While Frank Semyon and Ray Velcoro are bleaking your Sunday nights out in True Detective, over on AMC, there’s a more complex, interesting, intelligent, and less oppressive mini-series airing in the same time slot. It’s based on a Swedish series, adapted by Spooks/MI:5 writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley in partnership with Britain’s Chanel 4, and it’s called Humans. It’s very good.
It’s about a present-day world in which “synths” — or robot humans — have been introduced by the hundreds of thousands. The synths have taken over labor intensive jobs on farms; they’re working as nannies and housekeepers; and they’re even employed as sex robots. They look real; they act real-ish; and they’re designed to allow the human race to spend more time connecting with each other and focus more on thought-intensive efforts.
However, they act so believably human that they’ve replaced some of the emotional functions of humans, much to the dismay of some existing family members. For instance, an overworked mother, Laura, is being crowded out of her own family by a synth called Anita. In fact, Anita has upended the entire family: The son wants to have sex with her; the older daughter feels threatened by the danger to her career prospects that synths represent; and the younger daughter is treating her more like her mom than her actual mom.
Meanwhile, elderly scientist George (William Hurt) — who has Alzheimers — has developed a strong emotional attachment to an older-model synth because his robot human can effortlessly recall memories of his late wife. His synth is the only connection he has left to those memories, and he’s reluctant to give up the older model because it means giving up his wife. It is heartbreaking.
There is a catch. Leo (Colin Morgan) created a few “freak” synths, who have developed a consciousness. They feel pain and love and hope and sadness. These synths — including Anita — have immersed themselves into the lives of others, hiding from another man, Hobb (Danny Web), who believes that these synths are capable of being better humans than actual humans. Hobb fears they will tire of being enslaved and rise up and make us their slaves (with echoes of Ex Machina). Leo, meanwhile, is trying to track down his “freak” synths before Hobb destroys them (he’s also in love with Anita).
Robots taking over the world isn’t exactly a new concept — it’s a fear that’s been explored countless times in movies like 2001 and Ex Machina, a brilliant recent episode of Black Mirror, and even on SNL (old people’s fear of robots eating their medicine!), to name a few. However, it’s presented here with an interesting twist. We develop emotional attachments to the synths. We pity them. We root for them. We want them to find love. We also witness their human value: They’re more than hunks of tin designed to make dinner and harvest crops. They’ve become indispensable family members, and we are asked to weigh that against the threat they pose to society.
It’s a solid first episode for the eight-part miniseries, and there’s still yet more potential in the concept to explore. It may get lost in the Sunday night shuffle (along with the resurrected and much improved Halt & Catch Fire), but there’s more heart, intelligence, and emotional depth in a show about androids than there is likely to be in all of True Detective this season. Along with Mr. Robot, it’s the best reason to be watching television this summer.