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'Almost Human': How J.J. Abrams' Latest TV Drama Plays Like the TV Spinoff of a Sci-Fi Blockbuster That Doesn't Exist

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire November 26, 2013 at 4:57PM

It seems like every week another frustrated filmmaker declares the death of the studio film, or at least a significant chunk of it that doesn't involve superheroes, and insists television is now where it's at, citing "Breaking Bad" or "Homeland" as examples of superior small screen storytelling.
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Karl Urban and Michael Ealy in 'Almost Human'
Liane Hentscher/FOX Karl Urban and Michael Ealy in 'Almost Human'

It seems like every week another frustrated filmmaker declares the death of the studio film, or at least a significant chunk of it that doesn't involve superheroes, and insists television is now where it's at, citing "Breaking Bad" or "Homeland" as examples of superior small screen storytelling. But TV has also been looking toward the movies, becoming more cinematic both in terms of visuals and feel. Where once it was just understood that TV was going to look cheaper and more slapdash than film, that's been changing as CGI becomes more accessible and as more directors, actors and writers move between the two mediums. While ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." attempts gamely to keep pace with the giant Marvel blockbusters it has to fit around, another new series, Fox's "Almost Human" has managed something similar but a more reachable -- it feels like the TV spin-off to a slightly generic sci-fi movie that doesn't actually exist.

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"Almost Human" comes from creator and showrunner J. H. Wyman, late of "Fringe," but it's fellow executive producer J. J. Abrams who's the big name attached. Abrams is as much a brand name as a creative force these days -- on TV he has "Person of Interest" and "Revolution" in addition to "Almost Human" and the midseason Alfonso Cuarón series "Believe," while moviewise he's moving from directing the "Star Trek" franchise to the "Star Wars" one.

According to The Wrap, Abrams does still find time, in the worlds of "Revolution" creator Eric Kripke, to check in "a shocking amount" on the various TV shows he's producing, and what's most noteworthy about "Almost Human" is how comfortably it fits alongside a certain type of forward-looking big screen effort both Abrams and others have been churning out lately -- only instead of having to save the world, its characters are tasked with solving more day-to-day violent crimes.

Adding to that sensibility is the fact that "Almost Human" has a capable, B-list movie star for a lead in Karl Urban, veteran of such big screen franchises as "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Trek," and it has a premise that's a buddy cop matchup by way of "I, Robot." Detective John Kennex (Urban) has borne a grudge against android-kind after one gave a coldly practical assessment of his partner's survival chances and abandoned them in the midst of a raid gone wrong -- a loathing that's a little inwardly directed, too, as seen in the bionic leg he has to replace the one he lost in that battle, one he's yet to calibrate correctly. Kennex, who's spent most of the last two years in a coma, gets matched per department policy with Dorian (Michael Ealy), who's spent the last four in storage himself -- a model from the discontinued DRN line, who unlike the widely used logic-based MX units is programmed to mimic human behavior and thinking.

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"Almost Human" has touches of "RoboCop," existing in a 2048 Los Angeles overrun by crime (some of it run by "the Syndicate"), with law enforcement looking for the help of technologically enhanced colleagues. The constant scanning going on in its urban landscape recalls "Minority Report," while the neon glowing, Asian-inflected city streets on which it starts, not to mention the questions of humanity in its androids, bring to mind "Blade Runner."

It's the near future as constructed from a mash-up of many of science fiction cinemas recent hits -- what's striking about it isn't the vision but how solidly it's pulled off, with little of the awareness that even good small screen efforts in the genre used to be burdened with that just outside of the frame is probably a very present-day McDonald's and a billboard for "Duck Dynasty." It speaks as much to the recurring imagery with which we tend to sketch out our approaching dystopias as to effects that "Almost Human" is able to look movielike -- there are certain building blocks that tend to be reached for again and again when constructing the not so distant future on screen, ones that don't necessarily extrapolate with details from how we live now.

But for all that "Almost Human" is set in an overly familiar sci-fi world, it's not bad -- actually, Urban and Ealy are frequently very good, especially in the banter they engage in over the solving of, so far, three cases. They're cast in a dynamic that's itself creaky -- the cranky, old school cop and his warmer, more outgoing partner -- but they're able to bring a specificity to the characters that makes them more vibrant and has slowly set aside its story from the many others out there it resembles. Last night's episode, "Are You Receiving?", found the two facing down a hostage situation in a high rise, but its best scene involved Kennex patching up a hole in Dorian's head with chewing gum as the two bickered over what the right word for the color of the circuits under the skin was. It wasn't something you could imagine Rick Deckard doing, which was part of its charm.

This article is related to: Television, TV Reviews, Almost Human, FOX Broadcasting, J.J. Abrams, J. H. Wyman, Michael Ealy, Karl Urban