From The Terminator to Battlestar Galactica to Westworld, science fiction is constantly enhancing the fear of artificial intelligence as much as whatever factions will bring about mass dystopia. Lately we've seen more contemplative explorations of A.I. in films like Ex Machina, Person of Interest and Netflix's Black Mirror. One series that belongs in the conversation and deserves more attention is a show co-produced by UK's Channel 4 and AMC called Humans.
Humans is based on a Swedish series called Real Humans and reflects a world close to our own (as opposed to, say, Westworld), rooted in our fascination with technology and the social issues of our present day. Here are the seven reasons why you should be watching Humans.
The central story centers on the Hawkins family, who purchase a Synth (synthetic robot) to help out around the house. Unbeknownst to them, the Synth they bring home is actually one of a special family of sentient Synths split up and on the run. Up until now, Synths have been a point of growing concern for society as they find their existence has drudged up feelings of anger and resentment ... while others see them as the next big technological breakthrough to make life easier for humans. The Hawkins family discovers that their Synth brings up numerous insecurities to light, as well as uncovering secrets buried within, while the government becomes aware of the sentient Synths after one of them kills a human. So one family is being ripped apart as another struggles to reunite.
Much hinges on the central human family. It might be hard to embrace Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) or his wife Laura (Katharine Parkinson) and their insecurities but they do genuinely care for one another in the face of adversity. If you can't identify with either one, you might at least take a shine to one of their likable children: Matilda (Lucy Carless), Toby (Theo Stevenson) and Sophie (Pixie Davies).
As for the Synth family, it's made up of Leo Elster (Colin Morgan), Mia (Gemma Chan), Niska (Emily Barrington), Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Fred (Sope Dirisu). Just because they're man-made doesn't absolve them of dysfunction either as they begin to look for a greater purpose than just survival. In Humans, these two families become intertwined and are stronger because of it.
Family dramas have always been a strong foundation for many critical hits, whether we're talking about Breaking Bad, The Americans, Game of Thrones or Vikings. In genre, that family unit can be a conglomerate like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly or Star Trek, but that family unit is maintained as the lynchpin of their respected series. They provide conflict, redemptive moments and humor, and in Humans it's no different.
The Robot Act
What separates the new Synths from the older models is the ability to feel, learn, adapt, act and think independently with a conscious. They can feel pain and also dish it out if they choose. The actors portraying the Synths are extremely convincing, and while we know early on which ones are sentient, some of them need to continue to act as regular Synths so as not to bring attention to themselves. Some of them are under even deeper cover posing as humans.
Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics are a foundation:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
The show isn't just a bunch of actors doing the robot dance. There's a lot of nuance to their performances and the makeup gives them the appearance that they look and feel a lot like humans ... but just a little off. Synths also have bright emerald green eyes, which give them an eerie appearance as they stare into space. It's not an in-your-face horror element, but there's something very chilling about them at a quick glance. To get into the deeper subtleties, the viewer must look beyond the surface of their synthetic skin.
In the second season, the number of sentient Synths has multiplied, requiring the viewer to pick up on the differences in performance and also what humans pick up on to realize they're interacting with an abnormal Synth. And when Synths begin to malfunction, it's fun to see that it's all in the performance and makeup instead of special effects.
All good science fiction gives commentary on our own world, and the societal climate in Humans is not that far removed from our own. If you're up on current events, you're aware of the struggles of minority groups that are cast out as being threats as fears are being stoked by those looking to profit from fear.
In Humans, survival has forced special Synths to take desperate measures, which has added fuel to the fears of the Synths making humans obsolete. There are anti-Synth "We Are Human" protests. Robots haven’t simplified life in Humans -- they've complicated it.
Then there are some heavy questions. Can humans make a real genuine romantic connection with Synths? How much trust can one give a Synth? Can a Synth be raped if it cannot say no? Can it be considered cheating if a married spouse has sex with a Synth? If proven that it has a conscience, would a Synth have more or less rights in a trial? What kind of responsibilities do Synths owe to human society? Is it better for a Synth to have feelings or is it a worse life for them, and does anyone care?
Issues characters must deal with are ones viewers can connect to, and are logical problems that are brought on by the advancement of artificial intelligence. There's a lot to ponder and debate after watching Humans, and the discussions that come out of a single episode are what makes the show all the more enriching. Credit must be given to its writers, Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent for anchoring this fantasy world close to our own.
