A wrench thrown into the gears

Hu­mankind spars with ma­chines in promis­ing new se­ries ‘ Mr. Ro­bot’ and ‘ Hu­mans.’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARY McNA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

Man rails against ma­chine in two new and very promis­ing techno- para­noia tales.

USA’s “Mr. Ro­bot,” which pre­mieres Wed­nes­day, ex­am­ines the fear of dig­i­tal dom­i­na­tion: Can evil cor­po­ra­tions be bro­ken by the same sys­tems that grant them world dom­i­na­tion? Mean­while, AMC’s “Hu­mans,” which pre­mieres Sun­day, goes straightup robots and of­fers a sur­pris­ingly nu­anced look at the old worry that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will even­tu­ally out­strip hu­man con­scious­ness.

Cre­ated by Sam Es­mail and shot in muted tones that ad­mirably bal­ance de­cay, dulled- sense sur­ren­der and po­ten­tial men­ace, “Mr. Ro­bot” is the more am­bi­tious of the two, if only be­cause it takes on a genre with a very high fail­ure rate: the dig­i­tal con­spir­acy thriller.

The first hour is overly ob­ses­sive- com­pul­sive in plot points — code strings and routers as the new McGuffins — but the ado­les­cent rage of its pro­tag­o­nist gives it emo­tional life.

Non­de­script techie for a cy­ber- se­cu­rity firm by day and vig­i­lante hacker by night, El­liot ( Rami Malek) is

a blank- faced, so­cially chal­lenged über- mil­len­nial.

When he’s not bring­ing down child pornog­ra­phers and other so­cial scum, El­liot rou­tinely in­vades the pri­vacy of those he loves un­der the guise of pro­tect­ing them. “Those he loves” be­ing An­gela ( Por­tia Dou­ble­day), friend/ co- worker/ ob­ject of de­vo­tion, and Krista ( Glo­ria Reuben), El­liot’s ther­a­pist who ap­par­ently has very bad taste in men.

El­liot is see­ing a ther­a­pist be­cause he has suf­fered hal­lu­ci­na­tions in the past. They may still be on­go­ing. Are the men in suits who ap­pear to be fol­low­ing him the re­sult of his hack­ing ad­ven­tures? And who is that home­less guy who looks sus­pi­ciously like Chris­tian Slater?

Well, it is Chris­tian Slater, play­ing the ti­tle role. Mr Ro­bot is a fel­low com­puter ge­nius who says he wants to take down the 1% who con­trol the world.

Although tricked out with the high- func­tion­ing autism so pop­u­lar with tele­vi­sion writ­ers these days, El­liot is more com­plex than the typ­i­cal hero- on- the- spec­trum. He nar­rates the se­ries, and clearly we are sup­posed to sym­pa­thize — he is sad, his dad is dead, he cries alone — but his creepi­ness is also un­de­ni­able, played up both by his ac­tions and by Malek’s ef- fec­tively ro­botic per­for­mance. Dis­cov­er­ing El­liot’s true na­ture and in­ten­tions, one hopes, will be as cen­tral to the ad­ven­ture as the quest to take down the Evil Cor­po­ra­tion.

Where “Mr. Ro­bot” is set in a New York City that hasn’t seemed so dead and grimy since the Ed Koch ad­min­is­tra­tion, “Hu­mans” oc­cu­pies a high- def bright- and- shiny world obliv­i­ous to the prob­lems posed by a ris­ing pop­u­la­tion of syn­thetic hu­mans.

Which we know are go­ing to be prob­lem­atic from the very first, and highly ef­fec­tive, open­ing scene.

So when Joe ( Tom Good­man- Hill), who is be­ing run ragged while his wife, Laura ( Kather­ine Parkin­son), is out of town, buys the fam­ily a Synth, there’s go­ing to be trou­ble. Es­pe­cially since the Synth he gets is Anita ( Gemma Chan).

Anita is, in fact, one of a small group of Synths that have evolved be­yond their pro­gram­ming. Led by Leo ( Colin Mor­gan), they have made at least one at­tempt to es­cape servi­tude and elude po­lice, black mar­ke­teers and es­pe­cially pro­fes­sor Ed­win Hobb ( Danny Webb), who con­sid­ers them akin to the God par­ti­cle.

This main nar­ra­tive of “Hu­mans,” which is based on a Swedish se­ries and writ­ten by Sam Vin­cent and Jonathan Brack­ley, is solid if some­what fa­mil­iar; the truth and beauty of the se­ries lies in the var­i­ous B plots. Those story threads in­clude the sus­pi­cions of Laura and her older daugh­ter, Mat­tie ( Lucy Car­less), who views Synths as agents of her ob­so­les­cence, and the heart­break­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween Dr. Ge­orge Mil­li­can ( Wil­liam Hurt) and his long­time Synth Odi ( Will Tu­dor).

A wi­d­ower in fail­ing health, Mil­li­can is re­quired to have a care- tak­ing Synth. But Odi, with his glitch­ing mem­ory, is con­sid­ered too out­dated and needs to be re­placed. Mil­li­can, an early Synth de­signer, con­sid­ers Odi more a sur­ro­gate son than care­giver.

Hurt’s per­for­mance is the sin­gle best thing about “Hu­mans,” which, con­sid­er­ing the qual­ity of the se­ries, is say­ing some­thing.

In a sin­gle scene, he evokes the rage, con­fu­sion, hope and mo­men­tary sur­ren­der that all big change, in­clud­ing age, in­evitably inspires. In­deed, he and Tu­dor are so good that it’s dif­fi­cult not to wish theirs was the show­case story line.

Watch­ing the odd, ag­ing cou­ple fal­ter to­gether, at­tempt­ing to shore each other up, pro­vides the show’s most pro­found ar­gu­ment re­gard­ing the slen­der gap be­tween or­ganic and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

David Gies­brecht USA Net­work

I N “MR. RO­BOT,” Rami Malek, left, plays a hacker re­cruited by Chris­tian Slater’s shad­owy ti­tle char­ac­ter.

Colin Hut­ton Ku­dos/ AMC/ C4

I N “HU­MANS,” Wil­liam Hurt por­trays a devel­oper of ar­tif icial in­tel­li­gence who be­comes re­liant on it.

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