I discovered this week that Almost Human was on Hulu–I don’t know why I didn’t just assume it would be, but I think I mostly forgot the show existed. I knew it was coming, because “Karl Urban stars in a TV show about android cops in the future” is the kind of thing that will inevitably show up on my radar long before it airs, but since I don’t live in the US I never saw any commercials for it, and it eventually just faded from my mind, and by the time it actually debuted on TV I’d forgotten about it. So score one for advertising, I guess, as I suffered for the lack of it. Anyway. Learning about this show is important to me, because I just sold a cyberpunk trilogy to HarperCollins, and it’s always good to know what other people are doing in your genre. Almost Human is not technically “cyberpunk,” but it’s near-future, and that ends up hitting a lot of the same notes. So I watched it.
It’s…kind of terrible.
It’s also kind of awesome. Karl Urban I have loved in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen him in. I think he’s fantastic. Michael Ealy, who plays his android partner, I’ve never seen in anything before, but he’s similarly fantastic, and the banter between the two of them is the best part of the show. They have a wonderful buddy cop vibe, with a surprising amount of humor, and the best scenes in the show are invariably the two of them in their car, driving to or from a case, just chatting and arguing and ribbing each other. This all works perfectly.
The problem is pretty much everything else on the show.
(Let me preface this entire discussion with a pre-emptive strike against the inevitable comments that the show is fun, and really not that terrible: please realize that “really not that terrible” is one of the worst recommendations you can possibly give to anything. We live in a world surrounded by thousands of years of collected knowledge and art, and I think it’s a painful waste of my time and yours to spend it on something that’s “really not that terrible.” Do we really want to make our entertainment decisions using a scale that only goes from “terrible” to “really not that terrible”? Isn’t there room for “good” on there? Or maybe even “awesome”? I have, at most, three or four hours in a day to spend consuming media, and that’s being generous and losing a lot of sleep; I could watch a TV show that’s fun but kind of lame, or I could watch one (or a movie, or read a book) that’s fun but also awesome. I know which one I’ll pick.)
Almost Human has some basic problems that all cop shows have (terrible cop procedure, blatant disregard for actual law, implausible detective work), and some characterization problems (the token women are underutilized cutouts, ironically far less developed and human than the android), but the things that really bug me are the science fiction aspects. By which I mean: there are virtually none. My attitude about this is weird, and I recognize that, but here’s the thing: in movies, I’m willing to give SF the benefit of the doubt, and in TV it goes the other way. If I’m looking up movie ratings on rottentomatoes, for example, and I see an SF movie hovering around 75%, I know that I can add at least 10%, maybe more, to my own personal enjoyment of it, solely because it’s SF. Being SF means I’ll like it more than an equivalent non-SF movie. With TV I’ve realized that I have an opposite standard–I expect TV SF to be good SF, and to give a good showing in the genre. An SF cop show has to be better than a non-SF cop show, or I’ll hate it. Maybe this is because of TV’s excellent history with SF (Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Battlestar Galactica, etc.), or maybe this is because movies are more acceptable as style-over-substance spectacle (Star Wars, et al.), or maybe it’s simply because TV has entered such a golden age of excellent writing (Breaking Bad, Justified, etc.) that I hold it to a higher standard. Maybe it’s just because adding SF to a TV show gives me extra nits to pick: Castle is a fun show with terrible cop behavior, but Almost Human is a fun show with terrible cop behavior AND terrible worldbuilding. I don’t know.
Regardless of my weird differences between movies and TV, though, I know straight out that my biggest complaint about Almost Human comes from the fact that it’s a genre I work in, and it’s doing it all wrong, and that bothers me as a professional futurist. The worldbuilding in Almost Human is awful, and for two main reasons: it doesn’t feel like a plausible projection of the future, and it doesn’t hold together as a consistent setting.
First: Almost Human doesn’t feel like a plausible projection of the future. Let’s start with phones as a great example. Some of the people in the show have these neat little video phones that project on their hands, and others have slim little cell phones, but that’s all they are: phones. No one ever checks the Internet on them, no one ever uses a hands-free headset or earpiece (except the scientist guy), and no human ever uses them to stay connected to the net in real time. My 12-year-old daughter has a prepaid smartphone without a data plan, and she’s more connected than anyone in this show. The main android will occasionally do things like issue speeding tickets wirelessly, or access a database with his head, but it’s a rare thing, and he has to stop and make a big deal of it. Consider the episode where a hacker kills people on FutureYouTube: there’s a scene where the cops find a woman with a bomb around her neck. While the android defuses the bomb (talked through it by the scientist over the phone, instead of just downloading bomb defusal information from the police database, which all by itself sets this movie 100 years further in the past than it wants to be), the other cop asks the woman to describe her attacker. They look the guy up later, but why wasn’t anyone looking him up right then and there? I’ll concede that the writers are not imagining a future with Google-Glass style wearables, which I think is wrong but whatever. Why weren’t the people listening back at the precinct jumping on normal Google to find this guy? Why didn’t the cop look him up himself on what I have to assume is an Internet-capable phone? Forget near-future predictions–we have the technology TODAY to have found that guy’s online profile and started tracking him down before the bomb was even defused. In a show that at least gives a head nod to police drones and tracing technology, they could have found this guy and had him under surveillance within minutes, or explained in one line of dialogue that he’d used his hacking skill to hide from them. Instead we wait, like cavemen, and then find him instantly an hour later when we bother to look him up.
