AMC’s ‘Humans’ Finds New Emotional Depth in an Old Robot Story

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Humans has a familiar science-fiction premise: the relationship between humans and the artificially intelligent robots who are built to serve them but who are becoming increasingly self-aware — and therefore increasingly becoming a problem.

Despite the overdone idea at its center, Humans is charmingly rusty, not a total clone. It’s also immediately engrossing. The UK series, which debuts on AMC on Sunday night, benefits by telling smaller, quieter, and more emotional stories that seamlessly weave together to form a bigger and more sensational narrative. That narrative concerns a group of “synths” (short for synthetics) who experience self-awareness, human emotions, and memories. They were previously on the run together before they were split up: one ends up being bought by busy parents who name her Anita; another ends up working as a prostitute in a bordello. In this alternate universe, synths are everywhere — helpers around the house, janitors in the school, farm workers, etc. They are meant to make life easier for humans; the concern is what happens when they go rogue.

One of the bigger plots revolves around Anita (Gemma Chan) and the family she works for. The mother Laura (Katherine Parkinson) doesn’t want a synth, but her husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), who is tasked with taking care of the family while Laura overworks herself on long business trips, chooses to surprise them with Anita. Laura is immediately threatened by Anita, who easily takes over household duties, including caring for the youngest daughter (“Can you cut off the crusts like Anita does?” she asks her mother), but is also thoroughly and rightfully creeped out by the synth’s presence. There is something clearly off about Anita, who stares at Laura for too long and asks questions that emotionless robots should not ask, showing very human-like qualities now and then (she reminds me a bit of Ada from Alex + Ada ; in fact, it’s impossible to watch Humans and not think of that series, though that doesn’t take away from this show). Their teen daughter Mattie is also wary of Anita — and all synths. She doesn’t understand why she should work hard in school if these synths will just take over all the careers anyway. But their teen son Toby is immediately infatuated with gorgeous Anita, ogling her and trying to touch her inappropriately.

The more interesting story is about Dr. Millican (William Hurt, equally fantastic and heartbreaking in this role), one of the original workers on the synth project. He’s now losing his health, his youth, and his memory and is forced to have a robot caretaker. Odi (Will Tudor), an older robot model who acts as Millican’s surrogate son — and as his surrogate memory, recalling Millican’s past experiences for him — is glitching and breaking down. It’s time for him to be recycled and for Millican to get a newer, colder synth. Within just two episodes (and two episodes in which they are essentially the B story) the relationship between Millican and Odi is already developed, emotional, and surprisingly affecting.

Humans has a knack for these quickly compelling stories, such as another plot involving Niska, a self-aware synth forced into sex work. (When asked by her synth-brother Leo, who is on a mission to rescue all of these self-aware synths, if she’s been turning her pain off, she responds, “No, I was meant to feel.”) Niska’s scenes are brutal, but necessary. Like most of the series, her story serves to illustrate how humans can be more of a threat than the increasing synth population. It’s telling that these synths don’t seem to want to start a violent robot uprising. They just want to be free, and be themselves.

As Humans, which is already airing in the UK, goes through its first season, it’ll be hard to not compare it to the recent film Ex Machina (Niska’s character is particularly reminiscent of the movie) or to the vaguely similar, tech-obsessed UK series Black Mirror. Even at its best moments, Humans can feel like something we’ve already seen, but that’s no reason to write it off. The questions at the center of the series have been asked before, but Humans deserves credit for creating new characters and finding new ways to answer them.