Humans will take you down a heavily traveled science fiction trail, but this may be one of those times you should take the hike.
The new AMC Sunday night series, which premiered June 28, takes a high-quality look at the troubled relationship between Humankind and its mechanical offspring. Are our creations destined to become our overlords?
The creations in question here are Synthetics, abbreviated as Synths by the humans who use them. Their appearance comes very close to real human beings. Synths are just close enough to qualify for the Uncanny Valley, a social scientific construct which holds that imitations looking almost but not quite human tend to creep real humans out.
The Synths are more than a little creepy. Their eyes are unnaturally bright, almost as if they are lit from within, as one might expect with a robot. Their facial expressions are limited. Think post-plastic surgery Kenny Rogers. The Synths can smile, but even that’s a little on the creepy side.
The Synths in this near-future society are programmed to do menial jobs — agricultural, sanitary, home care-giving. They are ready to perform repetitious, degrading, even dangerous tasks without supervision, breaks or benefits. All they really need is nightly recharging and maybe a little maintenance. In short, they are every employer’s dream employee.
The series focuses on a different kind of Synth — one who has become conscious, self-aware. These Synths are perceived as a threatening step up from Humanity. They have no need for human guidance. They are capable of replication and self-improvement. They represent the dark side of the Singularity, the merger of human and machine — the side that leads to a Skynet-type domination of machines over humans.
The main storyline of the premiere is the Hawkins family, who purchase one of these threatening Synths (Gemma Chan) as a housekeeper. Named Anita by her new family, she seems to be working out nicely, restoring order to a household headed by exasperated dad, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill). Joe is trying to cope with three children in the absence of a working wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), who is away from home for extended stretches.
Anita hides her true nature well, following instructions, literally laughing uncontrollably at one of Joe’s jokes, but only after it had been identified as a joke. Laura senses that Anita is not quite the stupid machine she pretends to be, as she seems to have an unsynthlike fascination with the moon and strong maternal instincts toward the youngest Hawkins child, Sophie (Pixie Davies).
The family is sharply divided on the issue of Anita. Joe has given several indications that he sees Anita as having considerably more sex appeal than a new vacuum cleaner. Laura, who had previously gone on record as being against having a Synth in the home, feels she has been replaced as a wife.
Their son, Toby (Theo Stevenson), is as pro-Anita as any pubescent boy who suddenly finds himself himself sharing a home with a Playboy centerfold can be. High school aged daughter, Matilda (Lucy Carless), who sees a future in which a Synth can programmed in seconds to do what she would need years to learn, sees Anita as a slave and treats her accordingly. Anita is Sophie’s new best friend.
Anita’s backstory provides the main secondary narrative of the series opener. Five weeks before being acquired by the Hawkins family, Anita was known as Mia. She and three other self-aware Synths were being led through a forest by Leo (Colin Morgan), who appears to be human and also Mia’s boyfriend.
They are escaping from their owners, destination unknown. In pursuit is a man later identified as Hobb (Danny Webb). Hobb is dedicated to finding and, I’m guessing, eliminating the conscious Synths.
Three of the fleeing Synths, including Mia, are captured and hauled away by Junkers, who specialize in stealing, reprogramming and selling Synths on the black market. Leo has spent the weeks since attempting to find his missing companions. The Synth store that sold Anita to the Hawkins family as a new model has all the scruples of today’s car dealerships.
The third storyline introduced in the premiere is that of Dr. George Millican (William Hurt) and his caregiving Synth, Odi. Millican has memory issues, presumably an early Alzheimer’s symptom. Social services placed Odi, an “original Series D” model, in his home to assist him. During the six years that have since passed, their roles have reversed, with the failing Synth being assisted by Millican. He sees him as a son and tends to his needs, including frequently wiping the blue fluid (CPU coolant?) leaking from his nose.
Millican’s caseworker wants to replace Odi with an advanced “Nurse Ratchet” model (who bears a scary resemblance to the imposing dungeon matron on Game of Thrones). She wants to evaluate Odi to get him out of the home. Millican has taken to hiding Odi when the caseworker comes to his door.
The series premiere covers a lot of ground in a short time. It establishes the complexity of the world presented and weaves multiple storylines into an inviting plot. Who would not want to see where it leads?
On top of all that — humanoid robots! Yeah!