Niska and Mia
The entire ensemble cast has put in remarkable performances, but if there are standouts among the Synths, it would be Emily Berrington as Niska and Gemma Chan as Mia, two of David Elster's original sentient Synths who when separated from the rest of her group. Niska is sold off to a sex workers club and Mia is repurposed into a consumer level Synth purchased by the Hawkins family.
Niska is exposed to the ugly underbelly of society as she's forced to perform vile and degrading acts for her clients' pleasure. Her predicament is harrowing ... and leads her down a violent path when she decides enough is enough. Meanwhile, Mia (renamed by the Hawkins family as Anita) plays out a lot of the domestic uses for a Synth but provides many awkward moments for Hawkins matriarch, Laura.
Visually, Niska and Mia are two of many beautiful but deadly robots in science fiction, but Niska much more complicated than what she appears to be. She tries to take responsibility for her actions in the second season but wants to be tried as a human, not a Synth, where she would be scrapped immediately for doing harm to a human. You root for her and her desire to be more than a Synth. I also feel that Niska's stories from Season 1 to Season 2 are the most provacative in terms of initiating deeper thought into our own humanity.
Mia on the other hand shows that Synths can be more compassionate and loving than real humans. She's the gateway for most viewers into this new world of automation, but her kindness is seen as a threat by humans, even though there's no ill intent on Mia's part. In Season 2, Mia connects to a human and wishes to go on her own path, like Niska, instead of hiding away with Leo and Max, so her story has room to grow into some interesting places.
It's definitely an ensemble show, and I could truly single out other characters but I'm reserving judgement to see how the second season ends. Some other notable individual performers include William Hurt from Season 1, Karen Voss and Carrie-Anne Moss. There's no denying the quality of acting and writing, but for now, these two stand above the rest.
The little details
There are visual details in the series that would be considered genuinely disturbing if not for the fact that this is a show about Synthetic robots. It's all a part of the way the creative team builds this world and sucks you in. They don't have HBO's budget behind them or the recognizable star power in their cast, but it's the little touches that have more mileage than others.
One recent example in Season 2 has Matilda Hawkins visiting an old recycling dump for Synths and stepping in puddles of blue Synth blood. She just scrapes it off as she's surrounded by dumpsters full of discarded Synth corpses and artificial limbs piled high. It'd be a much more frightening sight if those pools of blood were red and there were flies buzzing around the body parts. Living with a Synth also points out patterns in human behavior, like how a parent being made aware that they rush through reading bedtime stories.
There's also little moments where a bit of behavior or a Synth glitch will clue you in on a bigger story, or you'll hear a Synth say something that raises the hair on the back of your neck. There's little bits of dialogue and body language you should look out for. These are all well-thought-out details that add to the story and keep you coming back for more.
Who will become obsolete?
One of the aspects I get a kick out of on Humans is seeing who is put out of a job because of Synths. It's the same fascination as going to the Consumer Electronic Show and seeing what gets automated next. Simple, one-task jobs are a given, and GPS-related jobs like taxi drivers or emergency hotline responders are logical. But health therapists, factory workers, golf caddies and nurses are just a sampling of the kinds of jobs within reach of Synths and robots in general.
This expands the imagination of the show and also strengthens viewer connection as many jobs in our own world have been eliminated due to automation. In Season 2, humans becoming obsolete in labor and commerce becomes a major theme as someone in the Hawkins family loses a job to a Synth. It's also a big reason for the protests in Season 1 and the animosity and apprehension towards giving more power and freedoms to Synths. At the very least, watching Humans inspire you to update your LinkedIn page.
It's not too late to catch up
Catching up can be a tedious act, especially when there's an explosion of new content to consider every month, but Humans is worth it. There are only eight episodes in the first season and we're nearly halfway through the second season. It requires less time than many must-see shows as it's still close to the ground floor, with a day or two's worth of bingeing to become current. Amazon Prime is streaming the first season for subscribers on Monday nights at 10/9c, AMC is currently airing the second season, which is just three episodes in.
Fans of the show will likely have more than seven reasons to watch, and if I missed any, please add yours below in the comments section. We'd love to hear what you love most about the show. For me, these are the big ones to get you interested in what is one of the best genre shows currently in production. Get to watchin'!