Almost Human: under the Skin

It can be tough for a new show to maintain momentum in its second outing. Fortunately for Almost Human, episode two (“Skin”) featured a Cheo Coker script about sexbots. This was basically the exact opposite of a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

Coker has perfected the art of yielding deep character revelations from the smallest of moments (on SouthLAnd), and the skill of wielding heavy exposition on the fly (on NCIS:LA). These abilities are essential in the future world of Almost Human, which has a network procedural chassis powered by a cable-style character-based engine. The words were the supple human skin on this artificial life form: the hour was full of emotional, wry, hard-hitting and rhythmic dialogue. With a steady stream of killer details (cats, balls), Kennex and Dorian bantered like pros. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy played their scenes to perfection, continuing an endearing chemistry that makes us want to spend the entire hour listening to them ragging on each other.

Almost Human Skin

Both actors can convey emotional nuance with the smallest of actions, which fits the style of this show perfectly; it’s a gritty, flinty, fast-moving world, composed of shards of light and emotion amongst the steel and glass. Cityscapes glitter and shine brightly with future-light, androids behave as though they have souls, and no one is quite what they seem. The hard-bitten noir quality runs through every aspect of Almost Human, as does the connection with Blade Runner, which is not just there in the concept and visuals, but also in the dialogue, with a character at one point talking about a blush response. Of course, the key debate of that movie was whether Deckard was a replicant. It’s a rich seam to mine, and J.H. Wyman’s show is doing it thoughtfully.

At the same time, it’s distinguishing itself from its sci-fi forefathers and brethren, establishing its own unique identity through a new language of crime: flash masks, DNA bombs, tag scramblers. Wyman is delivering on his promise to only feature crimes that are entirely dependent on futuristic technology. This is a sci-fi geek’s dream in the best kind of way. The concepts are clever, but the emotions are always real: Dorian’s pain at the destruction of another synthetic was palpable and moving.

And yet, in a sign that this show has a great line-up in the writers room, possibly the most moving moment of the episode was the tiny robotic giraffe that Kennex hands to the small child of a kidnapping victim. That emotional moments can be handled so quietly and simply amidst the chaos of the day bodes extremely well for the sophisticated nature of future episodes.

All of the show’s emotions are enhanced by The Crystal Method’s beautiful, futuristic and ambient score, which flows through every scene artfully; it’s up there with the best sci-fi scores, in TV and in film. If machines did dream, this is what it would sound like.

Almost Human has started with an astonishingly assured one-two punch. It’s thrilling TV; exhilarating concepts driven by emotional truths. As long as it can give more time and complexity to Captain Maldonado and Agent Stahl, both of whom currently exist in a “popping in and out of scenes with information” status, there’s nothing to stop this show cementing its status as best new drama of the season.

Random uploads:

  • “You scanned my balls.”
  • Gareth from The Office (the UK original) as a specialist in robots. Brilliant.
  • Kennex stabbing his leg and scaring the kids.
  • That giraffe, man. Beautiful.

Almost Human: Pilot Episode

That Fringe-shaped hole in your TV world is about to be more than filled with ALMOST HUMAN, a show that might just be the purest display of high-octane sci-fi ever to hit the small screen.

The pilot episode, penned by former FRINGE showrunner J.H. Wyman and produced by sci-fi uber-titan J.J. Abrams (FRINGE, PERSON OF INTEREST, REVOLUTION, SUPER 8, STAR TREK, STAR WARS), is a fiercely gritty introduction to the police procedural world in 2048. Cops are partnered with androids, and programmable DNA is the target of choice for the future-tech criminals they chase down.

Almost Human

The pilot accomplishes more than most first seasons. Wyman’s world-building is precise, deep and always on the fly. It’s a world of constant motion. This is kinetic sci-fi of the highest order. And it’s all driven by character and emotion, memory and loss; every piece of tech, every cool idea, is serving the story. Wyman’s great skill is to introduce us to multiple strata of the world, as well as our two lead characters: Kennex, the embittered cop struggling with the continued fallout of a mission gone wrong, and his partner Dorian, a “synthetic” who is programmed to feel. They both have something to prove, and almost certainly something to hide.

