Monday, December 2, 2013

Pilot Season: Almost Human (Accidentally Racist Is Still Racist)

Oh gosh guys, we're dragging towards the finish line here. It's been a crazy couple of weeks but the end is finally in sight, so thank you for all bearing with me, and I truly hope that we're coming up on a more peaceful era. Or at least some peace and quiet until Christmas. That would be nice.

Anyway, pilot season is finally starting to come to an end! Or, well, the actual pilot season ended a while ago, but our coverage of it is coming to an end soon. So that's nice. Today we're talking about Almost Human, then in the next week or so we'll cover American Horror Story: Coven and Masters of Sex and then we're done. Done. I can't believe it.

Well, done until we finish covering all those shows that come back after Christmas. Ah, television. It never stops, does it?

So. Almost Human. As you might know, the show takes place several hundred years in the future, as mankind is experiencing another jump in technological capabilities. Similar to what happened with computers, the technology is advancing much more quickly than the law is, and as a result there's a whole new ground for organized crime and other such degenerate things. The police force is woefully inadequate to keep up with both the evolving technology and the evolving crime that goes along with it, so they institute a new policy: all human police officers must be paired with an android officer.

And there you have it. That's the premise for the show.

The actual story focuses on one cop in particular, Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban), who has just returned to work after a seventeen month coma and period of rehabilitation. He's desperate to find the crime syndicate that put him in the coma and cost him his leg as well as his human partner, and he's suspicious that his girlfriend of the time is the one who betrayed them. Also, because an android refused to treat his partner and left them to die, John hates androids with a passion. He has a tendency to throw them out of moving cars. Charming guy.

Unfortunately for John, you can't be a police officer these days without an android partner, and since he murdered his last one, John gets stuck with the reject: Dorian (Michael Ealy). Dorian, or DRN, is a previous model of detective android, one that the makers rejected for being a little too human. They tried to make the droids as lifelike as possible, only to recoil in horror when that meant that their robotic slaves would occasionally go nuts and kill people. Because, as it turns out, people do that. 

Dorian has a bad rep as a malfunctioning droid, but ironically that's what makes John like him. Plus, Dorian turns out to be a lot better at the whole detecting thing than most droids. He's intuitive and interesting and kind of weird. It's hard not to like Dorian, which I think is the point.

In the first episode, John and Dorian try to track down the syndicate that nearly killed him. The syndicate has been in hiding for years, and has just now suspiciously resurfaced. John is determined to bring them down, but it seems the syndicate is determined to bring down the police. They set a number of elaborate traps all designed to cut down on the police force before attacking the police headquarters itself. Only John and Dorian figure it out in time to save everyone and stop the syndicate from getting what they want: a mysterious piece of evidence.

It seems that this is the arc-plot of the show, which is cool, but ultimately a little unfulfilling. The mystery is so darn mysterious that we don't actually know what they're looking for, or why, or why it's really bad that they get it. We're just told that they're the bad guys, and it can't be anything good, right?

That's the basic frame of the show. In execution, it's a hybrid, with some episodic elements, like the crime of the week, and more serialized parts, like John's continuing character development, and whatever is going on with the syndicate. It has a fairly interesting cast, with Lili Taylor playing the police chief, and Minka Kelly stepping in as a fellow detective who is kind to Dorian and attracted to John (who can blame her?). But there is one problem.

I know. There's always a problem.

That problem? The only main character of color happens to be the only main non-human character. You get what I'm saying? I don't think this is intentional at all, mind you. In fact, I think it's great that they chose to cast Michael Ealy as Dorian. It's a great part and he plays it very well. But the fact that the rest of the cast is so overwhelmingly white means that Dorian's casting becomes a plot point. It becomes a little uncomfortable spot that the robot character, the one who isn't quite human, is played by a black man, from a people group that were historically considered not human and put in positions of demeaning slavery or servitude.

Unintentional racism? Yeah. It's a thing. And, unfortunately, it's a thing in this show as well. Really, though the problem has to do with the whole framework the casting directors are working under. 

