Last year, HBO debuted Westworld to a lot of fanfare and critical acclaim. A passionate fandom quickly developed, obsessively dissecting episodes, theorizing about future twists and postulating on what it truly means to be human. But as enjoyable as Westworld's first season was, it failed to live up the high standard of prestige TV that it so obviously aspired to.
That's not to say Westworld's first season was bad or that it won't ever be great television. In fact, after the game-changing end of the first season, it appears poised to return far stronger than before. But instead of waiting around until 2018 and hoping Westworld will finally live up to its full potential, there's another sci-fi show that deals with the exact same themes as Westworld that you could being watching right now!
A joint production between AMC and England's Channel 4, Humans quietly premiered in 2015 and is returning this month for a second season. Set in the near-future London, Humans imagines a world where lifelike humanoid cyborgs, or snyths, have become commonplace, eliminating the need for people to perform almost any task themselves, whether that be manual labor, neurosurgery or even reading your child a bedtime story.
But when Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) notices her family's new synth (Gemma Chan) acting oddly, she's stunned to discover their new household appliance is sentient. The show's eight-episode first season (available to stream on Amazon) focuses mainly on the Hawkins family's evolving' relationship with this synth, Mia, as they work to save her and her family -- Leo (Colin Morgan), Max (Ivanno Jeremiah), Niska (Emily Berrington) and Fred (Sope Dirisu) -- from clandestine agencies that hope to study and destroy them.
Although it lacks the budget or star power of Westworld, this actually works to Humans' advantage, helping the show to feel relatable where Westworld felt slick and distant. Rather than grand, philosophical monologues about civilization and enlightenment, Humans prefers to show instead of tell the audience about what it means when the line between synthetic and organic becomes blurred beyond recognition. Once the Hawkins family unlocks Mia's true self, they're forced to reevaluate synths' position in society and reconcile they're own previous actions from this new perspective: Is it cheating if it's with a synth? Is it rape if the synth can't say no, or if you didn't know it could think? What rights does possessing consciousness earn, and where do you draw the line?
Mia and her family have their own struggles as they must determine what they want their relationship with human society to be and how they can best achieve that dream. Some strive to become as close to human as possible -- wanting to blend in or even have families of their own -- while others seek to empower their kind, embracing what makes synths different and stepping out from under humanity's shadow. Of course, not every conscious synth falls into one of those two distinct categories, and Humans often achieves it's best work when it's challenging the contradictory feelings of those who land somewhere in between.
But surprisingly, one of Humans most powerful storylines actually has nothing to do with a self-aware synth at all. One of the scientists behind pioneering synth technology years ago, Dr. George Millican (William Hurt) has since retreated from the world to live alone with his antiquated, and often malfunctioning, synth Odi (Will Tudor). Although Odi is technically nothing more than a mechanical caretaker with no thoughts or feelings of his own, Dr. Millican feels a powerful paternal love for him, caring for Odi like a son, and at times even putting his own life in danger to protect him.
The way Millican clings to Odi -- who persistently attempts to take care of Millican despite his own worsening state -- is at times so emotionally wrought, it's hard to watch. But it's equally easy to forget that Odi isn't capable of reciprocating Millican's feelings -- at least not in any way society currently recognizes. And yet Millican's love for Odi is treated as real and important as Laura's love for her biological children, begging the question: If humans can love machines that are incapable of loving them back, why is it such a stretch to accept the facts that some machines might be capable of love themselves?
This is not a simple question, but Humans addresses it simply. There are no gimmicks or shocking reveals meant to jolt the audience or titillate. And while there are mystery and thriller elements woven throughout, at its core Humans is a character drama that makes overwhelming questions like, "What is it that makes us human?" easily digestible while simultaneously challenging what we think relationships, love, family and happiness should look like.
In its second season, which premieres Monday, Feb. 13, Humans begins to expand on these notions, exploring the ramifications synths, conscious or not, have had on the wider world. Although the original intent behind synths was to help humans act less like machines, it's shown to have had the opposite effect -- particularly on the moldable young minds who've never known a world without them. In upcoming episodes, it's revealed that many young children and teens have developed a disorder where they believe they're synths, choosing to seek refuge in the safety of their emotionless companions rather than face the pain that often comes with being human. It's an interesting wrinkle that feels bleakly plausible, particularly given the already high state of panic that surrounds kids' interactions with technology.
This is once instance in which Humans vastly surpasses its HBO counterpart. Whereas all of Westworld so far was confined to the boundaries of the amusement park, thus restraining the ramifications of its characters' actions to a small and contained bubble, Humans excels at taking the stories of these individual characters and making them feel universal and, in some ways, inevitable.
Humans will never get the same acclaim or viewership as Westworld, and that's OK. But there's no reason for this to become an either/or situation. Each drama tackles the same things from entirely different angles and to varying degrees of success. But if you found yourself unsatisfied with Westworld or merely can't wait two years for another dose of good sci-fi, cyborg drama, Humans is here and just waiting for you to press play.
Humans eight-episode first season is available to stream now on Amazon Prime. Season 2 premieres Monday at 10/9c on AMC.