Their relationship is the cornerstone of the show; it all depends on their arcs, their dialogue, their chemistry. Wyman’s script does a stellar job making all this completely naturalistic, and the two actors, a fantastically grizzled Karl Urban and a smoothly assertive Michael Ealy, trade hard-bitten noir-ish lines with ease.

That combination of sci-fi noir and androids programmed to seem human unavoidably calls to mind the ur-text of this genre: BLADE RUNNER. To its extreme credit, ALMOST HUMAN is never derivative, but doesn’t shy away from the resonances either. Indeed, it richly plays with our expectations by giving us just enough to wonder if Kennex is as human as he seems (read EW’s excellent breakdown of this theory).

The sci-fi in the show serves the story entirely; and simultaneously the story couldn’t exist without the tech that drives it. That’s why this is pure sci-fi, the very best kind: emotion, action, concept, heart and character are all the same here.

It’s an outstanding pilot episode, one that holds a tremendous amount of promise for the rest of the season.

The Dark Knight Rises

With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan brilliantly reinvented the iconic character of The Batman. The Dark Knight Rises marks the thrilling conclusion to his trilogy, and the setting of an impossibly high bar for superhero movies, for trilogies/series, and for cinematic storytelling in general.

The Batman

The Dark Knight Rises also brings Nolan’s cinematic record to an unheard-of 7 for 7 in great movies.

He announced himself in Hollywood with the twisty ploting and bold structure of Memento; brought an epic and lonely grandeur to the Al Pacino thriller Insomnia; reinvented superheroes with Batman Begins; delivered the uniquely dazzling magician-thriller The Prestige; channeled the brutal scale of Heat and The Godfather to make one of the greatest sequels of all time with The Dark Knight; blew our minds with the extraordinary dream-, perception- and reality-bending Inception.

And now this.

That’s seven era-defining, pop culture-redefining classics in a row.

How did that happen?

It all comes down to Nolan’s magnificent, architectural, kinetic and flat-out rock-solid grasp of how to blend and meld action, character, concept and emotion into one fluidly relentless thrill-ride. He’s a master storyteller, both on the page and up there on the screen. His scripts have an architect’s precision, a powerful, inexorable structure on which he hangs his whole new cinematic language of action and motion. A language which reaches new heights in The Dark Knight Rises.

The scope and complexity of the storytelling in The Dark Knight Rises is thrilling, especially when you look at it in the context of the trilogy as a whole. From the bold creation of the new origin story, to the reimagined diabolical and morally vacuous Joker, to the vast and inhuman monstrosity of Bane, Nolan keeps the character of Bruce Wayne/The Batman fully grounded, while also continually challenging him in fundamental and ever-escalating ways. The stakes are jacked up in the final installment, with Batman facing his most lethal adversary, and Gotham City itself threatened with being burned to the ground.

It’s the stuff of brilliant drama. It’s great writing, augmented by next-level directing.

The one liners are heavyweight punches; the physical and emotional punches are devastating body blows; the gadgets and vehicles blow you away with their newness and coolness; and the cool, measured approach taken by Nolan reins everything in and then whips it up into an intelligent maelstrom of furious action. He makes the visual, visceral. It’s easy to show big stuff, or blow big stuff up. It’s extraordinarily difficult to invest such visuals with emotion. To do that, the shot needs conceptual and emotional layers. Which means you have to build them in and lead up to the moment, often in subliminal ways.

And that comes down to the script.

The Batman movies usually start with Nolan and David Goyer (Blade, Man Of Steel) breaking story. Then Jonah Nolan writes the script. Then Christopher Nolan rewrites it, and pre-production begins. That’s one hell of a writers room. The scripts are juggernauts of narrative momentum, but they always find time to play, and to make you hurt, and dream.

