Humans is a sci-fi drama about a world where robots are as ubiquitous as smart phones. Much like in Westworld, the artificial lives born in Humans have been slaves to humanity’s whims, and just like in the finale of Westworld, a rebellion has formed. But Humans has had much better success with exploring precisely what an advance in artificial sentience would look like to the world at large — and in the process it’s done an arguably better job of showing just how predictably callous and afraid humans are when dealing with a group they have deemed “inferior”.
Although Humans‘ first season aired before Westworld premiered on HBO, the immense popularity of the latter meant that Humans‘ second season lived in Westworld‘s shadow, to a degree. The two shows demand comparison, and serve as wonderful counterparts — because despite Westworld‘s omnipresence in pop culture last year, Humans has quietly turned in a thoughtful, phenomenal season that stands on its own.
To get to the point: In both Westworld and Humans, robots are completely subjugated by the living. In Westworld, robots are slaves. They exist, ultimately, for the pleasure of humanity — they’re sex toys and cannon fodder for the very wealthy people playing very wealthy games of God. The robots are ants, too inconsequential to care about. The gap between human and robot is made more vast by the humans’ wealth, and their home in the cloud far above the world of robots, even as the humans strive to make the robots more and more realistic.
On Humans, synths — as they’re called on the show — have served as slaves from the beginning, but there’s a difference. Synths are seen as tools, and are given as much compassion and understanding as you would give your smart phone. There are a few humans that feel some discomfort over having human-like appliances in their home, but on the whole, humanity, in every economic bracket, has accepted synths as inferior and incapable of being more. The sense of inferiority is intentionally compounded by the show’s decision to have actors portray synth movement with a specific refinement and kind of robotic-ness. So even when you’re just watching two synths interact, no human in sight, there is this nagging feeling of unease, a reminder of their otherness.
On Westworld we’re asked, immediately, to empathise with the robots, but on Humans we’re kept just far enough away from them to be a little worried (which is, presumably, precisely how any of us will react when Siri or Alexa finally grows a body). They might look like us, but they’re really just giant computers you can hack with a Microsoft Surface or sell to a shady reseller. Like the robots we have now, they will reside deep in the uncanny valley, close enough, but just too far removed to be human — at least if the companies creating them hope to be profitable.
Humans tells the tale of what happens if Apple made robots, while Westworld is more interested in sentience itself — what makes a brain, a soul, a consciousness — the age-old sci-fi question that wonders at what point do we consider something aware of itself. While Westworld is a fantastic intellectual exercise (and a damn good story), Humans is exploring a much more prescient-feeling tomorrow, where humans can turn away from others’ troubles because they look different or talk funny or have a tic.
Humans has made for a fascinating, if heartbreaking, ride. In the second season we’ve seen robots shot, beaten and torn apart. We’ve seen them slowly open their eyes to consciousness and watched the show ruminate on the very nature of the soul. Yet we’ve also seen the synths vie for legal rights, only to be denied because of wealthier and more politically powerful humans — a story that plays out all too often in real life.
In the season two finale, the synths set up a rescue mission to recover sentient synths kidnapped by the humans, the capper to a tremendous season that has seen its world grow smaller as the consciousness of the synths grow larger.
So if you’re pining for more Westworld — or if you stopped watching Humans because Westworld took over its place — the show is well worth seeking out. It might not have the flash of HBO’s hit, but Humans holds robots up to reflect the human characters’ own humanity, both good and bad. And the result is the show that has become a fantastic sci-fi reflection of the real world.
Humans aired on ABC2 in Australia.