Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Almost Human, Season 1, Episode 13: Straw Man

Opening scene brings us an extremely over crowded homeless shelter that only has a limited number of “pods” (beds) (it also provides “food” in the form of “supplement pills”). A young woman is sexually harassed by a man but, surprise surprise, a good Samaritan steps in to get him away from her. Seeing her upset he also tells her of another shelter that may have free beds and he offers to go with her. Abbey and Glenn set off and Glenn is in a wheelchair and he talks about doing what he has to to get well when she looks at some marks on his neck. As they travel, Glenn accidentally cuts her with his ring. She gets woozy – and he gets up from his chair and puts her unconscious body in it and from there into a van.

At the police station, Maldonado, John and Rudy have to answer questions from a panel who apparently review the androids every year. They have no problem with the MXs but they have lots of questions about Dorian – which they also ask Dorian. Of course, when it ends John comments on how long it took, quite possibly to make Dorian nervous because he’s cruel like that way. And continues to torment an obviously nervous Dorian in the car before reassuring Dorian that it was all ok. I do like their mutual snark.

They arrive at the crime scene – Abbey’s body dumped near the Wall. They find straw on her body and she’s been sewn up. John recognises this from a 10 year old murder case when a serial killer stuffed his victims with straw; John’s dad was the investigating officer.

At the police station John tries to access his dead dad’s files but they’re locked down since, before he died, he was being investigated for stealing and selling seized robot parts. Naughty man. Maldonado steps in and reviews everything John just told us, adding in that it’s a copy cat and Valerie throwing in her 2 cents that the killer is probably mentally ill.

John and Dorian go to see Costas, the original serial killer and we learn that everyone is genetically scanned as a child and can be put on a “red list” for “psychotic tendencies”. Did I mention that I think this is a dystopian setting? He’s locked up for life but he’s a model prisoner – because in prison they put him on medication.

They speak to Costas who maintains his innocence – before he was on medication he used to have blackouts so he doesn’t remember the crimes; and is sure that he didn’t do them. Apparently John’s dad, Edward, actually believed in his innocence and that he was framed; though there’s no log of him visiting (but one of the people who did visit John recognises as his dad’s alias). But Costas claims Edward was tracking down crooked cops and was worried about trusting anyone – right before he died. Coasts didn’t tell anyone because who would listen to a paranoid schizophrenic?

More proof that Costas is innocent – Valerie has examined the stitching on the old cases and the new and it’s identical. Not similar, identical which suggests extended contact with Costas or, as Valeries says, Costas actually is innocent. John doesn’t reveal what he learned because of that whole “my dad didn’t know who to trust” thing. Dorian isn’t entirely on board the whole playing quiet because of 10 year old mistrust but decides to focus on going through Edward’s case – but John wants to go through them alone.

That leaves Dorian to examine the body with Rudy – seriously, is he a technician, a pathologist or what? Because this police department seems to have millions of dollars for replaceable androids whenever John has a snit, but can only afford one crime tech? Anyway, more angst about the review and Rudy’s ridiculously annoying babble. The end result of which is him advising Dorian to act more like an MX.

John checks his dad’s notes, repeating a whole lot we already know and his dad has circled pictures of the victims’ feet. Of course he hasn’t explained it – what you expect notes to actually be informative? Pffft, everyone knows notes have to be cryptic! It’s a rule! Anyway, Rudy has found something – or not found something anyway. There is nothing under the bodies’ fingernails. Not one tiny atomic particle of dirt – and these victims were homeless people. Rudy’s theory is the body isn’t the victim, she’s a cloned replica of the victim (despite the fact that 3 weeks is too short to create a clone).

Because leaps of logic are par the course on detective programs. Looking at the feet they find the woman is flatfooted. Apparently bioprinters (which seem to be kind of like replicators in star trek but much slower) create organic stuff from ground up –but the older models will make the bottom of whatever you’re making flat as it conforms to the surface that it’s on top of: hence flat feet. Creating a replica means the person is listed as dead rather than missing so everyone stops looking (apparently Drones look for missing people as standard). Which suggests the victims are alive.

Wouldn’t that make the bottom of the foot less “flat footed” and more “completely flat and eerily smooth?” Nah give it a pass because that’s actually a pretty nifty idea for the show

Cut to the latest kidnap victim being copied by the printer.

They explain this to the team with the addition that the old bioprinters were just bad at organs so had to be stuffed and everything has to be repeated because the show writers think their audience are complete fools with the intelligence of a concussed yak. John adds his father’s suspicions about crooked cops.

Another body is found which, when examined, has the same pin prick on the finger. This is connected to the shelters – the nutrient pills given prick the finger of the person taking them to test their blood to pinpoint any particular deficiencies. Maldonado makes a plan, putting visible police in every homeless shelter but 2 where they will have undercover officers (and Detective Richard Paul the arsehole shows a compassionate side, giving money to one of the homeless).

Dorian and John have their usual banter and, more seriously, John tells a story about his father proving how scrupulously honest he was.

Detective Richard notices the guy he gave money to’s sunglasses on the floor – and the van driving away. The chase is on, the man identified as Glen Dunbar, a man who trades illegal tech. They move into the lab, saving the last 3 kidnap victims but also finding a body with odd technology on it.

They split up, Dorian joining the MXs to find a copy of Glen’s body with a bomb in it – and John being attacked by the real Glen. Despite a head wound John keeps going and as he’s being choked he manages to stab Glen – which causes sparks, not bleeding and a distinct lack of dying. So john shoots him several times instead – that works. Removing his shirt, they see Glen is a cyborg, covered in crude looking implants.

