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Fox goes futuristic with sleek ‘Almost Human’

Updated: 2013-11-16T05:25:41Z

By SARA SMITH

The Kansas City Star

In 2048, with the crime rate up 400 percent and police outmatched by deadly gangs and syndicates, LAPD detective John Kennex gets a new partner by pushing his first one into freeway traffic.

To be honest, the guy was a know-it-all tattletale. As an MX-43 model combat-ready android, he was programmed to ask, “Do you really need another latte today?” while auditing everyone’s tax returns. It’s hard to bond with a walking Breathalyzer test.

“Almost Human,” Fox’s engaging new sci-fi drama, thankfully doesn’t revolve around the adventures of an MX-43, though lots of the logic-worshipping units skulk around like petulant Imperial Stormtroopers. The show is about the pairing of Kennex, whose damaged psyche is rejecting his transplanted robotic leg, and Dorian, the discontinued-model android he zaps back into animation.

With “Fringe” showrunner J.H. Wyman as its creator (not to mention J.J. Abrams as executive producer), “Almost Human” can’t escape endless pop-culture comparisons. But while its premise isn’t new — anyone remember “Total Recall 2070” or “Mann and Machine”? — the show’s ambition, solid cast and pure production values make it a worthwhile diversion.

The first time the two stroll into the “Almost Human” precinct as partners, the squad’s requisite skeptic, Detective Paul (Michael Irby), sneers, “Perfect. Two models from the scrap heap. This is going to be more pathetic than I thought.”

But Kennex, unpopular after a high-body-count screwup, has a valuable ally in his supervisor, Capt. Maldonado. Lili Taylor, excellent as usual, plays Maldonado as rough-edged but self-assured, even when dealing with the pilot’s sometimes-clunky exposition.

As Kennex, Karl Urban (Bones in the “Star Trek” reboot) navigates a well-worn path — haunted, haggard cop bent on vengeance — mostly by furrowing his forehead. Michael Ealy (“The Good Wife”) actually emotes more as Dorian, whose face lights up with green circuitry when he’s “thinking.”

The first hour’s mystery zips along through an action-packed future of cool vehicles, lasers and gadgets that are visually convincing without being too distracting. Spoiler: In the next 35 years, humans make technological leaps in the field of killing one another.

Dorian establishes himself as the superior investigator almost immediately during the search for a kidnapped fellow cop. The art of kidnapping, by the way, has been aided by guns that shoot sticky traps of self-sealing latex, which have probably revolutionized the fetish trade as well.

In addition to his X-ray vision, Dorian also came with intuition, free will and feelings installed. He doesn’t appreciate being called a “synthetic,” but he also doesn’t snitch on Kennex for roughing up a suspect. It’s no wonder policymakers discontinued his program.

But once Dorian and Kennex establish a shaky alliance behind 2048’s Thin Blue Line, they offer all the best combined crime-fighting elements of robots and homo sapiens. If it doesn’t fall victim to the lackluster leads and threat-of-the-week plots that are currently bogging down ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” “Almost Human” probably won’t be discontinued any time soon.

Map the ‘Almost Human’ genome

The adventures of mostly robot Dorian (Michael Ealy, left) and mostly human Kennex (Karl Urban) might feel familiar if you’ve seen …

ROBOCOP

The humanity inside Murphy fights to reject his robotic elements, just like Kennex with his new leg.

TERMINATOR

We see through Dorian’s eyes as he tracks humans and accesses scary databases, just like a Terminator.

TOTAL RECALL

Kennex, like Quaid, is strapped down during grueling memory recovery sessions.

ALIENS

Past traumas make Kennex wary of all androids, just like Ripley when she meets Bishop.

I, ROBOT

Just like Spooner, Kennex gets a robotic prosthesis after a tragedy in which a robot let another human die.

STAR TREK

Like Data, Dorian must resolve his confusing emotions with his logic circuits.

To reach Sara Smith, send email to ssmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC

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