While we’re talking about the hacker episode: what is going on with the Internet in Almost Human? Token Female Cops 1 and 2 have a clunky conversation about how the bomb videos are appearing on “the darknet” (a term the writers obviously don’t understand), and talk about bringing in a cybercrimes unit, but why is there not already a cybercrimes unit, or at least a cybercrimes guy, on the force? In 2050, is there seriously nobody in the whole police station capable of tracking down the IP address of a live video with thousands of viewers? Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a half-hour cop comedy, has one line in one episode about hiring a teen hacker to help with their online security, which all by itself gives that show a more believable prediction of the future than anything Almost Human has ever done.
I’ll continue griping about their use of technology in my second point about inconsistent setting, but let’s finish the first point by mentioning the sheer non-futuristic nature of the show in general. There’s an episode about drugs that has exactly three futuristic elements: a subcutaneous listening device, a magical drink that turns you into a GPS locator, and the androids themselves. That’s it. The drug isn’t real, but it isn’t science-fictional either, it’s just a green drink that makes you high and kills you, and honestly I’m being very generous counting the subcutaneous wire, too. Turn the magical drink into a radio beacon, give the cops a magnifying glass and a forensics bag, and that entire episode could take place in the 80s. The episode about artificial hearts has a little chip that could exist today; the YouTube episode combines 10-year-old Internet technology with a bomb-around-the-neck trope that’s older than I am. The magical sniper bullet episode, while kind of ridiculous, at least posits two science fictional technologies (the magical sniper bullet and the memory scrubber) and then crafts a story that couldn’t exist without them. That’s awesome, I admit, and the fact that the most well-developed SF is from the most recent episode gives me hope, but not much: it turns out that the sniper bullet episode was actually the second one written and filmed, right after the pilot, which means the SF writing has been getting worse over time, not better.
Someone on twitter, when I started complaining about this, described Almost Human as being a projection not of modern technology, but of 80s technology; it’s the same future imagined in movies like RoboCop. This is actually a fantastic description of how the show feels, right down to Karl Urban’s silly name and Road Warrior car. Someone else linked me to an io9 article positing that this 80s feel was intentional on the part of the writers, as kind of a retro-future period piece, but that I don’t buy for a minute. Too much of our current technology (web cams, bitcoins, surveillance drones) is creeping in; if they were actively trying to recreate the future as we saw it in the 80s, there’d be less of that and more of other things, like virtual reality and Asian influence. I find it far more likely that they decided to make an android show, gathered up all the near-future elements that were already in the public consciousness (ie, RoboCop and the rest of the stuff from the 80s), and called it a day.
Now: onto my second point about creating a consistent setting. They haven’t. The world the characters live in is almost identical to our own, for one thing, with the obvious addition of androids; there is no meaningful way in which daily life would be any different for them than for us, if you don’t count Karl Urban randomly murdering robots in the middle of the street with no repercussions. The Internet functions the same for them as it does for us (though they seem oddly less connected to it, as mentioned earlier), and in more or less the same ways. Where is the Internet of Things? In 2014 someone has already hacked a fridge, and connected devices are going to get more prevalent, and that’s going to change the way we live. Where are the self-driving cars? Where’s the wearable tech? Almost Human takes one or two science fictional ideas per episode, uses them in the service of some very run-of-the-mill cop stories, and then drops them. This is not what the future will be like, folks. We used to think the future was all flying cars and hoverboards, but even Back To The Future 2 was smart enough to recognize that the real impact of the future will be in the smaller things that change the way we live from day to day–things like Mr Fusion that turns garbage into energy, or a food rehydrator that sits on your counter like a microwave. Real world futurism is about things like smartphones, which aren’t just small computers, they’re disruptive technologies that have changed the way we work, play, and communicate. They have a meaningful and measurable impact on society. None of the technology in Almost Human, including the androids, has an impact on anyone.
