Hollywood Midas J.J. Abrams’s body of work has made him an invaluable asset in giving mainstream entertainment an edge. Moving from romantic dramas like Felicity and What About Brian to thrillers such as Lost and Fringe, Abrams has been the industry bridge between gun-shy network executives and increasingly savvy audiences. And in joining forces with fellow Fringe producer J.H. Wyman, Abrams aims strike gold once more with Fox’s Almost Human. But the new series, premiering tonight, calls into question the limitations of groundbreaking entertainment when hamstrung by unavoidable racial politics.
Almost Human begins with a fairly standard narrative: a gritty veteran cop (Karl Urban, Dredd) returns to duty to find that his new partner is a lifelike machine (Michael Ealy, Think Like A Man). Movies like Alien Nation, 48 Hours, and In The Heat Of The Night have all employed the strained interracial cop team dynamic with success, but it is the title of this new Wyman/Abrams project that causes a stir in terms of the show’s implications.
What should trouble audiences about Almost Human before it even airs is that, for centuries, black Americans were legally classified as almost human, 3/5 to be exact. And developing a human-like being for work in 2048 eerily parallels the breeding of a race of people to work during the colonial period. So discerning audiences, who are familiar with Wyman’s and Abrams’s earlier projects, may wonder whether they seek to turn a historical crime on its head in a futuristic environment or if they neglected to realize the painful baggage with which such a title comes. The failed but daring series Undercovers, an Abrams creation wherein black actors played spies in the lead roles, suggests that Abrams has little concern for choosing the cautious (read white) route to good TV. Still, the undeniable insensitivity that the show’s title demonstrates can only either reflect the popular illusion of post-racial America or reinforce the real American racial paradigm with impunity.
Understanding the trap that white liberals can fall into—identifying as ‘not a racist’ and therefore ignoring its potential within—and knowing that network television has failed to take race seriously for decades means that Almost Human will be approached by conscious audiences with suspicion if at all. But for the sake good science fiction, the hope is that Abrams and Wyman are pulling one over on FOX to deliver a visually stunning product (I’m not talking about Urban and Ealy, ladies, sheesh) while also depicting how cultural conflicts persist despite exponential advances in technology. Such a feat would welcome a diverse audience that would not be let down by the show’s marketing campaign, which touts more superlatives about originality than a show called Almost Human should.
Alas, the best way to find out what Abrams and Wyman have in store is to watch, and maybe the premiere will dispel all concerns. If not, the ‘Black Internet’ might erupt faster than if a remake of The Toy got announced (probably shouldn’t have planted that seed; I really hope no one in Hollywood reads this).