One of my favorite additions to the summer TV schedule has been Humans, a science fiction program that’s a joint production of Channel 4 in the UK and AMC in the US. I’ve really enjoyed Humans’ exploration of technological singularity, a subject that fascinates me. The writing and characterization are solid, and some of the performances -- particularly William Hurt as Dr. George Millican and Gemma Chan as Mia/Anita -- have moved me to tears. Humans is actually a remake of an acclaimed Swedish show called Äkta Människor (i.e., “Real Humans”). I was already curious to see Real Humans, but my curiosity was piqued further by reports it was vastly superior to the remake. So, I decided to give the original a watch. What follow are my thoughts, which I’ll try to update after each episode. Hopefully, this will negate one possible source of bias that could affect the appraisal of those who see both: i.e., the fact there have been only 8 episodes of Humans compared to 20 of Real Humans. Episode 1.1
Right off the bat, based solely on the pilot, there’s one big thing I like better about Real Humans, and several small things I prefer about Humans. The big thing I like better about the original is the overt political allegory. The eponymous “Real Humans” are members of an anti-robot political movement that’s meant to mirror anti-immigrant groups that have arisen in Nordic countries in response to the influx of cheap labor from abroad. By contrast, Humans is a more straightforward exploration of the moral issues surrounding artificial intelligence. So far, the remake is an extended riff on one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek:TNG, “The Measure of a Man,” where Commander Data has to prove he’s conscious. Which is fine -- as I say, it’s one of my favorite episodes. And I stress “so far” because I wouldn’t be surprised if Humans goes there more in S2. With only eight episodes to work with (compared to 10 in S1 of the original) the remake’s writers no doubt had to prioritize. For now, however, the immigrant/labor angle gives Real Humans a depth and edge that Humans lacks. By that same token, there were several small things that Humans has done better (or that Real Humans did worse) probably due in part because the remake’s writers have the benefit of hindsight. For starters, I didn’t like how Mimi (Mia) was taken by the black marketeers. Why didn’t one of the other hubots just carry her inside? And did no one see or hear the truck drive up with its headlights blazing and engine roaring? Maybe I missed something, but it seemed implausible. Humans wisely leaves the specifics of the hubots’ capture to the imagination. All we get is a scene of Leo and Max returning to an empty camp. Far more effective, in my opinion. Another weak point of the Real Humans pilot was the introduction of the Engman (Hawkins) family, which I found rushed and corny. When was the last time any teen you know asked their dad for help with homework over breakfast? It reminded me of a scene from a Mentos commercial. This arithmetic has me stumped, son, but here... have a freshmaker! Perhaps the weakest point of the original was the way Mimi ends up with the Engmans. They go to the hubot store to buy a caretaker model for Grandpa Engman (Dr. Millican) and the salesman just throws in Mimi for free. The show presents the Hubots as expensive household items. When was the last time you bought a refrigerator or car and got one free? And then there’s Vera (Vera), the aforementioned caretaker hubot. She’s great in the original -- a creepy cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Nurse Ratched. But I don’t completely buy Grandpas willingness to live according to her dictates. In the remake, by contrast, Vera is an agent of the National Health Service, giving her an even more sinister edge. (The same would be true if she were required by a private insurance company.) It’s clearer why Dr. Millican can’t just say no.