Consider one tiny, throw-away FX shot in the magical sniper bullet episode: Karl Urban is in an anger management class, and we get a quick overhead shot to establish that they’re all sitting in a circle, and there’s a little drone hovering across from one side to the other. I can’t tell if it’s a drink tray or a garbage can, but wow–that’s a real technology, plausibly projected into the future, and I got really excited because I use drones a lot in my cyberpunk. How will drones be used in the future? We already have things like the Roomba, and that kind of servant-robot has a huge possibility of becoming a disruptive technology that changes the way we live. If drones are common enough that they can be used as drink trays or garbage cans, what else will they be used for? How about cleaning or laundry drones in people’s homes? Drones that walk dogs? Camera drones in populated areas? How about surveillance and security–if I could get a little hover drone to follow my daughter around and tase anyone that tried to attack her, I’d totally do it. Or how about a roving database, since the cops don’t seem to have Internet phones? Even if they don’t have them in the field, they could have them in the station: little computers that follow them around, looking things up, projecting things on screens or walls. That’s kind of what the androids do, but since energy usage is obviously a concern (at least in the one episode where it mattered to the plot), drones would be a more efficient way of conserving it. Drones have so much potential, both in the real world and in science fiction, that they should have a huge impact on the world, but just like the energy shortage the show uses them only when it wants to, without any regard for how that technology would actually change society.
Another example: the same magic bullet episode showed another one-shot technology when the android walked in front of an advertisement and it started talking to him. Yes, they stole this one wholesale from Minority Report, but I do think it’s plausible: once advertisers figure out how to identify you, whether by retinal scan or smartphone locator or an RFID on your credit card, they’re going to start approaching you directly. They already do it on your computer, and it’s only a matter of time before they do it in other arenas as well. Researching for a novel the other day I looked up a compression pump on Google, to see what the PSI was; Google remembered this, and added that data to the profile it keeps of me, and the next time I logged into facebook I had an ad in the sidebar for compression pumps. As part of my search I clicked on an Amazon link, curious about the price; I was logged into my Amazon account at the time, so it saw and remembered, and a few days later Amazon emailed me a list of amazing deals on compression pumps. Targeted advertising is everywhere online, and you can bet good money that as soon as they know how to extend that reach into the real world, they will. How long before I walk into a hardware store, get recognized by its software, and a little screen pops up offering me a 5% discount on compression pumps? They could even have a drone fly in to lead me to the right aisle, and answer basic questions about PSI and maybe try to upsell me on some nozzle attachments. This is not crazy, out-there futurism, this is right around the corner, and it’s going to change the way we interact with the world…except on Almost Human, where it’s only used in one scene to help the characters figure out a clue, and then it never happens again to anybody.
The problem, of course, is that Almost Human isn’t trying to build a science-fictional world, they’re trying to tell cop stories with a science fiction twist. The plot is king, and the setting (and most of the characters) are after-thoughts. It’s the difference between looking at a mystery plot and thinking “how can I add some crazy tech in here,” and looking at a piece of crazy tech and thinking “how will this change the change the way my characters live and think and act?” Start with the first one and you get a fun cop show that kind of looks like SF, from a certain angle; start with the second, and you get a great SF show in which you can tell all the cop stories you want. It’s a subtle difference, I’ll grant you, but as a fan of SF I think it’s a very important one. I can’t watch Almost Human without seeing all the holes where it could have done something great and didn’t bother. I will probably keep watching for a while, because the two lead characters are legitimately great, and I want the show to succeed. I want it to grow into itself and become the awesome near future show it could be, and that means we need to support it now so it doesn’t get canceled. But there’s a vast horde of good and potentially-great SF on TV right now (Sleepy Hollow, Person of Interest, etc.), and my genre loyalty only goes so far. If the show reaches a point where its good points (two characters) are outweighed by its bad ones (everything else), I’ll give up and watch something else.
By the way: in writing this, I realize I’m setting a pretty high bar for myself with my cyberpunk series. I can’t whine and moan about their SF and then turn around make the same mistakes. Going full circle to the beginning of my post, this is why it’s so important for writers to also be readers/watchers/listeners of everything in their genre. You need to keep your finger on the pulse, and know what other people are doing, and think about how you can do it differently or better. My take on the near future was already very different from Almost Human (I have no androids, for one thing), but analyzing how I react to the show, and what I like about it and what I don’t, and most importantly why, has already helped me to see my own work in a new light, and see where the weaknesses are that I need to shore up. My series doesn’t even come out until Fall 2015, so I’ve got some time to work on it. I’ll do my best to make it as awesome as I can.