I watched the season 1 finale of Humans yesterday. Overall, I’m impressed with the end product. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Humans is set in an alternate present day where synthetics, or synths, have become common place. A synth is basically a human looking (as opposed to merely humanoid) robot, what is commonly called an android. Synths are generally regarded as ambulator appliances, and for most, that does, in fact, seem to be the case. However, in this universe, there are several synths who are sentient and that is the primary driver for the story.
The world depicted in the series is remarkably complete. It is clear that the creators of the show though about the implications of synths. There are clear parallels drawn between the advent of synths and the industrial revolution (see “We Are People” vs. Luddites, for instance). There are also clear parallels drawn between slavery and the use of synths. Most of the implications of synths, though, are shown in the background rather than explicitly. We see them throughout the background of everyday life, serving as clerks, tellers, cashiers, receptionists, labourers, domestics, and so on. In general, we see them doing the work that humans prefer not to do.
When I watched the first episode, I was skeptical. The first episode presents the viewer with a family man purchasing a synth to help out while his wife is away on business. That plot follows nicely and it is clear that there is more under the surface. In addition to that plot, however, the episode presents a number of side plots that are seemingly unrelated to the main plot save for them being related to some sort of synth action. That made the first episode feel somewhat unfocused, though it did contribute nicely to the overall atmosphere. Still, the first episode was not strong enough for me to give it a definite must watch recommendation. Fortunately, the second episode brings tension to the various story arcs and the third episode builds some real links between the various sub plots.
Something the shorter format (only eight episodes for the season) does is removes the strain on the writers to stretch a story with filler. That shows with Humans as the story moves along swiftly from episode to episode. Indeed, the story feels like a single six hour movie. Given the creatively titled episodes (“Episode 1” and so on ), it seems that was probably intended. The show itself will play well in the modern binge watching on demand culture.
Something Humans does very well is giving every character his or her own motivations and goals. Even among allies, goals do not necessarily align, as can be seen in Niska’s actions at the end. The characters are all shaped by their past experiences as much as their own innate personalities. Witness the destructive behaviour of Laura with respect to Tom and Joe’s behaviour toward Anita. Or more poignantly, Niska’s adventures after escaping the brothel and Karen’s actions leading up to the final moments of the finale.
I have to praise the acting on the series, particulary Gemma Chan who plays Anita/Mia. All did a wonderful job, but Chan stepped squarely into the uncanny valley and owned it. This was, perhaps, most noticeable for Chan’s performance due to the switches between portraying Anita and Mia. Indeed, it was Chan’s performance that added important mystery to the first couple of episodes and kept me watching when I wasn’t quite sold on the show.
Over the course of eight episodes, Humans provides numerous emotional moments. Consider the final scene with Odi and Millican or Mia’s cry for help from within the depthos of Anita’s mind, or even the final confrontation between Karen and the other synths. Sure, there are a few less than perfect moments where the story drags a bit or is, perhaps, a bit overly preachy, but on the whole the high points more than balance them out.
There are quite a few aspects of the world that are only touched on briefly, as background action. For instance, the “We Are People” movement, which is clearly setting up for something big in the future, what with the massive demonstration that worked so nicely in the favour of the fugitives in the finale. Or the ongoing tension with Hobb who is still very much a threat. And then you have the question of what Niska plans to do with a certain flash drive and what will happen between Karen and Drummond. It is fortunate, then, that the series has been picked up for a second season. I look forward to seeing what is to come for characters that I have genuinely come to care about.