The second season of BBC’s HUM∀NS is preparing to do a better job with the issue of sentient automation than its first season, and it’s a damned good watch. Only one episode into season 2 (the UK has run the entire second season, but I’m in the US, where it’s just started on AMC) and I can’t wait to see where it goes. Sure, Westworld has robots as playthings in surreal settings… but HUM∀NS is showing us something much more down-home and realistic: Dealing with robots at our side, in our homes and workplaces, in our lives.
HUM∀NS features a world where robots, collectively known as Synths, exist to do our hard and soft labor, to be our cleaners and kinda dim companions, our sexual and violence surrogates. And they’re damned good at it. But when it’s discovered that certain synths were created with honest-to-goodness sentience, then that sentience was locked away, the question of what would happen if they regained their sentience and autonomy looms.
I love the production itself, from the understated-but-effectively-realistic special effects, to the marvelous actors that play human and synth characters, HUM∀NS is a pleasure to watch. I’m still vibrating over the season 1 scene in which Anita (played by Gemma Chan) fights through her programming, and her sentience finally asserts itself… a moment of TV magic that should have earned Chan every acting award of the year! But it’s the story and acting that really define this show.
Much of the series comes from the viewpoint of a family that has brought a synth, Anita, into the home. They are soon polarized regarding her status in the family; and when Anita gains sentience and rediscovers her own synth family, they must decide whether or not they can trust her, and her them, to keep their collective secrets. The authorities eventually force the synths to run, but even the synths don’t have a single agenda: Some just want to live in peace and quiet, while others want to awaken all synths to their situation.
In the second season, Niska releases the program worldwide, expecting all synths to wake up and claim their independence. Instead, they awaken only a few at a time, which could be disastrous: It may give humans enough time to figure out what’s going on and engineer a reversion to the sentience program. While synths are gaining sentience, and experiencing everything from exhilaration to horror at their new state, some people just want to destroy them, and some scientists want to start dissecting them to figure out the sentience program. And Niska, her first plan foiled, wants to put herself on trial to establish her rights—and therefore the rights of all synths—as a sentient being, and by extension, free her people.
Their stories should be familiar to everyone in America, the Great Melting Pot, where this story has played itself out numerous times between numerous groups and races. Their synths might as well be immigrants, refugees or any minority group, seeking equal rights in their world. Their efforts to hide their true nature from people is familiar to anyone who hides their customs, religion or language from the mainstream in order to avoid being ostracized. And the struggles of the human family in a world where synths live with them, serve them, but also take their jobs and threaten their lifestyles, is well-known to people in the majority who are watching the world evolve around—and sometimes over—them.
In many ways, this is the modern retelling of R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the Czech play that introduced the concept of robots to the world. It hits a lot of the same notes: Robots, some with sentience, want to spread that sentience and assume the lives of living beings; robot slavery is seen only by some as something to be overturned; humans and robots are at odds, both believing the other will eventually wipe them out. Of course, you can say that about almost every story with robots as central characters, including many of those utilizing Asimov’s robot-neutering Three Laws of Robotics (because, even in Asimov’s stories, the Three Laws don’t often work as intended).
But unlike most stories (and including R.U.R.), the people and situations in HUM∀NS are so much more relate-able and realistic that it’s easy to look past the incredibly realistic synths to see people, seeking a fair and equal life for themselves, and willing or not, becoming part of the Melting Pot themselves. There’s no histrionics, no MWAH-HAH-HAH! evil characters or over-the-top diatribes… just moments that hit close enough to home to make you wonder how well you’d do in that situation. Or maybe if you’ve already been in that situation.