There’s something particularly creepy about science fiction set in the “near future,” a time that’s both entirely recognizable to us and yet twisted or amped up in some disturbing way. Shows such as HBO’s “The Leftovers” and the amazing British series “Black Mirror” provide that kind of interesting bait and switch, bringing us into a very familiar and comfortable world and then adding in a potent dash of shock, a zinger.
“Humans,” AMC’s compelling new drama series, is a near-future story that also nudges the present tense carefully and effectively into the realm of nightmare. Right now, we’re heavily interactive with our high tech, and our machines and devices get to know our patterns, our preferences, our needs. Our autocorrects learn to anticipate what we want to say, and our Facebook and Twitter accounts help determine our social lives. Soon our cars will be self-driving, our metal chauffeurs.
“Humans,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., zeroes in on all that power that we give to our machines and takes it a scary step or two further.
The idea is that we can now buy “synths,” artificial intelligence robots that look exactly like humans, except for their eyes, which have a decidedly inhuman greenish glow. Synths are part of our daily lives; we go to synth stores, buy them, let them sample our DNA with a handshake, provide them with all our data, name them. Soon, our synths adapt into personal assistants, housekeepers, and manual laborers. They’re our slaves in a weird way, even while they aren’t people; and “Humans” doesn’t shy away from that layer of meaning — a meaning author George Saunders explores similarly in his brilliant story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” The show is at its best when it digs into the psychological subtleties of the synth-human relationship, including the notion that, with their precision and regularity, they could render us inferior, helpless, and despairingly unambitious.
The entry point for the series, which is a coproduction by AMC and Britain’s Channel 4 and set in England, is when husband and father of three Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) buys a synth — Anita (Gemma Chan) — while his lawyer wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is away on business. He’s frustrated by Laura’s regular absences and her generally detached nature, and so, even though they once agreed not to buy a synth, he passive-aggressively ignores their pact. When Laura returns and sees Anita cleaning and cooking and reading to her young daughter, so perfect and efficient, she is angry. She feels replaced. And indeed, Anita has made Laura seem less necessary.
It doesn’t help Laura’s peace of mind when she begins to feel that Anita isn’t simply a robot, that she has a sense of free will and is trying to undermine her. And is that Anita in the backyard at night looking up at the moon, despite not having been told to?
Another good storyline revolves around the lonely Dr. George Millican, played with a lovely gentleness by William Hurt. George was an engineer on the early synth prototypes, and he now lives in contented reclusion with a synth named Odi (Will Tudor), a model that looks like a sweet young man and that George calls “son.” The National Health Service wants to take back Odi, who is beginning to falter, and replace him with a more aggressive and updated model named Vera (Rebecca Front), who can monitor George’s health more accurately. But George is attached to Odi, and Odi remembers events in George’s life that his aging memory can’t recall. George dreads change, and he can see that Vera is a bully, programmed to improve George’s diet and lifestyle for a longer life. Not a fan of Big Gulps, she.
Both of these stories are fascinating and engaging on a human level. They don’t broadcast the issues they raise about technology; they let the questions emerge naturally, through the emotions of those people interacting with synths. The concept of man versus machine is nothing new, of course; it’s as old as “Frankenstein.” But “Humans” adds some captivating new facets to it, gives it a fresh intimacy.
The show is a bit less absorbing, at least in the two episodes available for review, in its more action- and conspiracy-oriented plots. A professor, Edwin Hobb (Danny Webb), believes the synths are developing emotions and independent thoughts; and a rebel, Leo (Colin Morgan), is leading a movement to set the synths free. If these plots can remain human-scaled and if writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley can avoid the kind of overly complicated sci-fi intrigue that mars “Orphan Black,” they may flourish across the eight-episode season. Initially, though, they threaten some of the finer, quieter material.
Along with Hurt, Chan is a standout. She brings a slight, but always detectable, sense of menace. Her eyes are green, but there’s another pair of eyes lurking behind them, filled with their own needs and big ideas. Some of the pro-synch characters in “Humans” believe that the presence of synths will free up humans to become the poets we are meant to be. In her performance, Chan embodies all the danger of that naïve theory, as well as the creepy “Twilight Zone” essence of this promising series.
Starring: Tom Goodman-Hill, Katherine Parkinson, William Hurt, Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Rebecca Front,
Time: Sunday, 9 p.m.