And to care. In all three movies, you care about the characters, and the things that happen to them. When Batman makes his first appearance on the Batpod in The Dark Knight Rises, you’re invested in it (for all kinds of reasons), and that makes it all the more thrilling.

Another example is the way Nolan and his team brought Catwoman to life. Once the Nolans worked out that she should be a femme fatale, a grifter, they wrote the hell out of her part. That commitment extended to the costumes too. They did a particularly brilliant job making the “cat ears” an integrated part of her cat burglar tech gear, which itself is an integral part of her character.

Indeed, from the beginning of the trilogy, one of Nolan’s most original contributions has been to make all the “superhero” stuff utterly grounded, completely explained by function and need. Everything is logical, explainable, rooted in reality. This gives its superhuman behavior much more impact, and increases the coolness quotient exponentially. It’s one of many aspects of Nolan’s version that serves as a masterclass for all genre writers and directors.

The Bat

Of course, when Nolan wants to unleash technological and conceptual hell, he does it with massive style. Especially in IMAX. The first time you see and hear “The Bat” roar into view on an IMAX screen is one of the top ten thrilling moments in cinema history.

Just by way of perspective, so you can see where I’m coming from, my personal number one on that top ten list (and please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below) is the first appearance of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.


On every f**king level — conceptual, visual, primal, emotional, cinematic — it blows you away. The way Nolan handles The Bat falls squarely in this territory. The way he flies it around Gotham’s steel and glass towers also shows us why in some ways The Dark Knight Rises is Nolan’s Blade Runner.

He’s also staked his claim as a true innovator, even though he insists on shooting and editing on film rather than digital. I’m talking about his use of IMAX cameras. Where James Cameron has pioneered 3D, and Peter Jackson is pushing the hyperreality of 48fps, Nolan has single-handedly taken IMAX from the realm of documentaries into the world of the 21st century blockbuster, by shooting ever-increasing numbers of scenes using those cameras. He’s proved that you can shoot drama and action in the format, and use it to enhance the emotional impact of the visuals.

But Nolan’s grasp of the mechanical and technological is just as deft as his way with emotions and dreams. He understands the human heart and all the trouble it can get us into.

He’s a master architect of the human mind, along with his brother Jonah Nolan, who is currently showrunner of the stunningly great NYC-set TV show Person Of Interest. Together, they’ve brought a wholly original point of view to their blend of noir, epic crime, zinging dialogue and startling concepts.

Of course, all this is well and good, but without the cast, the movies couldn’t succeed. Nolan knew this, which was why he cast Christian Bale.

Bruce Wayne

From his start as a young boy lost in WW2 Japan in Steven Spielberg’s excellent Empire Of The Sun, to his Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter, Bale has always delivered maximum intensity and rawness. Whether playing a free spirit succumbing to 60s British suburbia in Metroland, or the burning-out wannabe LAPD cop in Harsh Times, Bale always immerses himself in a part, turns it inside out, becomes it. That transformation burns its way out of the screen.

Who better, then, to play the broken billionaire, tortured by terrible loss, always fearing yet embracing his own inner monsters? In the prior two movies Bale was outstanding, delivering a pyschologically detailed and gripping portrayal of Bruce Wayne. In this movie, he somehow steps it up yet again; this is some of his finest, most heartbreaking, and most ferocious work.

The movie is full of legends and stars: Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, and Tom Hardy all invest their scenes with heart and soul.

Oh yeah, and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle? Revelatory.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle

In “Catwoman mode,” she’s stylized, deadly, her speech hovering just the right side of a seductive almost-purr, hazy and woozy yet always in control. And in depicting a vulnerable, haunted young woman on the run from an unknown past she fully reveals how Kyle is in the grip of complex moral conflicts. She’s a great female character for a superhero movie, and Nolan shoots her scenes alternating through close-ups, fascinating camera tilts and alluring distance. He shows us her dreams, even as she does her best to hide them.

