A normal family with an overwhelmed working mother and a father who can’t keep up with the chores gets one to help around the house. An aging doctor is so attached to his malfunctioning old model he can’t bring himself to upgrade to a new one. One unit, specifically designed for sex, rebels and goes on a killing spree. And it seems that a few of them are more than they appear to be, with independent thoughts and feelings and memories.
In a world where we are increasingly relying on our little pocket computers to communicate, to amuse ourselves, to direct us to the supermarket, to conduct business, etcetera etcetera, the leap that AMC’s new sci-fi drama series Humans presents – that fully functional humanoid robots called Synths are the hot new gadgets – is not a hard one to take. It’s easy to imagine a future like this.
Humans takes this simple premise and spins all kinds of questions out of it: what are the ethics around using these devices as servants? Is it really any different than slavery? What will it mean for humanity when synths are doing all the jobs? How does it affect a family when a perfectobot can step in and take the place of one of the parents? Can a marriage function when one of the people in it is relying on a gorgeous, ageless, patient, unjudgemental being totally dedicated to fulfilling their needs? Is it possible to avoid an emotional connection with such a person (sorry, “person”), even if it can’t reciprocate?
Or can it? A few synths seem to be sentient, with thoughts and feelings and everything else. Does that mean they are entitled to human rights? When a human has sex with a synth designed for sex, is that abuse of the synth? What if that synth is sentient? And does it qualify as cheating if the human is married? Is it incumbent on a sentient synth to “free” one of the more common models that doesn’t – can’t – even understand the concept?
The series began with the four main plotlines, described above, totally separated, but with the fourth and most recent episode, most of them converged: the five sentient synths had begun an underground resistance effort, led by Mia and a human named Leo, but Mia was captured by a black-market synth dealer, her memory wiped, renamed Anita, and sold to Joe Hawkins, the father to a family of five whose wife Laura, an overworked attorney, isn’t around much. As Leo and the other sentient synths search for Mia, Laura notices certain odd behaviors from Anita that are not typical of synths and suggest a higher intelligence. Another of the sentient synths, Niska, has been “working” in a brothel and snaps, rejecting the efforts of the others, and attempting to free as many synths as possible by whatever means necessary, while a testy detective in the London PD’s “Synth Crimes” division investigates her crimes.
It’s tough to say much more without getting into spoilers, but suffice to say that these plotlines intersect in plentiful and interesting ways, and is full of great performances that keep everything compelling and believable, starting with Gemma Chan as Mia/Anita. “Humanoid robot” is not exactly a novel premise at this point, from Commander Data to BLADE RUNNER, but Chan somehow sells the idea that she is not human about as well as it can be done. There’s a moment in the third episode when Anita’s programming flags for a moment and the sentient Mia personality flashes through and Chan’s achievement up to that point, creating this docile, mechanical, subservient persona, is really underscored. In another moment in episode four, when Laura’s curiosity about Anita’s origins has begun to overtake her insecurities about being supplanted in her own family, she asks Anita, “Do you ever feel scared?” Chan’s reading of Anita’s response – “I think everyone does” – is both chilling and fascinating. (Great scripting, too. I can’t imagine a more human answer to that question.)
William Hurt, an A-list movie star in the 1980s and 90s, pops up here as Dr. Millican, who we eventually learn worked on the creation of synths in the first place but has retired as a widower with his malfunctioning early model synth Odi. Hurt brings every bit of his movie star charisma to bear, and wisely underplays his scenes. Millican doesn’t want to trade Odi in for a newer model – perhaps he personally built Odi? It’s still unclear – but his relevance to the story becomes clear when Leo finds him looking for insight into the original project.
At this point the story feels like it’s just getting started, and it’s bursting with ideas and possibilities. This first season, a co-production of AMC and England’s Channel 4 (which also brought is the amazing Black Mirror), is eight episodes, and the first four are available on demand. Catch up and get ready for episode 5 this Sunday!