insulting - and stopped the action

      I forgot to mention how endearingly sweet Max is too...
      The actors all really made this more than is could have been

    3. Interesting what the show-runners have said about next season - it will revolve around the Hawkins family again.

      That is interesting, as beyond their interaction with the synths, they're really not that compelling by themselves.

      And four hours worth of extra stuff? Yikes, that sounds like a LOT to cut out.

  2. I enjoyed this perhaps a little more than you did, but there's no question it had its issues. A few too many extraneous storylines did not help an already scattered show (apparently the US airings cut a lot of the Pete/Jill/Simon stuff altogether, and I can't imagine a great deal was lost there).

    On the Colin Morgan front: have you seen Testament of Youth? Not a rom-com, but certainly a departure from the sort of TV roles he's been taking.

    1. It's one of those shows that I enjoyed while I was watching: it's certainly intriguing and flows at a nice pace, but in retrospection many of its creative decisions just fell flat.

      Re: Testament of Youth - no I haven't seen it yet, though it's on my TBW list. It'll be nice to take a break from binge-watching TV shows and watch a self-contained movie for a change!