There’s a great line in Ridley Scott’s Legend: “the dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.” In some ways, that line resonates powerfully within the world of The Dark Knight Rises; the characters are haunted by dreams, by futures lost. But it also applies to the movie itself. All of us geeks have been fans of superheroes since we were kids. What Nolan has done is turn those dreams of our youth into the extraordinarily thrilling dreams of our maturity.

SouthLAnd: Graduation Day

And so, with a building, searing intensity, the final episode of SouthLAnd‘s season three roared to its emotionally explosive conclusion.

Such a bittersweet moment for fans and presumably creators alike. As the opening voiceover reminded us, sometimes you just have to make that leap. Throughout its two year, three season, 23 episode history, SouthLAnd has been fearless and unflinching, never hesitating as it ran over the rooftops of network and cable drama, fast, fitter, harder than the rest.

With Graduation Day, the show delivered astonishingly, beautifully, heartbreakingly, poetically and ball-bustingly on all the narrative arcs it had set up and laid down in the previous 22 episodes. Such relentless emotional follow-through is rare in TV drama. Comparing the events of the episode to the original pilot script, broadcast as Unknown Trouble, it’s an intense and moving experience to see how the show has so powerfully come into its own. It’s followed Ben Sherman from that terrifying first day, full of the unknown trouble of the title, through to his, and the show’s, graduation. Although Sherman has often been a quiet presence, SouthLAnd has always been powered by his story. Both Sherman and the show now stand on the edge of a new era in their existence. SouthLAnd has done a phenomenal job of maintaining its core truths while aggressively evolving within its world. Season three has seen the show expand, despite the budgetary hardships of the move to cable — it feels bigger than ever, and that is a testament to the extraordinary creative team, working harder and smarter than ever to deliver the best cop show of all time, and one of the undisputed, heavyweight greatest TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

What an episode it was. Part graduation, part commencement speech for the future. And lots of running. With a story by Heather Zuhkle, teleplay by John Wells, direction from Christopher Chulack, and eerie, beautiful, raw and hypnotic lighting from Jimmy Muro, Graduation Day was a full court press from start to finish. This season has showcased great and powerful writing and directing from Cheo Coker, Chitra Sampath, Allison Anders, Muro, and many, many others. But you have to bow down to the showrunners, the OGs: when John Wells and Christopher Chulack step up to the plate, they don’t f**k around. The pedal goes to the metal and stays there.

Whether it was bringing a season’s worth of crackling tension to an explosive conclusion as Lydia sparred against Josie about dating her son, or fulfilling the promise of the first season by having Sammy finally become a father (in messed up circumstances to be sure, but it’s him and Tammi, it couldn’t be any other way), Graduation Day handled its storylines and emotional arcs perfectly. It was great to watch Regina King play Lydia’s happy yet complex arc in this episode, creating one of the most enjoyable storylines of the show to date.

Most cathartic and showstopping of all of the narratives was the inevitable, long-awaited showdown between Sherman and Cooper, as Sherman finally, monumentally lost it on his disintegrating training officer. McKenzie and Cudlitz unloaded both barrels on each other for this scene, tearing the scene apart with their bare hands. McKenzie had some work to do. Following on from his bare knuckle rooftop fight with his suspect (one of the most painfully raw, real, intense and prolonged fight scenes we’ve seen on TV), McKenzie had to raise his game to take on the mighty presence of Cudlitz, formidable even when he has to play someone barely holding on. It was a great, classic scene, resonating with all the force of its two-year build-up.

Michael Cudlitz laid it down in this episode, anchoring the entire show with the craggy, iconic power of his performance. His acting ranged from intensely physical (his truly heartbreaking attempts to climb the ladder), to painfully intense (“I did f**king chase after you!”), to devastatingly quiet and detailed (saying “thank you” to Sherman; checking himself into rehab). Cudlitz stepped up to the plate and batted 1000. McKenzie delivered too: after three seasons of mostly having to repress his impulses, he finally got to explode with full force and authority, literally tearing Cudlitz up from the street and laying into him: “you’re a f**king goddamn useless training officer.” It was great f**king television.

