Can 'Almost Human' make the leap from good to great?

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almost-human-good-or-great-karl-urban.jpgFive episodes into its life, FOX's "Almost Human" is doing several things pretty well and is shaping up to be a fairly enjoyable hour of TV. Yet it still feels like the show is searching for, and not quite finding, an extra gear that would move it from "pretty good" to "must-see."

Monday's (Dec. 9) episode was the show's best since its pilot, and it highlighted some of the things the show has gotten right thus far, in particular the way the show is applying its near-future setting to the cop-show form. That's not the easiest thing to pull off. But so much potentially rich storytelling ground was staked out in the pilot that it's been a little frustrating to see much of that recede to the background.

Let's start, though, by talking about what's working.

The future: Among the handful of people (who are probably mostly TV critics) who recall CBS' 2004 show "Century City" -- a legal drama that was wrapped similar sci-fi trappings as those of  "Almost Human" -- there's a line that they'll remember forever: "Give me back my nanopants!" It was shouted from the stand in a case in the show's pilot, and it's been a running joke among those critics ever since. "Almost Human" has not yet had a nanopants moment, and that's a good thing.

Creator J.H. Wyman and his fellow writers have done a very good job about weaving the what-ifs of a world 35 years from now into their cases. Monday's show dealt with a murder case involving clones, for instance; previous cases have woven in stories about robot ethics and pervasive surveillance. The cases themselves may be awfully familiar -- episode 3 was essentially a riff on the heist plot of "Die Hard" -- but Wyman and Co. have clearly thought about how technology and social issues might affect our lives in the not-terribly-distant future.

The buddies: In addition to using some familiar premises for its cases of the week, "Almost Human" is also mining the buddy-cop trope for all it's worth. The (slight) twist is that in a world where human cops are paired with android partners, the android ( Michael Ealy) is the one more in tune with his and others' emotions. Ealy and Karl Urban have strong chemistry, though, and the writers have also done well to show them building some trust in each other, so their bickering isn't entirely antagonistic.

The others: The weakest aspect of the pilot was its lack of development for the supporting cast -- understandable given how heavily "Almost Human" leans on its two leads, but noticeable nonetheless. The past four episodes have done a much better job of sketching in the characters played by Minka Kelly (who's turning out to be a much better fit here than on the "Charlie's Angels" remake a couple seasons back), Lili Taylor and Mackenzie Crook. Michael Irby's Detective Paul is still mostly The Guy Kennex Doesn't Like, but it feels like there could be more there.

Which brings us to the one nagging thing that is keeping "Almost Human" from making the leap: It just feels like the world the series has established contains much more than what we've seen so far.

The pilot episode set up a pretty deep well involving Kennex's history, the woman who betrayed him and a gang known as InSyndicate. Since then, though, the show has let those stories dangle while pushing its case-of-the-week elements and smaller character moments. FOX has also aired the show somewhat out of order since then -- the first episode after the pilot was the fifth one filmed, with episodes 6, 7 and 8 following.

Again, that's all understandable: FOX wants to emphasize that "Almost Human" is a crime drama first and a sci-fi show second. That's the smart way to go, given the rather dismal track record for science fiction on broadcast TV since "The X-Files." FOX's last experience in the genre was "Fringe" -- a show Wyman ran or co-ran for nearly all of its five seasons -- and the deeper it went into its own world(s), the smaller the audience got.

"Almost Human" probably can't go that far down a serialized path and expect to survive. FOX has tasted some success in the past couple seasons with dramas like "The Following" and "Sleepy Hollow," and "Bones" (the show "Almost Human" displaced on Monday nights) has a pulse on Fridays. The network isn't likely to give the show as long a leash as "Fringe" had in recent years.

What "Almost Human" probably can do, though, is start dipping a toe into the back story it seems to want to talk about. Clues here and there about what happened with Kennex's ex? A new case that somehow involves InSyndicate? That would be easy enough to take for the part of the show's audience that's there for the cases, while also giving fans of more serial stories something to chew on and theorize about.

Maybe episodes 2, 3 and 4 in the shooting order, or another one planned for later in the season, will bring that sort of payoff. Fans -- whatever their reasons for tuning in -- will likely welcome it.
Photo/Video credit: FOX