It's pretty well known in Hollywood, though no one likes to admit it, that if race isn't specified in the casting brief or in the script (I used to work in a talent agency, I know this for a fact), then it means white. I mean, it probably doesn't mean white, but that's what most casting directors and agents will read. No race listed? Must be white. 

That's why it's so hard to find a properly diverse show on television. It's not because there aren't as many good actors of color, or that they're inherently better for different roles. That's total crap. Also? If gender is unspecified, it means male. This is the society we live in, where white and male is the default setting and everyone else is the deviation from the norm. 

So my guess is that because the script didn't specify that more of the characters were non-white, and because they'd already cast a black man as one of the show leads, the casting directors and the showrunners figured they're good. They've done their job. Have your non-racist show, everybody!

Unfortunately, that's really not enough. It's not enough to say that because you cast one man of color in a show that the whole thing is therefore above scrutiny. There's no such thing as above scrutiny. And besides, shouldn't we expect better of our casting directors, and agents, and screenwriters? If we want to see more characters of color, and female characters for that matter, then a huge part of this means that we need to be vocal in our displeasure. Because maybe, just maybe, if we complain about this, someone will notice and think - hey! It doesn't say what race this character is supposed to be! That means I could cast anyone. Anyone. Wow!

It works for Sleepy Hollow is all I'm saying.

The other really big problem with the show is one that I have slightly more hope of seeing fixed in the near future. Namely that I am not yet emotionally invested in the story. Oh, it's cool and all, and I really like Dorian and John, but I don't yet understand why their struggle is important. 

What's so bad about all these crime bosses? I mean, I get that some of them are really obviously criminal, and setting up bombs is terrible, that's not really a question, but what precisely are we supposed to be angry about? Why are they doing it?

I like my villains to have motivation, thank you very much, so that I can understand them while I object to them, and these guys so far really don't have a whole lot going for them. They're just bad, in a generic and mildly frightening way. You can do better, show!

On the positive side, I do appreciate that John Kennex is an amputee having trouble adjusting to his synthetic limb. Not only does it make him a less generic character (which is good, and he needs that), it explores interesting issues having to do with self-image and bodies of choice. Plus, always nice to see a protagonist who isn't just obviously able-bodied. A little bit of depth there. But you could always do more, show. Always, always do more.

And then diversify your casting, for crying out loud. Because right now, you're being very racist, if only by accident, and I would like you to stop that. Thank you.


  1. The show takes place in 2048, not several hundred years in the future. Otherwise, good article.

  2. Don't discount the idea that it could be absolutely intentional. It doesn't have to be, but I wouldn't be surprised if the contrast was used to highlight the differences in the characters.

    On another note, I'm somewhat interested in how the human-robot relationship is portrayed. As someone who doesn't doubt we'll be dealing with the impact of non-biological lifeforms in the coming years, it always interests me in what light speculative fiction portrays the interaction.

    1. That's a really good point, but I think the larger idea stands. If it is an attempt to show the parallels to slavery, then why are all of the other synthetics white? I mean, there was one black man in a group shot, but that's it. If it is intentional, it's not particularly well done. Either way, the effect is...uncomfortable. And not in a good way.

      Regarding your second point, I totally agree. I like this concept for a show, and I appreciate science-fiction's ability to help us work out moral issues and ethical problems we may encounter. This is definitely one of the more positive portrayals I've seen in a while.

  3. Way to denigrate an interesting and unusual show. I watched two interestingly diverse main characters each with different problems interact with each other. They bond despite their differences and prejudices. You watched the same show and determined there weren't enough neutered black androids in the background for your taste. So... you don't get the interaction part and somehow have determined it's a racist show because 13% of the population didn't get half the jobs. Unintentional racism? Yeah, it's a real thing...

    1. Yup. Calling things racist is my hobby. And I never said it wasn't an interesting or unusual show. I really liked Almost Human. I watched all of it. I can like things and still think they're racist. It's a skill.

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