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Why Humans Is the Scariest Show on TV

It has nothing to do with the robots

Adam Bryant

Pop culture is littered with tales of artificial intelligence that are meant to make audiences fear the rise of the machines and the eventual rule of our robot overlords. And while there is a creepy chilliness to AMC's new robo-drama Humans, the androids are hardly the scariest aspect of the show.

Set in a "parallel present," Humans -- which is a co-production between AMC and the U.K.'s Channel 4, which debuted the show a couple weeks ago -- imagines a world where people live alongside synthetic beings that can clean your house, cook your dinner or even check your blood pressure. And although the show clearly suggests that some of these Synths are more than mindless cans filled with wires and code, the dread stems from just how un-sci-fi this world feels now that our iPhones talk to us and help us organize our life.

"We don't want to show this world as a dystopia or a utopia; we want to show the pros and cons of this world," executive producer Jonathan Brackley tells TVGuide.com. "But we are trying to say something about the nature of technology and our relationship to technology and what it's doing to us in both good ways and bad ways. Yes, we have our heads in our iPhones and don't talk to each other, but at the same time we have a device in our pocket that has the entirety of recorded history available to you at the touch of a button, which is a great thing."

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The show begins with Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) struggling to look after his three children while his lawyer wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is away on a work trip. His solution? Purchasing Anita (Gemma Chan), a beautiful Synth who will do the housework while allowing the Hawkins to be more of a family. The decision is met with the approval of both teenage son Toby (Theo Stevenson) -- mostly thanks to his raging hormones -- and youngest daughter Sophie (Pixie Davies), who is thrilled to have a surrogate mommy read her bedtime stories. More skeptical are eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless), who is blowing off her schoolwork since Synths are securing the jobs of the future and Laura, who is nervous about how this new technology will impact her children's development.

But Laura also has other reasons to be dismissive of Anita's apparent awesomeness. "Laura is someone who is quite emotionally blocked," Parkinson says. "There is something buried deep within her that she hasn't revealed to anyone and it's eating at her. Because she's so busy and her job takes her away, she thinks she's failing in very single aspect of her life. [Anita] is a constant reminder of where she feels she's falling short. When she sees Anita reading a book to her youngest, that's hard even when it's just a nanny. But when it's this perfect, excellent being who's going to read books better and cook gourmet food that no human really can, she can't compete."

Laura's initial reservations become more pronounced as she begins to suspect that Anita is capable of more than doing the laundry. And although she doesn't know it, Laura is right. Anita is one of a group of Synths that were able to act beyond their coding, as we see in a flashback featuring Leo (Colin Morgan), who in the present day is trying to track Anita down and reunite this group. He's being stymied by an investigator named Hobb (Danny Webb), who is trying to prevent the "singularity," when machines are able to think and act on their own.

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But, again, the show isn't necessarily interested in those conflicts. (In fact, Hobb is the closest thing the show has to an antagonistic force, but it's hard to really qualify him as a villain.) "We didn't want to have a true villain or hero," executive producer Sam Vincent says. "We really want the audience to decide that. There will be a lot of surprises and reversals along the way. We always hoped people's sympathies would be spread across all the characters, but it's surprising how many people have said on Twitter, "I love these Synths. I can't wait for them to kill this family!" which has taken us aback a bit."

Perhaps the most moving and illuminating corner of the show involves Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), an engineer who once helped build the Synths and, after the loss of his wife, is now incredibly dependent on Odi (Will Tudor), a son-like Synth that George can't bear to part with even though he's beginning to malfunction. "Odi is a repository for his memories," Vincent says. "He's poured so much of himself into this machine. We have emotional attachments to things that cannot reciprocate that emotional attachment all the time, and they're meaningful and they're useful." Adds Hurt: "He uses Odi to have a connection with his wife, so Odi is now the place where he lives with her. Odi has learned something about the nuances of a personality that allow him to serve his purpose. He understands how precious that is and that it's precious because of what it means."

While George offers a hopeful take on Synths, the show also raises interesting questions about how humanity would use such a tool. Most of the Synths are janitors, domestic servants, and in the case of Niska (Emily Berrington), one of many robotic prostitutes in an all-Synth brothel. "These things look like people and act like people but they wouldn't be people," Vincent says. "What would that do to the development of our human empathy and social interaction if we could treat things with no respect at all? And of course, that's what's been going on throughout history to various groups of people and types of people - races, sexualities, what-have-you. We're trying to explore those parallels and say, How would we treat them and what would it say about us?"

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But even as the show asks serious questions about our own humanity, it most importantly makes us question just how much we've benefitted from our reliance on the latest gadgets and apps." We jump into technology. We don't always understand and it becomes an indispensible part of our lives, but we don't really think about the repercussions," Chan says. "We're really changing the way our minds work. I find it so hard now to read a book. Our attention spans and our brains are actually functioning in a different way because of the way we receive information from multiple platforms. We really need to think about that."

And yet, the creators don't necessarily view this as a cautionary tale. "It's often knee-jerk declinism to say, 'Look at us with our heads in our phones,'" Vincent says. "What are we doing? Largely we are communicating with other people. Communication is changing massively and, yes, the way we use technology to conduct our personal lives and emotional lives is of course changing us in ways we don't really understand because it's too new and too current. But some people are saying we're communicating more than ever before. I'm skeptical of the idea that technology is atomizing us because you can just as easily say it's bringing us together."

Humans premieres Sunday at 9/8c on AMC.