Seeing the implants and the printer both came from police evidence, John asks who was in charge of evidence at the time… an officer Silas who was also conveniently killed on duty shortly after John’s father.

At the police station Valerie provides some exposition – Glen was terminally ill, he kidnapped people to test cybernetics on them which he then used to prolong his life. There was a 10 year gap in the killing because the cybernetics that worked now started breaking down so he needed to test a new batch. Maldonado explains that Silas probably killed John’s father and he in turn was killed by Glen. Costas is released – and with proper treatment for his illness.

And Dorian, despite a brief habit of trying to imitate an MX, has been renewed by the review board. Of course everyone gave him a glowing review. Dorian tracks down an embarrassed John to give him a present – a new cybernetic leg! An upgrade! And they have a “yeah we’re really friends” moment as well.

And lo, in the season finale John goes from a man who disliked all androids and loathed all tech including his own cybernetic leg, to a man who speaks glowingly about Dorian and gets a new super leg as a present. CHARACTER ARC!

I’m not quite sure why the murderer felt the need to go to such elaborate schemes to scatter bodies around when the victims were homeless, unlikely to be reported missing and didn’t need to walk about around facial recognition software anyway. In fact, if he hadn’t dumped the bodies with such dramatic alterations they probably would never have been found or investigated.

There were some interesting points on disability this episode. Everyone assumed the killer was insane and when a man with a mental illness presented himself, no-one questioned it. Even if was painfully aware of how little his voice mattered because who listens to a schizophrenic? Even the killer faked wheelchair use as part of the reason his victims felt safe around him – this isn’t a positive stereotype; people feel safe around people in wheelchairs because they assume disabled people are helpless. It was some good commentary.

The episode itself was pretty good, there were shaky moments, but it went well and (since season 2 is apparently in doubt) I think it closed it off with a good investigation, a confirmation of Dorian and John’s relationship and a nice neat way to end it without dramatic cliffhangers.

So the season finale is here, time to have a review. On the plus side, I think the world and technology was well developed (even if it had some deep shaky moments, especially whenever the writers come close to anything resembling the internet or social media) and very believable as a modern world without devoling every episode to “look at the shinies”. While I think the show needs to develop some aspects – like the humanity of the androids and the many places this world edges towards dystopian, as well as the class elements that are pervasive: I think we are seeing hints of that. Should this show get a second season I think we will develop these further – I feel this season was just too timid to develop any of the big issues they raised and promised to deal with in more depth

 After a shaky start, John and Dorian evolved into interesting characters with an excellent rapport. These two really work together and the whole show would be worth watching just for their constant banter. Other characters had potential and I wish they would become more if this season is renewed.

So there’s a lot of good here – but there’s some shakiness. Firstly, not the show creators’ fault, but the episodes aired in the wrong order is so ridiculous I could hardly believe it until I realised the show was aired on Fox. This is especially glaring because the whole concept of the show is John and Dorian evolving from John’s hostility to acceptance and friendship with Dorian – having John go from close friends to utterly hostile then to moderate acceptance completely at random jarred the whole thing. To a lesser extent, the budding relationship between John and Valerie was also somewhat confused. It also just emphasised how completely abandoned the meta plot raised in the pilot was.

There are some issues with inclusion as well. Dorian is, of course, a Black man and we do have a number of POC in several episodes as minor and not so minor characters for that episode (but usually and overwhelmingly minor). The problem is that this leaves the one prominent Black man on the show is the one who isn’t human – and has his humanity constantly questions and I kind of wonder if that’s deliberate? Are we expected to draw parallels? I can kind of guess that Maldonado may be Latina… but I’m honestly basing that entirely on her last name. I think Detective Paul is also Latino - but he's the most minor of the regular cast, existing to be the one we all love to hate.

There are 2 women on this show (beyond the weekly characters who were very often victims). Firstly there’s Maldonado, the boss. Now, I will say that she wasn’t promoted to obscurity – unlike most marginalised bosses. She was there every episode, she was even involved most episodes (especially one particularly dire one), but ultimately a boss is someone who will not be the focus of the show – and she wasn’t. I find it interesting that she has an almost maternal relationship with John which is something of a trope but contrast with most bosses in this police/investigation genre are presented as rules-lawyering-money-grubbing-paper-work-loving obstacles the Rebel Cop Who Believes In Justice Not Rules has to constantly but heads against and work around. Maldonado is not a bad character – she’s actually a pretty good character and would work well in a show that had more front and centre female presence

Except the show has Valerie Stahl. Valerie, with wonderful hints of a rich and complex past, genetically engineered to be superior…. Aaaand she’s the intern. I think she’s allowed out of the office three – and one of those times John goes with her to do the talking and another she actually gets kidnapped because pretty woman and possible love interest simply must be imperiled. The last time was a chrome only club they quite literally couldn’t have sent anyone else to. Ok, maybe there’s some other brief moments, but she’s usually back at base playing office junior. Just… whyyyy? She has so much potential and is so epicly wasted.

And, of course, despite a huge number of characters passed through every week, this future world is apparently post GBLT genocide because there is not one single GBLT character. Not even the teeniest tiniest most pointlessly offensive token. This show doesn’t even bother to be condescending to GBLT people with a one-off stereotypical bit part or am awful GBF for Valerie.

We do have some touching on mental illness and physical disability (beyond this episode) but both kind of fall flat. John is disabled - but the super tech of the future have rendered his missing leg something of a moot point on the show. We have no super tech to justify his recovery from PTSD, but it just disappears after one episode, to briefly reappear once for story reasons before flying away again.

Also, I can’t abide Rudy’s character.