Karl Urban is, officially, “The Man.”
He stands in pretty good company. Sam Worthington was “The Man,” albeit briefly. So was Gerard Butler, but history has proven he had absolutely no idea what to do with the title. Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Campbell, and even Harrison Ford have all held claim to the title at one time or another over their careers. Who knows? Many of them may regain the moniker, but, for now, it’s resting safe and sure in Urban’s man-sized mitts.
Urban had the good fortune of languishing in some smaller parts in both Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys throughout their respective runs. I say “good fortune” because it is that work that put him on the map in New Zealand for a little production Peter Jackson had put together, a trilogy better known as The Lord of the Rings. In it, Urban took the role of Eomer, the steely-eyed horseman who suffers exile by Grima Wormtongue rather than endure imprisonment.
While it may not have made him a star, it certainly helped put him on a trajectory wherein he was discovered by JJ Abrams. It was JJ, after all, who cast him in the pivotal role of Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy in the Star Trek reboot from 2009. The quality (or lack thereof) of this bold new take on a beloved science fiction franchise is cause for debate amongst its most ardent fans, but one thing most agree upon is Urban’s portrayal of the good doctor: he imbues the character with a newfound independence while effortlessly echoing the performance of DeForest Kelley from the original cast.
I was skeptical – very skeptical – when I’d heard Urban had been cast to enforce the law in an all-new take on the Judge Dredd character, one that suffered abysmally at the hands of Sylvester Stallone in 1995 “interpretation” of the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner. However, Dredd was gangbusters entertainment, much of that owed to its smart and respectful script as well as a commanding lead performance by Karl ‘The Man’ himself.
Now, Karl is hard-at-work putting his particular stamp of quality on Fox TV’s Almost Human, another entry into that ‘near future’ category of sci-fi television. He plays police detective John Kennex (an awful name that sounds a bit too close to Kleen-ex for my tastes) who, after a near-fatal accident, comes back to the force to find himself paired up with Dorian, an android (of sorts) who aides the human in solving mysteries and fighting crime. The program benefits from a fairly late premiere in a new season (the pilot aired on November 17th with the show’s first official episode following the next night), and it’s been nestled into a pretty premium Monday night line-up without anything similar to compete against.
So far as it matters, I found the pilot more than a bit uneven as the showrunners weren’t all that interested in developing original ideas as they were in ‘channeling’ the worlds already created and explored to greater effect in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004) with just a smidgeon of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) thrown in for good measure. All of this was fairly effectively achieved on a TV-budget. What I found weak were the characters: Kennex was one dimensional (basically, all we learned was that he hates robots) and Dorian – as the willing sidekick – seemed all-too-robotic even despite the stated deficiencies of his particular make and model.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I hung with it.
I’m glad I did.
The adventures haven’t been all that dynamic; they’ve run the gamut from being a fairly cookie-cutter to the modestly more involved. Thankfully, our two leads – Urban and Ealy – have been given more to do, which has forced their relationship to take a step or two beyond those first outings. The science has been mostly accessible, firmly staking out that middleground between where we are today and what’s waiting for us right around the corner. And – because at its heart it’s a still a police story – it incorporates the tried-and-true “officers argue while driving” scenes that have been a part of television since there’s been cop shows.
However, it’s all been mixed together in such a way as to allow the program to have a chemistry all of its own. It’s that formula that’ll likely make or break the show. Were I a betting man, I’d put money down that this body has legs … one of which, at least, is synthetic.
(If you’re familiar with the show, then you’ll get the joke.)
Sorry, folks, but every production – even the very best – has a weak link; and, as much as it pains the fanboy deep inside my still beating heart to say it, Minka Kelly is doing Almost Human absolutely no favors, sexual or otherwise. As Detective Valerie Stahl, she completely ‘stalls’ whatever scene she’s in. The easy explanation is that she can’t act. Having her repeatedly show up on camera looking like she came over from a Clairol commercial doesn’t help matters. Producers would be best served to either write her character out or – better yet – give her some grisly demise befitting the science of tomorrow.
I know that my track record on successfully beating the stuffing out of critical darlings (I’m talking to you, Mad Men! And you, too, Homeland! And you can kiss my tuckus, The Wire! And Tina Fey can crawl right back under the 30 Rock she crawled out from!) may cause some to view my endorsement of Almost Human as a show-a-watch with some skepticism. If that’s the case, let me offer up a few more reasons that just might pique your interest:
First, the television of JJ Abrams – he’s billed as one of its Executive Producer – has been consistently entertaining. Mind you, it hasn’t been perfect, but it’s at least tried to do something different. Granted, it hasn’t always been fulfilling (I’m talking about you, Lost), but even when it’s fallen flat on its face (Here’s looking at you, Alcatraz) it’s still offered up something worth watching.
Second, Almost Human immediately drew in a lot of behind-the-scenes talent that helped elevate Fringe into the upper echelon of hourly dramas. Heck, one could argue that the speculative science nature of the program even lends itself to telling the kinds of stories that made much of the later seasons of Fringe so interesting. So maybe – just maybe – Almost Human will evolve into a property that Fringe fans might eventually gravitate toward.
Lastly, it has an incredibly gifted and underrated ensemble. TV veteran Lili Taylor deserves to be part of a hit program; she’s been dishing out great performances all the way back since Mystic Pizza. Michael Irby did some terrific work in CBS’s The Unit, and he’s built an impressive career out of guest-starring roles ever since. Mackenzie Crook has been on my radar since the original BBC version of The Office, so it’s delightful to watch him development as the police force’s resident ‘tech’ expert. Ealy has a solid resume – he has one of those faces you know you’ve seen in something – but only time will tell whether or not playing an android limits his range.
With Karl “The Man” Urban at the helm, this one might have what it takes to rise in stature quickly.