It was a hell of a season for Sammy Bryant. Throughout it, Shawn Hatosy prowled like De Niro, tore it up like Sean Penn, and brought a restless, relentless energy to the role. He had some gruelling, raw scenes, and he gave them everything. Hatosy had a powerful, extraordinary season. This episode captured all of it. From the scenes in the delivery room, to the catharsis of seeing Nate’s killer die (“Nate Moretta, motherf**ker”), to the revelation that his newborn son was called Nathaniel, to his desperate look at the photo of himself and Nate, Hatosy took the outstanding scenes and beats given to him by John Wells and brought them to life with beautiful authenticity. It was heartbreaking. And it made his final scenes all the more bad-ass: as he walked out in uniform with his new partner, the one and only Ben Sherman, Hatosy showed us just how damn awesome season four is going to be as they trade the quirky streets of Hollywood for the tougher world of Alvarado.

In this final scene, we also discovered that Sherman has graduated nicknames, from Boot to Pup. Although Sherman must have felt like he was back at the start in some ways, that wry smile on McKenzie’s face in the final shot said it all: this shit is only going to get better.

As the show heads into its seemingly inevitable season four, one thing needs to be made clear: we need more Michael McGrady, C. Thomas Howell and Arija Bareikis! McGrady brought his customary presence and gravitas, backing it up this week with some heartfelt emotion, anchoring the scene with Sammy at the end with fatherly concern and genuine worry. Howell and Bareikis are great together, with snappy chemistry and a natural rhythm.

It’s important to take a moment here to acknowledge that this was the season Jimmy Muro came into his own, and brought the entire show with him. As director of photography, Muro did extraordinary things with light on this season, taking the show’s raw, kinetic aesthetic, and imbuing it with the otherworldly sheen of an ethereal sci-fi dream. And as director of two episodes (Cheo Coker’s Cop Or Not and Chitra Sampath’s Failure Drill), Muro unleashed his vision, creating haunting, complex visual textures that recalled Blade Runner and Star Trek with their deep ambient quality and mesmerizing lens flare. Muro is the master of that legendary Los Angeles light: dealing with it head-on in the show’s signature bleached-out, oversaturated glare, bringing in new visual grace notes by reflecting magic hour light on the downtown skyscrapers. Muro brought vital extra dimensions to SouthLAnd, creating yet another way in which the show effortlessly, quietly, almost imperceptibly differentiated itself from its peers.

At the time of writing, no announcement has been made by TNT about the show’s future. Renewal seems highly likely with the steady increase in ratings (Graduation Day being the highest rated of the season), and the sheer bench strength of the entire cast and crew. This is a brutally high quality production, and it deserves a long future. Finally, the awards have started coming to the show: Regina King recently and deservedly won the NAACP award for Outstanding Actress In A Drama Series — this must surely only be the beginning of a wave of writing, acting and technical awards for this peerless show.

All that remains is for me to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in bringing this amazing show to our screens. It’s had a huge impact on me, on my writing and my life. It’s been an extraordinary ride so far, and all the elements are in place for SouthLAnd to take it to the next level in season four.

Until then, I’ll leave you with John Cooper’s words of wisdom:

“Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp.”

SouthLAnd: Survival

Over the freeze frame of the flame of gunfire came the theme of Failure Drill: “To protect and to serve, that’s the LAPD motto… But as most cops’ll tell ya, sometimes you’re lucky if you can just survive.”

And this was an episode all about trying to survive, trying to make it through the day, trying to just stay upright and awake, trying not to lose it, trying not to die, and, often, trying not to laugh so damn hard. The signature SouthLAnd blend.

Written by Chitra Elizabeth Sampath, Failure Drill was her first script for the show, although you would never know it: the episode was classic season three SouthLAnd, one of the best-written this season. It was an assured and playful script that did what SouthLAnd does best, being full of smart turns, sharp dialogue, jaw-droppingly “no that just didn’t happen” humor, swift and surprising reversals, and a clear line of sight right to the emotional heart of the show. She advanced major storylines, threw in great, thrilling and truthful character moments, and wove it all together in a fast-moving, never-stopping express train.

