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Humans, AMC’s robot drama, could stand to cool it with the humans

The series is much less of a mess than the similarly themed Westworld, but also far less compelling.

Synth Max (Ivanno Jeremiah, left) and half-Synth Leo (Colin Morgan) hide out from those who would destroy them.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even though they’re enormously different shows, AMC’s Humans now finds itself in the weird position of being compared to HBO’s Westworld, a series with which it simultaneously has much and almost nothing in common.

Both shows are about the dawn of artificial intelligence and what that might look like. And they’re both concerned with the ways that artificial beings might be treated as slave labor, allowing for frequent riffs on the idea of androids standing in for essentially any oppressed group you can think of. (I wrote a little on the sneaky, twisting politics of Humans after its first season.)



But their stories couldn’t be told more differently. Humans is a straightforward social-issues drama, one that takes a semi-omniscient view of an alternate world right on the cusp of everything changing forever. Westworld, meanwhile, plunges viewers directly into its artificial beings’ points of view, complete with looping story rhythms, jumbled timelines, and a slow-building sense of the true horrors of the titular theme park.

In terms of storytelling, Humans is arguably the “better” show (whatever that means). It’s more consistent, more thoughtful, and more confident in the scope of its story. The second season, in particular, builds terrifically to its second half, where revelation after revelation culminates in a finale that feels massive without resorting to big explosions or any of the usual tricks.

And yet Westworld, messy and occasionally unfulfilling as it is, left me wishing Humans would take more chances, live more audaciously. Humans is a bloodless series, one that seems informed but not engaged. Like too many dramas on TV right now, it’s more interesting in theory than in practice.

Humans has great ideas but lacks emotional heft

Sonya Cassidy joins the season two cast as Hester, a newly conscious Synth.

Season two’s central debate largely occurs between people who remain almost entirely offscreen (because one of them is dead). It ponders whether it’s better for the series’ Synths (what it calls robots) to receive consciousness slowly, like a deliberately spreading computer virus, or to have everybody receive it all at once.

The creator of the consciousness program — a dead scientist named David Elster — argues that society isn’t ready for conscious Synths, and if too many of them appear at once, it will lead to prejudice, violence, and worse. Others believe that society must be confronted — occasionally violently — with its injustices toward artificial beings.

It’s a sometimes too-neat recreation of one of the fundamental questions facing social justice advocates: Is it better to win acceptance gradually, over many, many years, or does changing the system require something more radical? And as often happens with science fiction, the distance from our reality — we’re not yet arguing about the rights of artificial life — provides a mirror through which we can consider the injustices in our own world with more nuance than we might usually.

But Humans remains more interested in ideas than in guts. There are frequent moments when the show will unveil a big twist or reveal (particularly when it elegantly ties together a bunch of storylines late in season two with the reveal of who the mysterious “Seraphim” are), and I’ll marvel at how beautifully constructed the plot is, but feel almost nothing.

I had more obvious storytelling problems with Westworld, and it too was a cold show. But the sheer audaciousness of its filmmaking and storytelling acted as a guide that led me to emotional moments that hit with the power the HBO series intended.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if this coldness is part of Humans’ design. Is it trying to show us how it might feel to live in a society where more and more people are waking up to their own personhood? To be a human-looking machine built to perform specific tasks but never quite aware of your non-humanness would be a strange condition indeed, especially as those contradictions became clearer and clearer. And for all my complaining about Humans’ bloodlessness, the second season finale ends on some enormously powerful moments that hit me square in the gut.

But maybe the reason Humans often feels like it’s working against itself is right there in the title. For as much as the show sympathizes with the Synths, it’s ultimately a story about, well, humans.

One of season two’s more affecting and infuriating storylines involves a young girl who’s attempting to make herself a Synth, which is at once emotionally powerful and a completely bizarre analogue for trans issues (particularly once it reaches its conclusion). And the series insists on continuing to follow one human family that’s aware there are conscious Synths (most of humanity isn’t) and increasingly becomes woke to its complicity in the Synths’ degradation.

But the humans have so little skin in this particular game. Think of how few truly great films there are about the struggles for civil rights told from the point of view of white people, or of how few great stories there are about the struggle for women’s suffrage told from the point of view of men. To return to Westworld, that show is told from its robots’ point of view.

A story demands that it be led by its most compelling characters, and in most cases, that means the oppressed, not the oppressors. Humans can be intriguing, even enthralling. But it’s always held back by its title.

Humans’ second season debuts Monday, February 13, at 10 pm Eastern on AMC.

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