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Almost Human: “Straw Man"

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Looking back on my grades from the past few months, I can tell I went easy on Almost Human. I can only recall a few of the episode plots, the occasional shot of intriguing futuristic technology. (And if I’m being honest, the moment that stuck out the most was the abandoned twist ending to the original cut of the pilot.) But I also know exactly why I inflated the grades: the utter joy of the Kennex/Dorian partnership.


Michael Ealy and Karl Urban play off each other extremely well, better than anyone could have predicted before this show started. They’ve got professional and unintentional romantic chemistry—employed for great comic relief—and they have the right mix of foolhardy and meticulous to make compelling detectives who fly by the seat of their pants through most risky investigations. Which makes it fitting that Almost Human wraps up its first (and potentially only) season with a strong case that leans heavily on that pairing and how far it’s come in 13 episodes—and ends with Dorian and Kennex sharing a moment before heading off into the night to respond to a robbery call.

Judging from the numbers, Almost Human’s prospects for renewal aren’t great (especially since the show it’s purportedly up against is on the same night and headlined by a much bigger star), but if this is the end, at least it showed that creator J.H. Wyman and his staff figured out that the heart of the show is the futuristic buddy cop pairing of a disgruntled veteran cop with a robotic leg and a previously decommissioned android designed with a synthetic soul. Both have been the “loose cannon” at different times—which is basically the pitch for a lot of “gritty” police procedurals. But where the pilot suggested a series that would serialize the chase to bring down a futuristic black-market biotech crime syndicate, Almost Human instead pivoted to build out an exploration into this future world where robbers can obscure their faces on security cameras.

Aside from the cold open, the frame around the episode is Dorian’s performance review, where some outside board evaluates how a DRN meant for service on a space station is functioning among the MXs on the force. Maldonado states that she thought Dorian and Kennex would be good for each other—one of the many cryptic things that will remain unexplained for a potential second season to suss out.  Rudy crumbles under pressure as though he’s the one under review, and he’s also careful not to reveal that he thinks someone has been tampering with Dorian’s memories—another crumb to be picked up down the line. Kennex doesn’t reveal much, since it’s obvious his true feelings will be revealed at a more emotionally significant time. And as for Dorian, his talk with the review board is marred by all of them continually referring to him by his DRN number instead of his name. They don't treat him as an equal, as a professional ally: He’s simply a tool used by the real humans in an effort to protect Kennex and serve others.

This is one of the better examples of the show elucidating the multiple meanings of the title. If there’s one great failing on the show—other than all of the technobabble that came along with the futuristic setting and invented technology—it’s that the show has a plethora of material to dig into what it means to be human, but often only scratches the surface. Kennex isn’t completely human anymore since he has an artificial leg. (Advice about coping with malfunctioning joints is how he and Dorian bonded in the first place.) Stahl is a Chrome, part of a genetically modified class of superhumans gifted with increased strength, previously unheard of lifespans, and immunity to a range of terminal or debilitating illnesses. The best scenes of Almost Human have negotiated the effect of these kinds of advancements on the population. Instead of unstoppable progress for all humans, advanced technology has seemingly only divided people further, with Chromes identifying as above everyone else due to genetic superiority, a stigma against others who can’t afford the shiny new gadgets, and the wealthy taking increased security measures to prevent the lower classes from infringing upon their bounty. Androids fit in below all of that, with Dorian stuck in limbo between the automaton MXs, machines equipped with a human appearance, and the “real” humans, thanks to his synthetic soul. More than all of the shiny and glowing bits of technology invented for this world, it’s the interaction between new class divisions that make me hold out hope for a second season.


The case of the week also manages to rewrite the scrapped pilot twist in a more natural way. Instead of the big reveal that the head of Kennex’s father is some kind of robot lying in the precinct’s evidence locker, it’s that his father was gunned down 10 years prior to the start of the show. His father’s biggest case was the Straw Man, a serial killer who cut open victims, stuffed them with straw, and then sewed them back up. It’s a gruesome crime, and one that comes with a suspect—the not-so-wheelchair-bound Glenn, who preys on young kids at homeless shelters. The problem is that Kennex’s dad supposedly caught the killer, and the guy’s been locked up in “the cubes” ever since. So this presents an opportunity for Kennex to chase down his past, digging into his father’s reputation as a cop who sold biotech stolen from the evidence locker on the black market.

Cases that burn the candle at both ends until the investigation reaches the middle tend to tire me out. I generally prefer the classical Law & Order structure of seeing a bunch of suspects before the evidence points to the big-name guest star. But unlike other episodes where Kennex’s emotions rest at the center—about his spy ex-girlfriend, the trauma over the Insyndicate ambush, all of his visits to that seedy memory recovery doctor—this one doesn’t overdose on Kennex’s seething anger. Instead, it’s a methodical process as Kennex and Dorian interview the innocent man in the cubes. Rudy’s autopsy reveals that all of the bodies are synthetic copies filled with straw to hide that they’re duplicates. And Paul goes undercover at a shelter in order to watch for the criminal. The end of the case isn’t anything spectacular—Kennex fights the guy, and they discover he’d been doing experiments on his victims to learn how to turn himself into a cyborg in order to combat a terminal illness.


But it’s a smooth progression. There’s nothing here about the Kennex and Stahl potential romance, and only lingering threads about everyone’s testy working relationship with Detective Paul. All of that gets stripped away in favor of a case that allows Kennex to exonerate his father’s legacy and help free an innocent man, The episode does retreat back to the early sketches of Kennex’s character—a gruff berserker hiding an ocean of sadness just beneath the surface—when he delivers his speech to Dorian in the car about his father refusing to take a cut of a drug dealer’s money from his corrupt police unit. Urban can’t quite pull that monologue off, even with the foundation of friendship between Kennex and Dorian to make a scene like this plausible. But that’s the only twinge of false emotion in an otherwise sleek and compelling episodic case.

And I guess I sort of buried the lede on the cold open: Apparently this city is supposed to be New Pittsburgh? That’s a bit of a stunner, considering there’s literally nothing about this city that would suggest that area of America. The Wall remains another unsolved mystery, utilized for that one John Larroquette episode, but if Almost Human isn’t set in a city on some kind of established border, that doesn’t make much sense. Even the way the rivers are arranged in Pittsburgh doesn’t allow for some kind of protective wall in an easily identifiable location, since the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers split to the north and south close to the city center.


But enough about geography—“Straw Man” is a fitting conclusion to a first season that altered its goals from telling a serialized story of cops-versus-organized crime at a breakneck pace in a futuristic setting, to resting in the chemistry of its two lead actors. That turned out to be a wise choice creatively, since Ealy and Urban delivered consistently funny moments that made riding with the ridiculous parts more bearable. Even if the ratings didn’t hold enough to merit a second season, I’ll remember Almost Human for fulfilling its more modest aspirations.

Stray observations:

  • I’d still pick “Arrhythmia” as the best episode of this first season, mostly because it has a double dose of Michael Ealy as the two DRNs. But this is probably my pick for runner-up. The worst was the bomb-collar episode “Simon Says.”
  • One final incredible driving exchange between Kennex and Dorian, and Kennex plays off of Dorian’s insecurities about his “callback” interview, saying he told the committee all about the things he’s done since getting reactivated. Nothing like hearing the two of them talk about the time Dorian scanned Kennex’s balls again.

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