Having already announced that the semi-sci-fi family drama Humans will venture into a second season, another cluster of eight episodes, this does to a large extent signify the success of the show. In fact Humans appears to be the most successful broadcast on Channel 4 in terms of viewing figures in over twenty years. It started airing in USA and Canada too, running two weeks later than in the UK (it is nice to come first for a change), and has just started in Australia. Here in the UK the marketing campaign heading into this phenomenon was extraordinary, ranging from window display in London’s very own Regent Street, to a TV advert for Personal Synthetics billed as these robots-dressed-as-humans being an actual product / family friend you can own. A convincing, stirring concept indeed, given our somewhat innate fear of machines taking over our planet, but also the notion of having such a presence in our own homes.
Humans tackles this very subject, the disruption and paranoia it can bring to the everyday family environment – as well as some compelling, relevant sub-plots about the background, current dilemmas and unknown future for these synthetics. The prominent family here are the Hawkins: parents Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), and three children, teenagers Mattie / Matilda and Toby, and youngest Sophie. In a society were this new artificial intelligence dynamic is becoming an ordinary way of life, from the outset the traits of this particular family are made clear, as Joe and Sophie purchase their new synthetic (Gemma Chan), whom they soon name Anita.
Joe is ignorantly blissful about the new gadget, while Sophie is of course as curious and excited as any normal child would be. Back home, Anita is greeted with some hostility by Mattie, a somewhat orthodox reaction to most things at that age you might think, where Toby is more smitten by the attractive physical appearance – again, a standard response from a teenage boy perhaps. Then there is the mother / wife Laura, who never wanted this new addition in the first place, and is annoyed and discomforted by her husband’s decision. We soon realize that family values are extremely important to these people, but is somehow demonstrated through an inner tension built from something we do not yet know long before the synthetic was even a mere notion.
Elsewhere, what we are made to assume are synthetics on the run, a sub plot featuring Leo (Colin Morgan) has a fugitive-style quest for lost synths. Leo is joined by friend Max. Both seem to have characteristics much more related to humans than robots – so your intrigue levels ought to be flashing off the scale even at these very early scenes. There’s police detective Drummond (Neil Maskell), down-in-the-dumps not helped by his disabled wife Jill being more satisfied by her own younger, fitter synth Simon than her own husband. Drummond is professionally partnered with detective inspector Voss (Ruth Bradley), who we later find out is also a conscious synth. Lost yet? Of course, to fill out the science villain parts to some extent, Hobb (Danny Webb), a professor, is perturbed by the missing synths, and seemingly working with government officials to track them down. His own synth Fred soon finds himself in danger too.
The real treat for many might be William Hurt as George, a retired doctor and researcher of artificial intelligence. He has a sweet bond with Odi, a sadly malfunctioning synth, soon replaced by battle-axe synth Vera who seems to be more gestapo than care-giver. George is later visited by Niska (Emily Berrington), yet another conscious synth who was working as an escort before she broke free of that lifestyle to bitterly self-discover.
The build-up and the development of the drama driven by this fascinating subject is delivered brilliantly. As you may have noticed, there are plenty of characters and potential story arcs and back-stories to allow the narrative to leap frog from one group of characters to the next. The Hawkins’ habitat is the front-line plot, as the holes in the family’s bond grow bigger. Anita’s limited slip into human behavior is soon noticed by Mattie, who so happens to be a bit of an expert with all things computer – a hacker you might say. And Laura’s suspicious and anger that Anita is perhaps looking after her kids better than she is continues until she too witnesses distinctly emotional responses from the synth. The main damage though comes when Joe sleeps with Anita, his son Toby unscrupulously covering for him temporarily. Beyond the family drama, the discover that Anita is in fact an old version of a synth and actually corrupted, as former name Mia, is linked right across to Leo and his search. It’s a compelling, frantic journey, switching between genuine suspense, and dynamics of emotional story-telling constantly questioning our perception of these characters.
Humans combines the boat-rocking and acclimatizing of robots and humans co-existing, with the adrenaline of the conspiracy, chase plot. As well as a steady balance of emotive responsibilities, the show adds drops of justified violence, often shocking in the context of what is a very grounded production. Niska actually kills a client of the brothel when she has finally had enough (the swine does ask her to pretend to be young and scared). She is also close to stabbing another man later until she hears him speaking of his small daughter. And when Jill is unable to fight off the sexual advances of her synth Simon (after she had instigated the intercourse), unwanted husband Drummond is the one to batter Simon to the ground, destroying him. Sadly, that for the couple it is not quite a knight in shining armor moment.
The whole thing is, I won’t say completely resolved, but kind of. There is still plenty to think about and perhaps even more of a journey to behold some of these characters. As things are brought to a boil, the major synths (Niska, Leo, Fred, and of course Mia / Anita) are assisted by the Hawkins family, who in the end, in spite of their preconceptions, have all played a part in this roller-coaster ride. The show’s closure overall doesn’t throw too many awful or upsetting twists at you, but does certainly leave the book open for further reading later.
From the initial, clever advertising (I know for a fact those Personal Synthetic ads blew a few human minds), to the trailers leading up to the first episode, Humans has delivered an alternating degree of drama, ultimately television entertainment feeding to our own desires and intrigue. Well-designed, and with little opportunity for a break-down in plot or character invested interest, this crams a significant amount into the eight episodes, and suspect we are already digging deep to our conscious minds to wonder where it might go next. Here’s hoping it at least keeps to this kind of standard and packaging.