“Right, now what do we do?”
By now you’ve probably watched or heard of AMC’s new show Humans. Debuting June 14th, the series is already four episodes in and can be checked out on AMC’s site. The premise is simple: humanity has invented practical human-like androids that have become ubiquitous. These robots are the full-figured versions of the smartphones we all carry with us everywhere all the time.
Science fiction taking on the topic of robots, androids, cyborgs, or AI (artificial intelligence) is nothing new, yet even as a well-worn path it continues to draw us to it as a trope. I’m always a bit worried when approaching robot narratives. Not because they may and often do fallback on rather exhausted cliches but because they rarely dig deep into the heart of what is so fascinating about the trope–what does it mean to be human?
What is so promising about Humans is that it poses a variant of this question in its pilot episode. Towards the end of the episode, the company that manufactures the robots has one of its PR guys on television at once selling and settling fears. He asks “What is human emotion?” and this question is the thrust of the series.
Although the show opens with the usual robot questions (in the opening credits there’s an infotainment voice that ask if these androids are someone or something), it grounds itself in rather standard family drama from the outset. The robots of the series are called Synthetics or ‘Synths’ and are marketed as ‘a family android’ and that is how our lead Synth, played by Gemma Chan, is introduced.
The Hawkins family is rather ordinary–mom, dad, three kids (an insufferable older teen daughter, a revoltingly pubescent son, and a wide-eyed innocent youngest daughter). Marital tension is the drama here, the distance that the spouses feel from one another, which is superficially blamed on work (the father, Joe, apparently works from home while the mother, Laura, is a lawyer who is frequently away). Katherine Parkinson (Jen Barber in the hilarious comedy The IT Crowd) plays Laura’s quiet desperation brilliantly making the character exceedingly English.
Joe’s ‘solution’ to his own poor stay-at-home parenting? Get a maid. Or, more precisely, a robot slave. While Joe insists that purchasing the ‘Anita,’ the name they give their new Synth, is meant to alleviate the parenting and household workload in order for he and Laura to reconnect, he discretely pockets the card detailing Anita’s ‘Adult Content 18+’ options. Joe is a shitty husband and subpar father; he is, unfortunately, the default setting for the vast majority of hetero-cis men who when presented with a robot immediately ask:
I have little interest in this family melodrama. However, it looks as though I am going to have to endure it. What’s more interesting is the character George played by William Hurt. George Millican is a former engineer who worked on the original Synth project. He lives isolated from other due to his wife’s death. His only companion is a long outdated Synth named Odi. George refuses upgraded Synths offered to him by the national health service. This narrative move is an excellent way to demonstrate just how the public sector, government, would make use of androids.
George isn’t just a hermit, he’s ill and needs a nurse. This was Odi’s function but in the course of their relationship, George has developed an intimate connection feeling that Odi is more his son than merely a machine. When Odi begins to malfunction and breakdown, losing its memory and experiencing tremors we see that the Synth is a proxy for George’s own illness/mortality. Keeping Odi going becomes a way for George to keep himself going. It’s notable that when law enforcement makes its first appearance (after Odi accidentally harms a woman in a grocery), it wipes away any trace of sentimentality referring to George as owner of “the device.”
George’s character suggests itself to be the most interesting. The episode continues on as it introduces characters to us in a very well-paced and organic fashion. To parallel the Hawkins family, we are presented with Anita, now called Mia, five weeks before her purchase with a group of other Synths hiking but obviously trying to get away from something or someone. While making camp for the night, several of the party are kidnapped. Mia ends up being resold to the Hawkins as Anita while another woman Synth Niska is sold as a sexbot, a prostitute. Confronting human trafficking is one of the themes that I desperately hope this series explores.
The leader of this band of sentient Synths is Leo, the human(?) love interest of Mia/Anita. Played by Colin Morgan, Leo could become a very messy character, meaning that Leo could be a sort of John Brown for Synths. This conflict is real when we encounter the Synth hunter Hobbs. There always has to be a Decker/Blade Runner angle to narrative about androids. Hobbs provides that but he isn’t merely some detective or bounty hunter. Professor Edwin Hobbs it is revealed was second only to Synth creator David Elster (who is only alluded to). Elster, it is revealed, was looking to create “machine life.” While Hobbs characterizes the Synths as “a parody of life,” it is clear that he is being driving by something other than profit or power.
Even though his intent is unclear, Hobbs is looking to find sentient Synths and stands in opposition to the company man, who sees a captured sentient Synth as a freak to be studied and profited on. This elicits the best (and really only) sci-fi philosophy exchange in the episode:
Hobbs: “Robert, these machines are conscious.”
Robert, the company man: “How do you know that they don’t just simulate it?”
Hobbs: “How do I know you don’t?”
Humans managed to avoid nearly all existential talk about androids but such a topic can only be put off for so long. What the show gets right is presenting the questions as a call to action not as merely some thought experiment. A call to action is what the entire first episode is about–the Hawkins family, George and Odi, Lou and the sentient Synths, and Hobbs. It brings us back around to the first question that Joe asks immediately after buying Anita/Mia, “Right, now what do we do?”
The episode ends with Anita walking off into the night with the Laura’s youngest child, Sophie. Not so much ominous as foreboding and a brilliant way to compel viewers to watch the next episode. I have to say that I want to watch this series. The writing seems strong and the performances confident.
Other narratives have handled the trope of AI better. Most notably the comic Alex + Ada. I realize that between the dreadful and popular films Her and Ex Machina, audiences may have a rather trite or misguided sense of how to approach this series. Humans could rectify that as it’s a good show that could turn into an excellent one if it keeps itself focused.