The show opened with Lydia being trained in the titular failure drill. This referred to a police shooting technique: shoot the attacker twice in the chest to see if they’re wearing a vest. If they don’t go down, shoot once more to the head. This is exactly what SouthLAnd does emotionally, and it proved to be a great metaphor for the episode that followed.

Sampath showed us Lydia at her absolute best, and Regina King took full advantage of the huge range that Lydia got to explore. Whether it was her masterful handling of the husband who murdered his wife, her empathy with their son, her deep struggle with whether to let herself relax and open up to the possibility of dating Morales, or her all-out action hero scenes at the end, King threw herself body and soul into all of it.

Shawn Hatosy had some great scenes too, showing us how he’s at the very top of his game, crackling with energy, rage and authority. Hatosy’s best scene was his priceless reaction to the staggering next level of Tammi’s insanity, which literally came out of nowhere in a fantastically perfect interchange, one of Sampath’s finest in the episode. A heavily pregnant Tammi showed up unexpectedly, interrupting Sammy’s questioning of a suspect. “How the hell did you find me?” Sammy asked her. “I put a Find My Friends app on your phone,” she replied. Hatosy’s reaction shot was f**king brilliant — Sammy could barely process this: “I’m a gang detective,” he manfully forced out in utter disbelief, “I can’t have a f**king Find My Friends app on my phone.” Tammi struck back with, “are we having this baby together, or not?” Her mission to completely f*ck with Sammy’s head continues successfully.

The main event in this episode, though, was John Cooper’s steady, seemingly unstoppable descent into hell, via his painkiller addiction. Sampath handled this with great subtlety and style, choreographing Ben and John’s scenes with finesse. Their “off the record” conversation was heartbreaking, but artfully messed up, in true SouthLAnd style. Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz both gave the scene, and the episode, all the intensity they had, and it was great. Their arc also showed Sampath’s real strength: delivering character development and raw emotion on the fly and deep beneath the surface of fast-moving, brutal dialogue. All of which is frequently broken up by absolute jewels of brilliant comedy, like Sherman demonstrating the child car seats, or Adams discovering who Morales was related to — surely one of the most awesome surprises ever thrown at us by the show.

There’s no doubt that with this episode, Sampath executed her own failure drill on all the other cop shows out there, dropping them in three.

But as wonderfully written as this episode was, it’s now time to hail the relatively unsung hero of SouthLAnd, the master of light and motion, the man who turns the lens into an emotional perspective and makes everything look harshly beautiful, making LA look simultaneously just like it is, and like we’ve never seen it before: the one and only Jimmy Muro. Failure Drill was the best looking SouthLAnd episode of all three seasons. Muro, usually the director of photography on the show, directed this one, proving himself (not that it needed proving) to be the grand master of the show’s aesthetic.

He lit and shot the shit out of the show this week. Using hypnotic lens flare, brutal oversaturation, and great visual textures (from the golden light of the Hollywood day to the deep blue of dusk in downtown LA), Muro elevated the show to new visual heights, relentlessly pursuing a futuristic aesthetic that enhanced the emotional bullet-like precision of the show. As Lydia prowled the levels of the factory towards the end of the show, searching for the shooter who had massacred many of the workers, Muro lit the scenes like the end of Blade Runner, bringing a haunting art deco depth and future-retro timelessness to the atmosphere. He followed this up by lighting the final scene with Ben and Cooper like it was shot in an alien city many years from now, all shining blue-white flare and futuristic light. It was mesmerizing, compelling and remarkable.

Failure Drill was the perfect set up for the season finale, Graduation Day. As the fans await news of renewal (and maybe a blu-ray box set), we have the prospect of an awesome finale to look forward to. This is the show that keeps surviving, because it’s just so damn good.