The eerie robots of 'Humans' hold a black mirror to our darkest fears

AMC and Channel 4's new TV show sees smiling, servile "synths" in every home... but is it them or us who should be feared?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Gemma Chan is Anita, a robotic "synth", whose eerie perfection is a mirror for human fears and insecurities. Colin Hutton

We all have fears and insecurities -- we're only human. New TV show "Humans" takes a look at those fears by inviting robots into our homes for a tense, eerie chiller in the vein of "Black Mirror". We checked out the first episode.

Based on Swedish drama "Real Humans", this Anglo-American co-production takes place in what the makers describe as a "parallel present." It's recognisably the real world, where the ironing still needs to be done and people send texts when they're going to be late. But for a few years now,

servants called "synths" have been on sale, and having a synth in your home is as normal as owning an iPad.

The robotic synths are blandly beautiful and genially servile. From ticket inspectors to cleaners to fruit-pickers to domestic help, they perform the essential chores of society with blank smiles. But some of them may be something more...perhaps even something to be feared.

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Like Channel 4's " Black Mirror" -- a recent hit on Netflix -- "Humans" avoids the murder-mystery, high-stakes action route of "I, Robot" or "Minority Report" for something more unsettling. The show explores the implications of a strange new technology through the everyday lives of normal people, and as in "Black Mirror", the presence of advanced technology in very recognisable homes shows how a changing world can bring out existing human fears and insecurities.

A stressed husband buys a synth to help with the kids, but it only emphasises the distance between the family and the family's busy working mum. A grief-stricken man desperately clings to his malfunctioning synth as the last link with his late wife. A middle-aged cop sees his injured wife nursed by a handsome, virile synth and feels useless. A teenager worries the high-tech synths make her future uncertain.

Synth Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) and human Leo (Colin Morgan from "Merlin") confront humanity's darker side. Colin Hutton

And then there's the darker urges brought to the surface by the synths. Sex is constantly lurking just under the surface of "Humans", whether it's a teenage son and his father both casting furtive glances at their comely servant, or a brutal glimpse of robotic sex trafficking.

By casting synths as an underclass doing the jobs nobody else wants, "Humans" also touches on questions of inequality, immigration and oppression.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- their look of blank, trusting innocence, the actors playing synths make the robots sympathetic even while their eerie, still presence in our home creates tension. They create a sort of negative space to reflect the messy emotions and actions of the people around them, allowing us to ponder the themes of the show without necessarily offering answers.

The effect is somewhere between the uncanny valley and the Kuleshov effect, a filmmaking phenomenon in which viewers see different things when two different shots are juxtaposed. Filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated the effect by juxtaposing an actor's expressionless face with shots of soup, a coffin and a woman on a divan; audiences believed the face showed hunger, grief and desire -- but it was the same footage each time. So when we see a synth blankly watching over a sleeping child or being brutally used for sex, their expressionless mask is a reflection of our own fear or disgust.

I'm particularly intrigued by Rebecca Front as a healthcare synth who appears like a severe Nurse Ratched-type figure. In the first episode all she does is stand there looking blank, and somehow I'm terrified of her.

Among the human cast, Katherine Parkinson of "The IT Crowd" is wearily sympathetic as the harassed mother who finds her new helper just one more thing to be anxious about. Newcomer Lucy Carless is great as the teen both fascinated and repulsed by synths. And Oscar winner William Hurt gives a restrained performance in a touching inversion of the relationship between an older person descending into confusion and the younger person trying to remind them who they are.

Several movies and TV shows have confronted artificial intelligence lately, including " Her", " Chappie", " Ex Machina", "Automata" and even " Avengers: Age of Ultron". Tapping into this unease about technology and its effects upon us, "Humans" looks like another compelling, chilling look at fears and doubts that are all too human.

"Humans" will appear on the UK's Channel 4 on 14 June, and AMC in the US on 28 June, with an Australian broadcast yet to be announced.

Watch this: Meet Milo, a robot helping kids with autism