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Almost Human: “Beholder"

Illustration for article titled iAlmost Human/i: “Beholder
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Oh Judy you poor thing. You finally meet your online crush, and then moments later he has to flee from the police for killing people and stealing the genetic code for their distinctive facial features. For some reason this somewhat trivial supporting role fascinated me. Judy is only in the episode for about five minutes, is the unknowing impetus for the serial murders throughout the hour, and yet she suffers an emotional blow that ends up ancillary to the story. I know the futuristic plastic-surgery-obsessed serial killer should be the most intriguing character, but I wanted to know more about the blind woman falling in love with the exact opposite of the right man while chatting online. And any time some small part like that can get a hold of my thoughts, I know the hour was well spent.

“Beholder” is the kind of episode I could watch 10 more of during an average network television season, mixed in with the overarching plot-driven ones about investigating Insyndicate, Kennex’s girlfriend, and Dorian’s impending malfunction. Once again there’s a bit of a convoluted message—this time about plastic surgery and superficial perfection—sewn into the episodic plot, but it’s not focused enough to say much. But Almost Human is beginning to get more than just Kennex and Dorian right, and build out the world little by little in various directions to the point where almost all of the technology is at least interesting even when it’s nonsensical.


It’s going to sound like more of a cruel backhanded compliment than I mean, but Minka Kelly plays an expensive, genetically engineered human designed for higher function rather well. Almost Human has taken time to feel out the world of the show, and the city where it takes place, but now that a giant protective wall has been established as a geographical certainty, the show has also begun to parse out the somewhat rigid social classes of the future. Kennex as the standard-issue, white alpha-male renegade cop sits at the center. Stahl is a Chrome, an exclusive and expensively crafted superhuman class above mere “normal” people who take on average jobs. And Dorian is defined by his android status, which rates him lower than humans. There’s something bigger waiting to be fleshed out—should Almost Human get a second season—about the way in which the main characters occupy these varied classes and can show how they interact outside of a police station. And Kelly’s character certainly has more backstory about growing up a Chrome but harboring guilt over gifts she didn’t choose to have.

I liked that the case actually began as a small callback to Stahl being a Chrome, with a mysterious death that’s initially ruled a cardiac arrest. Chromes don’t die young because of genetic superiority, which raises Stahl’s suspicions. (This victim was a bond trader and a former world-class swimmer who competed in… wait for it… the Detroit Olympics of 2036. Chicago got frozen out, but two decades later the Motor City gets a revival attempt courtesy of the IOC.)

But after the foray into Chrome social interaction—what appears to be a fiercely exclusive country club for those whose parents spent a ton of money to ensure genetic superiority—the case settles down into another seedy use of speculative technology. The small wound in the victim’s neck contained seven different traces of DNA, which eventually leads Kennex and Dorian to track down a plastic-surgery practice. And in the future, plastic surgery is trying out nanobots that can alter appearance from inside the body. Only it doesn’t work—too many people suffer cardiac arrest from the electrical charges of the bots. (It’s best not to think too hard about the logic of Almost Human’s rapidly increasingly technological arsenal.) But the man they’re looking for was a study participant who ended up horribly disfigured, who is tracking down strangers with distinctive facial features, killing them, and then forcing a disgraced doctor from the study to help him continue to alter his face.

At first, it seems like this guy is simply suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, and the failed study only amplified his need to change what he sees in the mirror. But as the investigation continues, that mental illness is intertwined with an impending deadline: seeing an online crush in person for the first time. This guy, Eric, has been talking to Judy for months, using his ideal face as an avatar picture, and in anticipation of meeting for the first time, he’s been on a psychotic murder spree in order to hide what he actually looks like. It’s not quite a clean statement on body image, but it’s certainly an indictment of the way physical beauty is prioritized so heavily that it feeds a kind of sickness.


But then comes the twist that renders all the crimes that much more pointless: Judy is blind. The bit of technology built into her apartment that clues Eric into that revelation is another small but fascinating touch of world-building, though not so seamless that it’s immediately obvious what’s going on before Eric actually states her blindness. In what could have been a romantic first meeting, instead there’s creeping dread: When Eric kisses Judy, she’s doesn’t have any idea he’s a crazed murderer so obsessed with his ideal face that he’s killing in order to cover up a lie that means nothing to her. It’s a cheap twist, but one that has a bit of density to unpack.

I have some minor quibbles about how this all wraps up. The boilerplate voiceover during the credits sets up the show’s main battle between criminals armed with rapidly advancing technology and police struggling to keep them in check. But for that Sisyphean struggle, it doesn’t seem to take an emotional toll on Kennex, Stahl, or Maldonado that a man went about killing strangers to steal the genetic code for parts of a perfect visage, was confronted with the futility of that effort, then escaped capture through suicide. Instead, the drama at the end of the episode circles back to Kennex and Dorian’s conversations about Kennex’s bad date. He tries to reach out to Stahl, another inkling of a romantic subplot that has only emerged in something like three episodes so far this season. But she’s followed Maldonado’s advice to socialize with “her kind,” going to a bar with the Chrome club owner she met earlier in the episode. It’s a cheesy and unearned moment for the episode to end on, but that doesn’t negate how much I enjoy watching Karl Urban brood his way through an investigation while needled by Michael Ealy.


Next week appears to be the finale of Almost Human’s first season, and I almost hope there’s no attempt to tie up the loose ends of the overarching plots that have littered the first 12 episodes. Instead, I’d like another one of these acceptably satisfying futuristic investigative stories. And plenty of steamy driving banter between Ealy and Urban—there hasn’t been enough of that lately.

Stray observations:

  • Doesn’t it seem strange that a genetically engineered superhuman with provably superior genes is allowed to compete in the Olympics? Isn’t the ideal that you have to take the luck of genetics and apply sheer willpower in order to reach that level of athletic competition?
  • Maldonado mentions newspapers in Los Angeles and New York, so those two cities still exist along with New Tokyo, but nobody has named the city where the show takes place. I’ve read elsewhere that it’s intended to be L.A., but that seems preposterous given how obvious it is that the show shoots in Canada.
  • Rudy gets upset that nobody told him a serial killer after desirable facial features is on the loose—because he was a child model, and should be taking safety precautions. Of the four characters examined the most in this first season, I’m most disappointed by this general shut-in nerd portrayal, so if the show gets another season, I hope Rudy gets fleshed out more.
  • Tony Cox plays Kennex’s “black-market informant” in another role that I hope expands into something more should the show get another season. He’s a great comedic presence in a show that could use more.

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