Almost Human, J.J. Abrams’ new police drama premiering tonight on Fox before moving to its regular Monday timeslot tomorrow, takes place in a very bleak near-future where violent crime is running so rampant that the police force has become heavily augmented by androids, one for each human officer. As the series opens in 2048, we see Los Angeles police detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) and his team in the middle of a deadly firefight with one of the criminal syndicates that have taken over their city. Kennex emerges as the lone police survivor, but his wounds are grievous enough to send him into a 17-month coma, from which he awakens with an artificial leg.
Now, nearly two years later, Kennex’s captain (Lili Taylor) orders him back to work, although he bristles at her directive that he must be partnered with the latest android model, a soulless officer completely lacking compassion or any other emotion. After Kennex “accidentally” disables his synthetic partner, tech guru Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) reactivates the only other ‘droid currently ready for service: the DRN, an older model that had been designed to be as human-like as possible but was subsequently discontinued.
Dorian (Michael Ealy), as this revived life form is dubbed, takes an almost childlike joy in being reactivated after a four-year nap, but his excitement at being back on the force is dampened by realizing that he has been teamed with a partner who hates “synthetics” so much that his body is trying to reject his artificial limb. Kennex treats Dorian curtly and dismissively, but during the first hour, as this seemingly mismatched duo tries to solve a nightmarish new threat, Dorian repeatedly demonstrates to Kennex that when it comes to droids, newer isn’t always better.
Some viewers with long memories may pick up on similarities between Almost Human and another Fox series from 25 years ago, Alien Nation, which followed a Los Angeles cop reluctantly teamed with an extraterrestrial partner. The visuals for the world of Almost Human also don’t seem very different from a number of other sci-fi TV shows and movies.
It’s the chemistry between the two lead actors that makes this new series look fairly promising. The show’s title is deliberately ambiguous. Dorian, of course, is literally “almost human” since he is a creation of artificial intelligence, yet his buoyant generosity of spirit in many respects makes him more truly lifelike than Kennex, who for all intents and purposes is dead inside. Urban’s edgy performance (think early Bruce Willis) is good enough to make Kennex more than just a generic Damaged Maverick, but it’s Ealy that viewers are likely to fall in love with. His is just a wonderful, absolutely endearing performance.
Almost Human marks the third time this season that Fox – with apparent success – has tried to reboot and/or reinvent a stale TV genre, the cop show. Like this new series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine relies on the odd-couple chemistry between Andre Braugher and Andy Samberg for much of its delightful comedy juice, while the spooky Sleepy Hollow has attracted hordes of loyal fans chiefly through the mercurial relationship between fish-out-of-water Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and his plucky “leftenant,” Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie).
It’s too soon to tell whether Almost Human has real staying power, but for now, I’m more than ready to ride along with Urban and Ealy.