Live-Action Cyberpunk Almost Done Right: Almost Human

Copyright © 2013 by Fox.
Copyright © 2013 by Fox.

I’ve made no secret of my love for all things that fall within the cyberpunk genre. I love the mean streets whose shadows fall below endless neon signs, where sexy mercenaries who hide retractable claws in their fingertips mingle with burnt-out code masters in a virtual drug den somewhere in the vicinity of Neo-Tokyo. I love the techno beat, the street culture, and the darker side of the Information Age.

Naturally, my hopes were riding high for J.J. Abrams’s new TV show, a science fiction series called Almost Human. People have drawn a comparison between its premise and the short-lived but excellent Penny Arcade series “Automata.” And why not? Both feature a human detective partnered up with a snarky but analytical android to solve major crimes. I felt it the strongest in the pilot, but less so in the series proper.

In 2048, Los Angeles (and presumably the rest of the world) has fallen into decline as high-tech proliferation means an escalating arms race between the police and the Underworld. After a botched ambush and the death of his former partner, Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) is still getting over the trauma of partial memory loss and forced to work with an android despite his repulsion to them. Fortunately, he gets paired up with a DRN model named Dorian (Michael Ealy), who’s designed to be far more expressive and emotional than his counterparts. Together, they take on the Syndicate running half of the city and various other criminals, while trying to reach some kind of an understanding about John’s difficulty with androids and Dorian’s sense of identity.

Copyright © 2013 by Fox.
Copyright © 2013 by Fox.

For the most part, I really liked Karl Urban’s performance as the protagonist. He brings a world-weary element that fits the hardboiled detective/cowboy cop archetype, but he’s also got this internal turmoil over missing memories and guilt that makes it justified. I also think Michael Ealy does a good job at portraying Dorian, balancing out his deadpan wisecracks with the occasional emotional torque. It feels like the relationship between these two would be a good centerpiece for the whole show.

Sadly, though, I have some trouble with the rest of the show’s execution. Maybe it’s because I’m not usually a fan of the police procedural genre, but I found myself getting irritated at some of the clunky exposition or inevitable twists about the criminals’ latest twisted scheme. Not to mention quite a few of these criminals are your stereotypical ethnic gangs, which may be true to life, but feels weird when contrasted to the (mostly) white police force. It doesn’t help that the show also seems intent on hitting every single Future SF trope, like sex bots (as an excuse for women parading every scene in their underwear) and every single device looking like an iPad knockoff.

In my head, I keep trying to compare this to other shows like NUMB3RS, where the police procedural was balanced out with a quiet but meaningful family drama. And if we want to see how cyberpunk can work with a fictional police force, there’s always Ghost in the Shell, though it’s nowhere near as mainstream as anything Fox would air. Instead, what we’re left with is a fairly bland SF story about high-tech crime with a promising central relationship.

Almost Human is available through Fox. New episodes air on Mondays.

Bibliography: Almost Human (TV series). Created by J.H. Wyman. Produced by J.H. Wyman, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Athena Wickham. Perf. Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Minka Kelly, Mackenzie Crook, Michael Irby, and Lili Taylor. Bad Robot Productions; Frequency Films; Warner Bros. Television. Fox (channel). November 17, 2013 – present.

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10 thoughts on “Live-Action Cyberpunk Almost Done Right: Almost Human

  1. I would call it mainstream cyberpunk, which is the best you can get from any of the major networks. If you throw too many tech words, acronyms or scientific theories and the general population will panic like blue screen of death has popped up on their screen.

    One of the saddest elements of the show is their riffing of current trends, is bitcoins. Never the less, I’ve decided to keep watching and drop Agents of Shield.

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  2. This is a fantastic post. I’m enjoying Almost Human, but have many of the same complaints in that the show draws on old S/F stereotypes. Snowcrash and Neuromancer were groundbreaking in the time they were written, but too much of today’s cyberpunk pulls from the same model and it seems like the genre could move forward in a more socially-conscious way if we step out of that mold.

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    1. Yeah, it does feel like modern cyberpunk is trying to either stay too close to the Eighties and Nineties flavor, or just turn into run-of-the-mill SF. I still think the Ghost in the Shell franchise has the best modern take on where the genre can go.

      Oh, and I like your blog, too!

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      1. The basic idea is a human detective is partnered with a robot detective. The human detective resents the robot detective, but they work together to solve all sorts of crime and thwart a “monster of the week”. The ongoing theme is automation of the workforce and humans working alongside robots.
        It is different than Almost Human because the robot in AH appears human, so AH has an extra wrinkle in the story.
        Someone has translated and posted RK out there:
        http://happyscans.blogspot.com/2014/02/3-street-of-mysteries-chapter-4-and.html

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