diabola in musica

because perfection isn't easy

I’ve started to watch this show Almost Human and it’s kinda awesome, but it’s science fiction and already 15 minutes in there is unexplained new technology and I foresee so much yelling at the screen because I just can’t deal with wrongness. There’s DNA computing so DNA can be considered a programming language and then there’s programming DNA to build new structures so DNA can also be considered engineering material. But DNA is both. For proof, take a selfie, post it #nofilter on Instagram, tag it #selfmodulatingmolecularinformationrepresent, and welcome yourself to the club of All Lifeforms On Earth.

So saying “programmable DNA” is redundant in the same way that saying “period of time” is redundant, and maybe 35 years in the fictional future, this will be a thing. But it feels misleading because it implies that there is DNA that is not programmable. Yeah, no. But you can say “programmed DNA” because that’s what genes are. You can also say that in this future fiction “programmable DNA” is an industry term. At least then it’s not bad science communication. Then it’s just science fiction. As it was meant to be in the first place.

Almost Human: Plenty Of Potential

I’ve started on Fox’s new neo-noir cyberpunk police procedural Almost Human, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. (But then I didn’t start with high expectations. But then I generally don’t start with any.) J. H. Wyman may have been showrunner for Fringe, but Almost Human lacks its subtlety and atmosphere. The opening title cards and voiceover narration are ridiculously heavy-handed, seeming to belong to a second-rate production or one from an earlier time, and the setting is far too shiny, too sparkly, too sunny without any trace of self-awareness to be truly noir. Kevin McFarland at the A.V. Club dubs the show Blade Runner: The Procedural. I laugh in agreement because it’s clear that Almost Human is attempting to funnel the philosophy of tech-noir into the tone and execution of the procedural (except for the opening credits, which will eventually drive me up the wall because of the inconsistent visual language).

Even with those criticisms, Almost Human does very well centering the show around the relationship between its two protagonists, human Detective John Kennex and his android partner Dorian. The two men have good on-screen chemistry. Karl Urban, who plays Kennex, is a battle-weary but still genuinely warm cop, and Michael Ealy, who plays Dorian, is the talented and good-natured rookie. However, added to that classic cop buddy dynamic is the inherent class difference between being human and not quite human. Many times in the pilot episode Kennex calls Dorian “synthetic”. Dorian is not a “real” human being, even though he may look and act like one. It may also be an accident that Dorian is black while Kennex is white, but regardless of intention, one can’t ignore the implications behind the casting. As the show progresses, the relationship between Kennex and Dorian quickly falls comfortably into a partnership, so the message is not that Dorian and others like him are inferior, but there is great potential for Almost Human to explore the perception and embodiment of humanness through how the characters interact with each other.

McFarland has similar thoughts:

And again, however overtly it came across, there’s an element of race at play in the interaction between androids and humans. Kennex keeps asking Vanessa [a black android] the wrong questions during an interrogation. He can’t get on the right mental wavelength to ask the right questions. As a fellow robot, and the black lead talking to the only black supporting character in the episode, Dorian knows what to say. I don’t think there’s some grand statement being made in these interactions, but there’s a pattern at play relating racial interaction in real life to how humans (or secret robots) interact with almost humans—Dorian’s robot with a soul, or the sex bots with human DNA in their skin—in the world of Almost Human. That is subtext I find most encouraging—that this show could have something complex to say.

Likewise, I am very interested in what this show could say about class or racial relations. (Already in the second episode, there is a strong statement about misogyny and sexual objectification: Even given safe and hyperrealistic alternatives to human women, men would still literally strip from women their bodies and turn them into sex toys.) I feel comfortable watching a show that is aware of societal power structures and the importance of on-screen personal relationships. I would even grit my teeth through the opening credits and elementary existentialist musings. Now if they would only strengthen the two female leads beyond romantic interest and boss, Almost Human could be a very good show.

Postscript - The amount of Blade Runner references is absolutely ridiculous. Blade Runner is set 37 years into the future of 2019; Almost Human is set 35 years ahead in 2048. In the second episode, Sebastian Jones, a man who creates sex androids, is found dead; in Blade Runner, J.F. Sebastian is geneticist who creates his own companions. Also in the second episode is a hotel called the Deckard Gardens Hotel, obviously named after Blade Runner protagonist Rick Deckard. I may have to grit my teeth about the heavy-handed homages, too.

In the season finale of Elementary, Joan Watson solves a puzzle that Sherlock Holmes could not. Joan Watson solves the puzzle of Irene Alder: The Woman.

The show immediately but very subtly pits Watson and Adler against each other in the two episode titles, “The Woman” and “Heroine”. Those familiar with Sherlock lore can easily guess The Woman but the heroine’s identity is shrouded, until these last few minutes when we all realize that the episode’s eponym is Watson. A woman of color sees what a white man does not and resolves the problem of the season.

