The new Fox series Almost Human, from creator J.H. Wyman (Fringe) and executive producer J.J. Abrams, is a high-tech, high-stakes action drama set 35 years in the future, when police officers are partnered with highly evolved human-like androids. An unlikely and intriguing partnership is forged when part-machine cop, John Kennex (Karl Urban), is forced to pair with the part-human android, Dorian (Michael Ealy), to investigate what is clearly a deep cover-up. The show also stars Lili Taylor, Minka Kelly, Mackenzie Crook and Michael Irby.
During this recent interview to promote the show’s two-night premiere, on November 17th and 18th, executive producers J.J. Abrams and J.H. Wyman talked about what makes their working relationship so successful, why the ending of the pilot changed, why this idea was best suited for a TV show, the ongoing themes being explored, how the casting process has affected character development, what will be propelling the story forward each week, robot ethics, what sets Almost Human apart from anything that Bad Robot has ever produced, and the influence of Blade Runner. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
J.H. WYMAN: Basically, a lot of people don’t realize that the pilot is supposed to be a sales tool for us to express to our partners how great and exciting the show could be. It’s our job to put everything we can in this incredibly tight 43 minutes, to make it a very compelling ride. We had talked a lot about the stories and the mythologies that are going to go on. We felt that the ending in the first version really sparked a lot of interest in people who watch it because they realize that there is a lot of cool mythology that could be told in this show with the stories we could tell. Once we got picked up, everybody agreed that this was something we want to move forward on, and then we said, “What’s the best way to tell that story and get things out? Is that the right direction? How are we going to use elements of what we’ve shown, and how are we going to get the most out of those?” Then, things just changed as we realized, “Okay, now we’ve got some time. Let’s tell the story properly.”
With several really fast-paced shows on the air right, like Person of Interest, Revolution and now Almost Human, how do you keep things straight? Do ideas for one ever bleed into another?
J.J. ABRAMS: I think that the lucky situation for Bad Robot has been working with really wonderful people who are great showrunners and storytellers. With Joel, whom we worked with on Fringe for five years, when he pitched me the idea for Almost Human, I felt like that little kid that I used to be, watching Six Million Dollar Man. I was all excited about the idea of what the show could be. When Eric Kripke pitched Revolution, I thought, “That would be a really amazing, epic story to tell.” It was very ambitious. When Jonah pitched Person of Interest, we were having a meeting about a feature. He said, “I have this idea for a TV show,” and he pitched Person of Interest. It’s like having friends who are great storytellers, running these shows. While we read the scripts and we give notes and we look at edits, it’s not like any one of us is running any or all of these shows. They’re all separate endeavors by people who are incredibly talented, that we feel very lucky to be working with.
ABRAMS: I think it’s the fun of working with someone who loves the what if, and is able to imagine situations and characters that make you laugh as much as they makes you squirm because the ideas are so close to what’s possible. On Fringe, as crazy as things were, and it got pretty crazy, there were so often things that felt like, “God, that seems like something that might be happening right now.” It’s always been fun working with Joel and Almost Human is no different.
When this idea came about, did you immediately see it as a TV show, or was there discussion that maybe it should be a movie?
WYMAN: We had done Fringe. It was on Fox. We had great partners there. It was just that the idea itself inherently seemed like it was a really big, fun, exciting idea that was a very popcorn idea. Fringe had certain elements of it that were much more serious and contemplative. We thought it’d be really, really fun to have something that was really big and bombastic. I think the network model right now really promotes ideas that are big and more popcorn-y. We were in a great position. Luckily and fortunately after Fringe, with our partners at Warner Brothers and Fox, we decided to continue the relationship. For us, it was no-brainer to keep the show exactly where we were.
Since Kennex isn’t actually completely human, does he grapple with the fact that he is what he doesn’t like?
WYMAN: Yes. That’s a very large part of his character because, at the root of it, he’s a little bit worried about the advancement of technology and where that’s led humanity, and what the world looks like with this onslaught of new developments and unchecked growth. While he appreciates technology, and such things as the new bulletproof vests or better weapons for the police, he still has a problem with the line between humanity and robotics, or synthetics. He looks at that and is forced to deal with the idea that his well-being now depends on this technology that he sometimes holds with a sense of contempt. That’s the journey for him. He’s starting to realize that it’s not the technology that’s bad. It’s how you use it.
What do you see as the key to Michael Ealy’s performance?
ABRAMS: I do think that what Michael Ealy brings to this role is an incredible sense of thoughtfulness and compassion. He is playing a character who is, by design, as brave and as knowledgeable and as strategic as you would want your partner to be, if you were riding along as a cop. But, he’s also as altruistic and as considerate and as empathetic as you would want. I think what Michael brings is that depth and humanity. The title Almost Human, of course, applies to both Karl and Michael’s characters. The idea when Joel pitched it was always that Dorian, this synthetic cop, was in many ways more human than his partner.
WYMAN: Originally, we conceived the character as a man. I think it was our casting director that said, “What about Lili Taylor?” We are huge fans of hers, and once we started talking about that concept, we realized that the character of Maldonado would actually be far superior if it was a woman. The character started to take on all these incredible aspects that really weren’t there, in a male version of her. We just embraced the idea, and we’re so fortunate to get her because we just all really adore her. That’s how that came about. It wasn’t originally designed as a female, but we went down that road when it was presented, and we loved it.
What has this cast brought to the characters that has led you to tweak what the show is, as you’ve been writing it?
