[MAJOR, HUGE Spoiler Alert]
I recently binge watched my first TV series, Humans, which airs Sunday nights on AMC. As a science fiction writer myself, many people have been suggesting I check it out for weeks now. Finally I gave in, sat down on the couch, and watched the first six episodes over the course of two days. Not bad for a mother of two. And now, two weeks later, I’ve finished the entire first season.
First and foremost, this is a lovely science fiction TV series. Well written, acted and produced, it was a joy to have something to look forward to on Sunday nights. From the X-Files like opening credits to the way consciousness, both “real” and “artificial” are intertwined, I found myself interested on many various levels.
Humans is the story of a world where robots have become a standard appliance in the household. Called Synths, these robots have all the capacities to cook, clean, harvest food, drive cars, care for children, administer medicine, have sex and basically do everything humans can, except love. They aren’t true artificial intelligence, think Siri inside of a mannequin, but they look so much like real humans, one doesn’t even know the difference during sex!
This choice in itself is very telling—why would we want our servants to look like us? Shouldn’t a machine look like, well a machine? I’ve always imagined my household robot to look like Rosie from the Jetsons, or C3P0, but not Barbie and Ken. The fact that Synths look just like the most beautiful of us, but act like programmed machines without fear or emotions, makes the plot more compelling. Synths aren’t able to lie, or disobey the orders of their primary users. They’re completely complicit in all actions, even in sex. Which leads to all sorts of human abuse, from whorehouses to Smash Clubs, where humans can pay a fee to beat Synths with a baseball bat for fun.
The writers of Humans cover a ton in this opening season. Within the first hour, we’re introduced to four main sets of characters, each with their own relationships to Synths covering a range of emotions—from jealousy to adoration—all for inanimate objects built to serve them.
The Hawkins family is at the center of this drama. Laura Hawkins is an attorney who travels a lot for work. Her husband, Joe, is often left behind caring for the family while trying to balance office employment as well. Their eldest child, Mattie, is a brilliant high school upperclassman who can hack into Synths, and other computer systems, at will. Her idea of fun is hanging out on a Hackers website downloading code to make the Synths at her school steal equipment, or fail at their jobs. Toby, her younger high school aged brother, is your typical adolescent male—awkward and horny, yet kind and earnest in a sweet way. Their last child, Sophie, is in grade school, eight years old at most, and still needs her family to care for her in ways they all seem too busy to handle.
The series starts with Laura’s most recent trip away going longer than intended and Joe not wanting to be the mother while she’s away. So off the Hawkins go, to the local Synth store, to pick up their very own, brand new Synth. This Synth, whom Sophie eventually names Anita, happens to be beautiful, charming and much better at everything it seems, than Laura.
The writers of Humans play with this idea a bit in each of the first five episodes—how inadequate Laura feels to Anita when it comes to homemaking. Even though Laura is excellent at her career, she’s triggered by her children’s love for the Synth (Sophie would rather Anita put her to bed and Toby himself forms a crush on the beautiful robot.) Rather than bring them closer together, Joe’s purchase adds stress and tension to an already overloaded family life. It seems the Synth’s existence puts parenting, and marriage, at risk of becoming redundant.
Another aspect of relationship covered is sexuality. Toby’s crush on a robot displays the innocence of loving something that can’t love you back. Joe eventually falls for Anita as well, using her sexually to make up for the distance that seems to be getting bigger between him and his wife. When Laura eventually discovers that Joe has, “initiated the Adult Sequence,” she’s angry and hurt. He can’t understand why, because after all, Anita’s, “…just a sex toy.” Laura’s response is startling, “She cares for our children, and you call her a sex toy?
It isn’t just the women who are made to feel inadequate by their Synth companions. Detective Pete Drummond finds himself in a similar situation, only the Synth in his house is Simon, given to his wife, Jill, after an accident injured her ability use her legs. The Health Service mandated a Synth in the home until she gets better. Simon thus helps the injured Jill in ways that Peter thinks should be his role. His feelings of inadequacy are succinctly summarized in his line, “I’m an analog man in a digital world. I’m redundant.” Just like Laura, he feels replaced, and his partner has left him for a droid that had been forced into their house by the insurance company.
Which brings us to the last home we’re introduced to, George Millican and his Synth, Odi, one of the first Synths ever made. Odi is a Class D model, which happens to be the series that George himself helped to make. But Odi is getting old, falling apart, and losing his memory. Not unlike an aging man, he is no longer able to care for George, who is an old man himself. Yet George loves him dearly, just like a son. Because George has had a stroke, he’s on a Health Service plan and is required to upgrade his Synth to a newer model, one that will follow his General Practitioner’s orders without question, and force him to take his meds, get to bed on time, and eat only approved food. The irony that his own invention would eventually remove all his personal freedoms is not lost. It’s everyone’s worst nightmare and in some ways is worse than losing your job to automation—losing your right to choose your health care protocol is no small matter.
But Humans isn’t only about Synths and their uses in the home. It’s also about artificial intelligence and true consciousness. For Anita, the Hawking’s Synth, isn’t a brand new model, rather she’s part of a special group of Synths that were given true consciousness by their maker, David Elster, who was the mastermind behind the Synth project. He’d lured George from MIT to work with him, eventually creating the early Class D models. But Elster desired more from his project—he planned to create true consciousness within Synths, and George wanted no part of that. He left the project, but it seems that ten years later, Elster did have his way, and managed to create five perfectly conscious Synths, robots who can think, feel and understand the world they live in.
Anita is one of these, stolen from her owner, Leo Esther, reprogrammed and sold to the Hawkins. Leo, along with one of her “siblings” Max, is trying to get her back. In addition, two of her other “siblings”, Fred and Niska, were also stolen and put back into the Synth world. Both are pretending to be normal Synths, while waiting for Leo to rescue them.
These four special Synths, plus Leo, have been on the run since David Elster, who is also Leo’s father, committed suicide for reasons yet unknown. Humanity in general would fear them if they discovered their true essence. And of course, the government officials want them for various nefarious reasons, and often it seems there is nowhere for them to be safe.
And then there’s Karen Voss—a truly conscious Synth who’s been undercover as a Human detective working alongside Pete Drummond for some time. Why isn’t she with Leo and the others? Her maker is one and the same, but through rejection and the insanity of Elster, she lives alone for most of her life trying to find a way to fit into the human world without blowing her cover. She’s lonely and fears her own kind. How Drummond, who hates Synths, comes to still trust and care for her even after he knows the truth is a glance at what it will take in the future for us to overcome the technological xenophobia that surely must be on the horizon.
All three households, as well as Leo’s gang of perfect Synths, come together while trying to avoid being caught by the government, who wants to own them. Along the way their activities address the deepest issues of our humanity. It would take another thousand words to address all of them, but I’d like to end with a few quotes that I think hit on some of the key themes of the series.
First, when confronted with killing a man after spending days being abused in a whorehouse, Niska, the beautiful, fully conscious blonde replies, “You act as though life cannot be manufactured.”
Second, when the Mattie asks Max, “What’s it like to be you?” he responds with a smile, “Fearful. Intense. Like my emotions are too big. What’s it like to be an adolescent girl?”
She looks at him, shrugs and replies, “The same.”
I highly recommend the Humans. If you haven’t watched it, sorry for the spoilers. The good news is, there are only eight episodes in the first season, so you can catch up very quickly before the fall. Enjoy!