Watson and Adler are pitted against each other in other ways as well. This is most obvious when the two women are sitting, literally one across the table from the other, for a tense conversation at the Four Seasons. Adler is unable to decipher the nature of Watson’s relationship with Holmes and can only conclude that Watson is a “mascot”, a very loaded term from a Brit to a POC. Later, as the action unfolds, the audience learns that Adler is primarily a woman of the mind. Watson, in contrast, is also a sharp thinker, but she is primarily a woman of the heart. Adler has her passions but they are distorted by her need to analyze and control. Though Watson shows deductive strength, she is driven by her instinct to nurture and heal. Holmes, placed in between these two women, is not facing the shallow narrative of a love triangle. No, he is not choosing between two romances. Instead, he is choosing between two different worlds: British vs. American, mind vs. heart, isolation vs. friendship, abuse vs. respect, addiction vs. sobriety, past vs. future. For all, Holmes chooses the latter when he chooses to listen to Watson’s insight on Adler. He chooses to continue forward, and this is why we cheer.

Elementary does a wonderful job reinventing the Sherlock Holmes mythos. Adler is The Woman, not only because of the stellar impression she made upon Holmes but also because she is the Napoleon of Crime. Having Adler also be Moriarty adds dimension to the two’s obsessions with each other. Adler is not only Holmes’ match to wit; she is also his dark mirror. Watson, on the other hand, has always been the heart of the stories. It is through the doctor’s eyes that we experience the detective’s adventures. That the glue of the Holmes-Watson duo is a woman of color, that the humane insightful everyperson is an Asian-American woman, changes how we understand women of color and Asian-Americans. It is absolutely amazing. Transforming the mythology of a fictional world is also transforming the perception of ours.

In the very first episode, when Holmes and Watson were discussing changes after he crashed her car, Watson laid out her expectations, that he will tell her what happened in London. When he refused, she smiled. Now I know it was a woman, she said.

This fucking show, man.

In this episode of Elementary, Watson calls out Gregson for sexist motives when he expresses concern about her safety.

This show, man.

Elementary's primary plots are never the weekly mysteries. Instead, the narrative arc is centered around Sherlock finding peace with his demons and how that is inextricably tied to his relationship with Watson. Heroin may have made Sherlock a better detective but it didn't give him a better life after Irene's death. After many weeks sober, he knows that he can still be good at what he loves and that life can be good with Watson's friendship. When Sherlock refuses heroin, he is refusing his old life. He may always be tempted, but he is no longer a broken man.

That is a very powerful message, for the character and also for cultural archetypes of addiction, trauma, and recovery. You may be broken, have gone to hell and crawled back upon your belly, suffered through profoundly life-changing trauma, but you can still heal. You can still learn and grow and find happiness. Some days will be challenging. Some people will never fully recover. But we can find pieces of our selves that we thought we lost and still fulfill our passions. We don’t need to be broken to be brilliant.

I’m pleased that the Elementary is honest about Sherlock’s struggle with recovery, but I’m delighted that the show chose to have him want a life free from heroin. He wants to heal from that injury. He wants to keep living because he has something to live for.

Granted, it’s revenge, and though I’m interested to see where that goes, I hope that Sherlock will find a more positive life goal. Still, he went to a very dark place and came back and now he wants to stay. We need more of those stories, of people breaking and then choosing to heal themselves.

I need more of those stories.

But maybe I just need to live my own.

I also noticed how Elementary uncomfortably plays to mainstream sex tropes, especially in regards to sex work. In “The Long Fuse”, the high-end escort is the cunning murderer. “You Do It To Yourself” shows Sherlock having boyish fun with a pair of beautiful twin ladies, and Watson uncomfortably draws boundaries as he overshares. Also in the same episode, Sherlock accuses a woman of murder, ignoring her distress from years of sex slavery. Last Sunday, “The Deductionist” opened with a provocative scene condemning sex workers who steal from their clients. Moments later, Watson makes a disparaging remark about strippers. Then, finally, we get to the scene above where Watson reveals her feelings about having pornography filmed in her home.

It’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable with unfamiliar activities in your private space, but it’s unclear from the narrative whether Watson is uncomfortable because it’s an invasion of privacy or sex or a mix of both. A character can keep very private boundaries around sex, but when a show consistently uses shallow sex tropes, it’s hard to read Elementary as anything other than sex-negative.

I noticed in Elementary that Joan Watson doesn’t take off her shoes when she enters her home. It’s such a small detail and I understand that it’s primetime serial television, but it would have been such a wonderful little wink.