When the 10-part first season of Swedish sci-fi drama Real Humans aired on SBS in 2012, it took me three episodes to fall in love. Because the plot structure presents itself in a series of cleverly constructed reveals you could be forgiven for thinking, at first, that it has more holes than Dunkin’ Donuts.
But each of these apparent fissures gradually reveals itself to be a carefully crafted fragment of a pleasing and complex structure. In an alternative reality, in otherwise contemporary Sweden, people have been living with hubots – reasonably authentic synthetic humans - for a decade, and they are now pretty damned sophisticated.
Though they ease human drudgery, function as sex partners, willingly or not, and can cook, iron and legally drive, not everyone is happy with hubots, and the infiltration by hubot spies into hate groups is one of the dramatic strands that makes the series so compelling.
While it’s true that Real Humans works its way through every last cliché of the by now well travelled road – robots become sentient, robots learn how to feel, robots form an alliance to emancipate themselves – what it lacks in originality it makes up for with a beautiful aesthetic of convincingly artificial-looking people, terrific characters and creepy scenes that parallel contemporary stories of worker exploitation and human trafficking.
Superb robotic performances and clever cosmetics including what looks like a USB port on the back of the neck as well as a slightly awkward under the arm “off” switch make you believe these hubots might just be who they claim to be.
For English speaking viewers, the unfamiliar industrial and natural landscapes of Sweden and the sound of the Swedish language itself as we hoover up the subtitles are also nicely disorientating.
So when it comes to the new eight-part English language version, Humans, which aired on the ABC earlier this year, there are some curious changes to come to terms with.
Viewers of both may feel just like Anita (Gemma Chan), a synth - as the androids in this series are called - troubled by a past life that is similar but not identical to the one she is living now. You see, though Anita was sold to the central Hawkins family as new goods it turns out her programming from a former life as Mia, one of a handful of synths capable of true sentience, has not been fully erased, just as that hard drive you thought you erased could still, in the right hands, have its original data recovered. At first there are troubling glimpses of Mia (“help me, I’m still in here”) before she, too, is fully recovered.
One of the most adorable set ups in the Engman family, central to Real Humans, is the plight of grandad Lennart (Sten Elfstrom) who lives alone with his decaying and increasingly dysfunctional hubot Odi (Alexander Stocks). Lennart cannot bear to surrender Odi because of their adventures together. So when officials arrive to replace him, Lennart conceals Odi from the authorities and allows his replacement, Vera (Anki Larrson) to move in. Vera is terrific, dumb as a box of hammers and easily fooled, more Mrs Doubtfire than Rhoda the robot (the Stepford-ish android from the 1965 sci-fi series My Living Doll).
In Humans, Lennart’s character is beefed up a lot. Played masterfully by Hollywood veteran William Hurt, Dr. George Millican is a retired artificial intelligence researcher and widower who worked with the creator of the sentient synths. His bond with Odi (Will Tudor) is about their shared memories of George’s late wife. His Vera (Rebecca Front) is a different kettle of fish entirely. Tight lipped, officious, domineering and suspicious, she is heartlessly cold, more in the manner of a Bond villain than an artificial human.
Though a third series of Real Humans was apparently written by creator Lars Lundstrom but never realised, a second season of Humans is definitely in the works. How closely it will parallel the second season of Real Humans, shown last year on SBS Two, is a box of riddles waiting to be solved.
Watch Real Humans from the beginning On Demand here.