Review: ‘Humans’

Robin Write’s review of Humans originally appeared on the site two weeks ago when the series premiered on Channel 4 in the UK. Humans premieres tonight for US audiences on AMC. 

AMC’s new drama Humans was born into our media-driven subconscious as a commercial for Persona Synthetics. That’s right, an advert for synthetically created and fully operational human-act-a-likes, made from scratch and programmed to aid humans in their day-to-day lives. But they are not humans. They can’t love your children like you can. Can they? When I first saw the advert for Personal Synthetics even I had to adjust my thoughts and impressions on this whole concept. It turns out it is a terrifically effective marketing campaign for Humans, the television show about this very technological breakthrough.

There’s a strong paradox about weighing up fiction and reality. There’s a certain fear about fiction based on a potential reality. You simply have to be human to feel that, paranoia, concern, intrigue. About synthetic beings. Artificial intelligence. Robots. One spontaneous reaction from a YouTuber for me captured the emotive, spontaneous response and debate that perhaps the creators were seeking out with this marketing ploy. Robots taking over the world, well, that is a nurtured fear depicted on the big screen too. Remember WestworldI, Robot? And more recently the excellent Ex Machina?

So the TV show itself, then. An eerie, sci-fi-esque discourse thrown hard and fast into the drama of everyday human lives. The title sequence flickers from scientific image here to technological image there – audio snippets follow suit. And the music accompanying the show’s narrative crawls under your skin pretty much from the outset.


The Hawkins family, mum, dad, three kids, form the central plot. Dad (Tom Goodman-Hill, Mr. Selfridge) takes youngest daughter shopping, they are to purchase a new synthetic aid. They call her Anita and acquaint her with the family. It is clear early on all is not stable with this family. The synthetic may turn out to be a whizz around the kitchen but is not here necessarily to hinder or improve the communication or bond between family members. When family feuds, although minor, continue, the mother (Katherine Parkinson, The I.T. Crowd) sees Anita across the room. You have to wonder, as no doubt she may, what she understands. What emotional connection can Anita have with the members of this family? Is she a threat? The fact she looks immaculately human may be the hardest part to swallow. We can distance our feelings far, far easier from robots that look like robots, can’t we?

Elsewhere an elderly man (William Hurt, Damages) is visited by a case worker offering him a brand new, more advanced version of synthetic (Synth). He is not interested from the outset. Perhaps a denial of getting older and needing more help (there is mention of his blood pressure), or perhaps more so a strong attachment to his current Synth. When they go shopping for groceries, and the Synth malfunctions slightly he is knocked to the ground and powered down. The man does not want a new model in spite of strong recommendations to have him scrapped by a police detective. The same detective returns home and is clearly perturbed by his disabled wife’s connection with their male Synth.

A further story-strand has one of several synthetic workers questioned and then shot with a dart when he attempts to run and escape. The chunk of dialogue “He looks normal.” then “He is far from normal.” would have made a decent slogan for the nature of the show. In a flashback sequence (probably five weeks prior) Anita, seemingly on the run and working with others to stay safe, is soon captured with another Synth by two guys in a van. There is conflict already here, and it is clear these artificial creations have been on the market, and in society, for some time now.

This is not, right now, all out horror. Or not as we know it. This is a subtle nerve-stirrer. We might not fear for the lives of the humans (at first), but any form of non-robotic activity does indeed ring out some alarm bells. The prolonged laughing at the dinner table by Anita may be particularly chilling. And as humans, it is scary to have a Synth being able to strike up a greater bond with your daughter than you currently have. The final sequences of the first episode go a long way to suggest further danger, but also I found myself wondering how Anita befriending the children of the family may be beneficial. Now that’s an uneasy paradox.

I had a transitional switch of opinion in my head during the whole marketing of Humans. Gripped and spooked by the notion these synthetics could one day really be accessed in our everyday lives, and advertised like i-phones or double cheeseburgers for 99 pence. Then to be grounded that this is purely fiction, a television show with actors I recognized, kind of diluted some of the original allure. But not much, and not because I do not love great TV shows.

As TV drama goes, this tuned out to be a solid and compelling introductory hour to a fascinating concept. The artificial nature of “robots” given memories or emotions is nothing new, but that does not make it uninteresting in the slightest. The set-up is swift, and the characters have some weight. This is only emphasized through some fine performances here from the veteran William Hurt providing some heart-tugging sympathy, and the usually comedic Katherine Parkinson playing it convincingly straight-laced. As for Anita, Gemma Chan is so far inch perfect, channeling the mannerisms of a cyborg existence while showing real glimmers of the human form emerging through the surface. The direction of Humans looks to be heading, then, in that direction.

Humans debuts in the US tonight on AMC at 9pm EST. 


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