Technology doesn’t change the way people behave on a fundamental level; it amplifies characteristics that are already present, unveils traits that might have been lying dormant, encourages pre-existing patterns of behavior. That’s why sci-fi is a mirror, not a lens: it reflects pieces of our humanity that are familiar from our daily lives instead of offering a vision of how we could be different. AMC / Channel 4’s new show Humans is a trans-Atlantic collaboration, following in the footsteps of shows like Showtime’s Matt LeBlanc comedy Episodes and the Starz time travel drama Outlander; it grasps this basic fact, and shines a beacon on it in its best moments. And though it’s not particularly innovative — there aren’t any ideas here that weren’t explored almost 50 years ago in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — it’s ambitious, inherently kind, and knows how to cut to the emotional quick. The most useful thing about the show’s blooming network of androids is what they can tell us about ourselves.
Adapted from the 2012 Swedish drama Real Humans by writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Bradley, the show takes place in a version of our present where the widespread adoption of humanoid robots as servants and caretakers has ushered in a new era of convenience and predictability. These robots — the show calls them "synths," and they're identifiable by their bright green e-eyes and fluid, precise movement — are everywhere: they're available for home use, they're manning street corners and transit turnstiles, they're used in the public and private sectors alike. They're also subject to the Asimov protocol, a set of basic rules intended to safeguard humans from the insane power and potential of this artificial class.
The humans of Humans are anxious, scared, paranoid, and disgusted
Of course, this attempt to preserve the foundational superiority of humans can't keep them from feeling intense anxiety, trepidation, and even disgust over the new omnipresence of synths. Humans thrives on documenting that anxiety across its four main plotlines. Hawkins family patriarch Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) buys and names Anita (Gemma Chan) in an attempt to revitalize his marriage and organize his family life. His wife (Katherine Parkinson, sympathetic even as she's crippled by technoparanoia) can't escape the feeling she's being replaced, that a synth is making a better mother than she is. His eldest daughter is wasting her potential in school, disillusioned by the incredible (and increasing) efficacy of the synths around her, and his puberty-ravaged son gets a lesson on treating women like objects from an entity that's somewhere in between. In other parts of suburban London, we see variations on the same struggle: a detective specializing in technology is jealous of the hunky synth caring for his injured wife, and brilliant engineer George (William Hurt) is compromised by his paternal affection for a synth that's ready for the scrap heap.
In its first two episodes, it starts to blur every fundamental line it can get its hands on: between reality and fantasy, the organic and the electronic, the acceptable and the malicious. The humans of Humans are still using technology that's sitting in our own pockets and backpacks, from Microsoft tablets to iMessage — the creation of synths, it's implied, is only a few steps removed from our current technosphere. (Androids like this one from Japan's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory are scaling the walls of the uncanny valley, robots are learning to tackle every kind of chore, and the surprisingly intimate DNA handshake that ties Anita to Joe is just a distant cousin of Apple's Touch ID.)
The line between humans and synths seems clear at first, but it quickly starts dissolving from both sides. Synths stare into the moonlight and try to figure out its beauty, behavior that wasn't exactly programmed; a human in danger is rescued using shockingly inhuman means. (As they grow older, even garden-variety synths find themselves failing in familiar ways: nosebleeds, memory loss, embarrassing behaviour in the grocery store.) And people start to struggle with the limits of ethical synth treatment, from modifications to sinister sexual use — way beyond the curiosity of horny teens. The show's most dismal early scenes take place in a sort of synth brothel, where androids are repurposed as indentured sex slaves for patrons with questionable tastes. It doesn't take long for that bawdy house to start melting from within, too toxic to last.
Humans is arriving in the midst of a major cultural resurgence for stories about artificial and augmented intelligence, one spanning screens big and small: flops like Chappie, critical darlings like Ex Machina, even world-destroying blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron. None loom larger in the background than Channel 4's recent run of bleak, discomfiting sci-fi (Black Mirror, Utopia). Those shows have laid the groundwork for this one's darker, more violent moments, though Humans is more interested in ambiguity than straightforward menace. (Anita is beguiling, but she never feels evil; if anything, she's a victim of the prejudice and self-interest surrounding her.)
It also has its less-than-subtle moments, which seem forced compared to the show's family dramas. That's glaring in its most conventional plotline, a cat-and-mouse game between a shadowy figure trying to stop the singularity and a band of synth fugitives led by the mysterious Leo (Colin Morgan). It's designed to give Humans a kinetic jolt and some narrative underpinning, but it ends up feeling incongruous and clunky. When the show turns its eye back to more fundamental domestic concerns — like the ones anchored by Chan's eerie, physically demanding performance, warping the work of everyone around her — it reaches for the lofty bar that's been set by some of its predecessors.