WYMAN: You always start with something, and then based on your casting, at least for me and my experiences, it always transcends it and makes it better. You can learn what you were trying that wasn’t working, or all of a sudden, you’re surprised by something that works incredibly well, that you didn’t anticipate. It’s no different from this show. In the casting process, it was so interesting because, when we were finding these guys, each one of them had something that was just so perfect for the character. We knew that, fundamentally, they were right for the roles, but just who they are, and what they bring to it, and what they’ve examined, having these roles as actors, and what they dug into, has just made the show that much more rich, and provided us with a lot of opportunities and avenues that we didn’t even dream of. We’re always influenced by the people that are bringing the characters to the program.
Aside from the relationship between Kennex and Dorian, what other major plotlines will propel the story forward each week?
WYMAN: The difference between Almost Human and Fringe is that Fringe had a mythology, every week, that was the main thrust of it. Underneath it all, at least to me, it was a quintessential kidnapping story, and a show about a family that really is trying to hold it all together in a time where holding families together is really hard. People immediately gravitated toward that mythology. These are cops. They’re going to show up at work and they’re going to have a case. That case is going to be really compelling and really fun, and it’s going to take them on a journey. Through those cases, we’re going to learn more about our characters, and the relationships are going to diversify and grow. That’s not to say that there is not any mythology. There is definitely going to be some mythology. Inherently, this show is a week-to-week, great action show with cases that you’ve never really seen before, or concepts that you have seen, but that are told in very different ways because of the nature of our program. I’m always interested in hiding certain things and planting some things that will come around later, maybe in different ways than you first thought. What we’re hoping is that you’ll really be engaged by the compelling stories and these great characters, and go forward with them as they understand their place in the world.
WYMAN: That’s a really good question. J.J. had set us up with some very, very brilliant people from MIT, and one of the brilliant people was a woman who studies robot ethics, which is pretty amazing because, when you talk to her, you get the idea that this is definitely coming. These robots are not becoming human, but they’re definitely becoming beings. There’s a moment where you’re thinking, “They’re real. They are thinking beings. What are their rights? Where are those lines drawn?” A lot of those things are examined, in some of our later stories. Those concepts of, “What exactly is a robot? What is an android? What is a being? If it’s able to think and be, then what?” We’re definitely interested in those types of things.
At the beginning of the pilot, Kennex’s human partner was left to die by the robots on the raid because he was too badly injured. Then, Kennex goes in to try to save him, but winds up getting his whole unit killed and himself injured. In your opinion, is it worse to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons?
ABRAMS: I think Joel always does the right thing for the wrong reason. Every situation is unique, but in terms of the opening scene of the pilot, it was meant to demonstrate his approach and how he is a caring enough person that he would try and save his partner. I don’t necessarily think – and this is an argument in the show itself – that because of that, John is responsible for everyone dying. There are certainly a lot of MX synthetic cops around who are dealing with the raid, as well. I do think that it was meant to illuminate his character, as much as anything.
There are so many shows that have fallen under the Bad Robot umbrella. Aside from being set in the future, what do you really feel sets Almost Human apart from anything that Bad Robot has ever produced?
ABRAMS: While we have been involved in a number of different series, none of them were approached from a strategic point of view, meaning that we didn’t really try to figure out how this is unique. We just tried to do it from the inside out, and figure out what makes us care. I think that the specifics of this one are that the story is very different than anything we’ve done before. The type of show in that it is very much a cop procedural show, which is a very familiar show. We’ve seen a million buddy cop shows, and the fun of that was twisting it in a way that Joel came up with, which is having it set in a place, with specific characters that allow for conflict and cases, every week, that don’t feel like everything you’ve seen a million times before. This show has a level of humor that is distinct from what we’ve done, and part of it is just the relationship between Karl and Michael’s characters.
WYMAN: For me, on Fringe, in a lot of the research that I did, I got to experience things, on a week-to-week basis, that definitely influenced the direction of this program and how it was conceived. When you start to get involved in what’s possible, in what technology is out there, how is science dangerously out of control, and what we are up against, as the human race, it just really starts to make your mind expand with all these concepts that you sometimes worry about and sometimes go, “Wow, that’s really wild.” That, for me, was a huge influence. I’ve always loved to talk about what ifs and scenarios of where we’re going. This is a perfect platform for these cautionary tales and what if scenarios.
What kind of influence did Blade Runner have on the look of this show?
WYMAN: In my mind, you can’t touch something in this wheelhouse, or in science fiction, without owing a huge debt to Blade Runner. It’s definitely one of my favorite films. It has so much to look at. It was just so amazing and instructive, as a young person, watching that movie, not just with what’s happening in the scene, but what’s happening ten layers behind the scene, what’s going on in the street behind it, and then what’s going on in the building behind that. That was a real lesson for me. What occurred to me, in watching all of this incredible science fiction, or reading all of these incredible science fiction books, is that humans have really messed up, and now what are they going to do? What we are talking about is something a little bit more hopeful. We will have some hardships, as a human race, and it will be difficult, at times, but ultimately, we will persevere. That’s truly what I believe. I am a hopeful person. I really believe that the world is going to get it right somehow. I wanted to make it a brighter environment where it’s not raining all the time, the atmosphere is not completely ruined, and people still have children and are very excited about their daughter’s seven-year-old birthday party. It’s still going to have a lot of the same stuff that we deal with now. It will have some things that are much better. It will have some things that are more dangerous. But, we’re resilient and we’re going to succeed. That was the difference. As far as setting a world in the future, that was a huge influence on me.
Almost Human premieres on Fox on November 17th.