"Almost Human" Takes You Down to Cliché City, Where the Grass Is Green and the Robots Have Feelings

"Almost Human" Takes You Down to Cliché City, Where the Grass Is Green and the Robots Have FeelingsImage via Fox

In the new Fox sci-fi procedural Almost Human (which premiered last night and returns for a new episode tonight at 8 p.m. EST, its regular day and time), it's a Philip K. Dick world, and co-stars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy are just living in it. Or, rather, rehashing ideas from Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report in it.

Produced by His Holiness the J.J. Abrams and overseen by Fringe veteran J.H. Wyman, Almost Human, in addition to being formulaic, seen-it-all-before science fiction, feels like a copycat of nearly every buddy-cop story put to screen. Urban (Star Trek, Dredd) stars as John Lennex, a detective who's back on the beat after a 17-month coma following an ambush that killed his partner. Lennex, because he's lifted right from the frequently abused buddy-cop narrative playbook, doesn't want a robot partner. "A human partner was good enough for my father, so it's good enough for me," he says, hinting at a backstory that's equally indebted to that aforementioned playbook. But that's precisely what he gets with Dorian (Ealy), a more advanced model who, on the job, can do cool shit like inject a murder victim's blood into his body, or "download" it, to test it right there on the spot. Unlike most synthetics, Dorian has an actual personality, but also a short fuse and other "personality defects." Like getting snippy:

It's approximately 30 years into the future, and the world has completely gone to crap. Crime has risen "an astounding 400%," because 100% is too weak, bro. There's a terrorist outfit known as The Syndicate taking out police officers at will and "advanced combat-model androids," known as "synthetics," working alongside cops to rid the futuristic Los Angeles of its exponentially overwhelming crime rate. And by "futuristic," think the flashy metropolitan dystopia seen in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and, much less effectively, in last year's heinous Total Remake remake. Unlike Colin Farrell's Total Recall, though, Almost Human isn't lifeless. The pilot's action sequences, all gunplay and supercharged musical cues, are, as directed by the underrated Brad Anderson (a TV veteran and maker of features like Session 9 andThe Machinist), cinema-level grandiose. And when the bullets cease, Urban and Ealy have an endearing, yin-versus-yang rapport.

Their playful on-screen chemistry, however, doesn't distract from Almost Human's familiarity. Fox didn't provide tonight's second episode, titled "Skin," to the press, so it's as yet unknown if Abrams' and Wyman's version of Los Angeles will start evolving into anything more than Cliché City. Its inhabitants need even more fleshing out. Urban, playing Lennex with a passable yet unexciting crankiness, is even more generic, taking bits from past fictional characters disinterested in working with new hot-shot partners, from Nick Nolte's Jack Cates (48 Hrs.) to Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon) all the way down to Ben Stiller's David Starsky (Starsky & Hutch).

Michael Ealy, fortunately, fares much better. Though his resume doesn't do him many favors (*ahem* 2 Fast 2 Furious, Never Die Alone, Seven Pounds, Takers), Ealy's consistently been a bright spot in otherwise mediocre to bad projects. He's the hands-down standout in Spike Lee's wildly uneven WWII flick Miracle at St. Anna, and he even manages to bring some credibility to the altogether cheesy 2012 genre sequel Underworld: Awakening. He's a strong actor desperately seeking the right material.

In Almost Human, Ealy may have found just that. Through Dorian's controlled mannerisms and gentle verbal delivery, Ealy's best attributes as an actor are fully utilized: his soothing demeanor, the tangible sensitivity that plays so well in romantic films like Think Like a Man and enables him to infuse harder-edged material, like the briefly alive Showtime series Sleeper Cell, with beneficial delicacy. Dorian fuses all of that together nicely. When Dorian calmly chastises Lennex for calling him a "synthetic" ("I'm not a huge fan of that term."), the inhuman character's underlying emotion registers. So good at playing the softie, Ealy can make the lamest of on-the-nose dialogue sound earnest, as in the scene where he tells Lennex, "I can't say I was born…but I was made to feel."

But, man, is that a hokey-ass line. Ealy, after all, isn't a miracle worker—it's difficult not to at least slightly cringe when hearing that, despite his performance. Time will tell if Almost Human is the next Fringe (read: a sleeper hit that magically hangs around for multiple cult-beloved seasons) within J.J. Abrams' canon of television properties, or a failure akin to last year's Fringe wannabe Alcatraz. But it's not off to the best start.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Tags: almost-human, michael-ealy, jj-abrams, karl-urban, minka-kelly
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