SN: It’s been a long, cold winter — all my staple dramas are on hiatus, thanks to Sochi. On your recommendation, I turned to FOX’s “Almost Human” and Syfy’s “Helix”: reliable sandbags, stop-gap measures that shore us up against boredom. Just exactly what it says on the tin.
Especially compared to its loony sibling, “Sleepy Hollow,” “Almost Human” struck me as a decidedly middle-of-the-road show, a somewhat-stylish buddy-cop procedural. Would it be any fun to watch two guys solve crimes when one of them is endowed with virtual omnipotence thanks to his robot powers? Answer: yes — when he’s played by Michael Ealy, whose eyes seem to have been the sole inspiration for the blue-tinted set design.
Nine episodes in, I realize that the concept of androids policing mankind is not actually the show’s central premise (though Ealy and Urban are absolutely the central source of sexual tension). The show isn’t built around a singular, dystopic problem that it will pursue to its endpoint. Instead, it excels at small-scale speculation: Imagine if there was a chemical printer in every home! Imagine if organ traffickers could trigger heart attacks to make people pay up! This universe is fundamentally stable, and familiarly flawed: The bad guys still steal, smuggle, and kill one another; they just have cooler, scarier tools to do it with.
As for “Helix,” SyFy knows its audience. Anything that Ronald D. Moore (formerly of “Battlestar Galactica”) breathes on gets my attention. But while its premise seems tighter, the story feels simultaneously weirder and duller. Six episodes in, these mushily indistinguishable characters already feel scattered to the harsh, Arctic winds. They all face different threats, and have different objectives. We feel removed from the original Big Bad: the virus that is going to ravage mankind, make us all turn against each other etc. etc.
GC: I’m inclined to say that one of the strongest elements of “Helix” is its momentum; the episodes cover an unbroken sequence of days, and each day gets weirder, more grotesquely charming, the darkness more totalizing. The narrative is thoroughly serialized, which is a nicely suffocating match for the claustrophobia of its setting. “Almost Human,” though, is consistently at its best when it ignores the highbrow cultural preference for multi-episode arcs (Broadly speaking, when complexity goes up, reviews get better and ratings get worse). It brings an imaginative sci-fi magic to the case-of-the-week format that I haven’t seen since “Fringe” and in which “Fringe” was never particularly invested, preferring to spend its energies on ambitious season-long schemes. Admittedly, not all the wisdom here belongs to the showrunners of “Almost Human”; Fox strategically aired its episodes out of order, and to positive effect.
It’s also at its best when it ignores the temptation to make Karl Urban and Minka Kelly a thing. The most compelling overarching thread is the deepening bond between Urban and Ealy, partners in crime, life and one variety or another of love. The show’s heart is probably its winning affection for the glancing eroticism of its central relationship. Ealy does most of the heavy lifting here; that smile, man. This in contrast with “Helix,” several of whose characters I would struggle to identify by name (it’s uncomfortably easy to refer to them by race: Heroic White Guy, Mysterious Asian, Dangerously Sensual Hispanic. The writers might want to think on that). The schema I would cobble together from the above goes something like this: “Helix,” for all of its enclosure, is all about opening on to grim, chthonic infinites beyond the human. “Almost Human,” by contrast, is a subtly inward looking show. The point of its futuristic surfaces is that they’re reflective.
SN: Right, I’d noticed this as well: the barest of glimmers in “Almost Human” that makes me much more likely to stick with it. It’s a show that leaves the heavy thinking to the movies: If you’re really disturbed by the idea of a “Synthetic Soul,” watch A.I.; if genetically-enhanced humans freak you out, go to Gattaca. Instead, it uses its little postulates to inflect character. I’m glad to see that Minka Kelly, who was often goddamn luminous in “Friday Night Lights,” might have a backstory behind her bland affect in this show. I might be getting ahead of myself, but it reminds me of the way that “Firefly” gestured at Shepherd’s g-man career, or Inara’s unspoken reasons for leaving the Companion House. I hope that “Almost Human” gets to live to see even better days.
But I’d stop before calling “Helix” chthonic. We get some great, disturbing scenes — a white rat crawling out of a corpse’s mouth? A troop of frozen infected monkeys, all set on fire? — but it doesn’t cohere. The storytelling is so sloppy that the thing turns back on itself and becomes almost magnificently opaque. Not every sci-fi offering has to have a deep, serious observation about humanity at its core, but I like for my speculative fiction to at least speculate. (And I definitely want my body horror to be specific.)
Generously: “Helix” seems to operate on a haunted house model, in which each episode is a separate room with its own scare: we’ve got rabid zombie plague victims, a creepy Thanksgiving dinner, attacks in the shower. If the sunny theme song is any indication, this show definitely has a sense of humor. But I also get the feeling that it’s laughing at me, not with me. It’s mocking me for my efforts to follow along! With the most recent episode frolicking in one character’s fever dream, I honestly don’t know what genre we’re in anymore — but while fanboy games are fun, I can’t help but think that this show just doesn’t have very much to say.