A recent trend in cable dramas has been taking several episodes to build their story. They take their time by unfolding ideas slowly until the plot explodes in the last couple hours of the season. Some showrunners have embraced this ability, especially on Netflix where dramas are meant to be binged in a short time frame. Only some shows are able to pull this off, however, because they have strength behind their themes that to allows them to unfold their story slowly. Shows like “The Americans” use time to build their characters and allow the tension to become palpable. AMC’s “Humans” tries to use this format, and so far it’s been able to pull it off. “Humans” tells a fascinating story, but its slow story rollout will undermine all that work without great payoffs.
“Humans” picks up a few months after the events of the season one finale. Niska (Emily Berrington, “24: Live Another Day”), hiding in Berlin after escaping with a block of code that can make robots sentient, releases the code and struggles to form a relationship with a girl she meets at a club (Bella Dayne, “The Man in the High Castle”). Since she released the code, Leo (Colin Morgan, “The Fall”) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah, “The Veteran”) have been trying to track down the synths that have become sentient in order to protect them while Mia (Gemma Chan, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) starts to work for the owner of an ice cream shop. The Hawkins family tries to move on from Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill, “Mr. Selfridge”) cheating on his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson, “The Kennedys”), with Mia.
“Humans” is interested in dealing with deeper ideas surrounding how robots deserve to be treated, especially as they gain more human traits. In this world, robots are used for slave labor. They take on jobs as cooks, miners, factory workers and maids, among other occupations. They’re being used to fill out roles in the workforce more cheaply. (In fact, Joe is laid off from his managerial job in the premiere, and is replaced by a robot.) When the robots gain consciousness in the premiere, they escape their jobs to try and figure out what else is out there besides the holes they live and work in. Robots aren’t being treated like people, so when they do achieve sentience, there’s a moment when they realize what humans want their role to be. The robots struggle with this much more than the humans do, and it’s one of the driving factors behind Niska’s actions. These fascinating questions are at the core of the show, and inherently make “Humans” worth following.
“Humans” tells its story at a very deliberate pace, which has mixed results for the show as a whole. The premiere spends a lot of time starting to build its plans for season two, with only one major action set piece along the way. It gives us scenes that introduce the themes of the season but don’t really do much else. Season one was similar in its structure. Action scenes were few and far between, but the payoff to everything the show set up earlier in the year was worth the wait. The second season is eight episodes, which is just short enough to be able to get away with a slow buildup and not try my patience.
Still, the ideas behind “Humans” are strong. The show is careful with how it deals with themes involving what a robot’s role should be, and it allows robotic characters to feel like fully realized people. As long as the finale of “Humans” ’s second season pays off as well as the first one did, sitting through all the buildup will be totally worth it.