We're all bloody tired. Overworked, over-extended and cranky. If only we could all have personal assistants like big shots do. Pick up the dry cleaning, supply the coffee or tea at just the right moment.
Well, in the disconcertingly parallel universe in which Humans is set, you get help – a handy robot thingy called a Synth that does chores, reminds you when to take medication and offers companionship when you just want to be melancholy or rant about stuff. It's a terribly tempting concept, the Synth thing.
Humans (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) is an eight-part thriller, but a good deal more. Heavily promoted by AMC, it's also a dark comedy (based on a Swedish series) and a light but provocative probing of where artificial intelligence ends and human emotions begin. For some people, especially those deeply into this area of sci-fi fiction, it is probably too light, too unserious. But for the rest of us, it's an addictive charmer. As charming as those uncannily helpful and well-mannered Synths.
Part of its charm, and a disconcerting element, is that the world of Humans – a co-production with Channel 4 in Britain, where it's a huge hit – looks disarmingly familiar. It's not set in some distant future, but now – low-paid jobs such as child care, elder care and basic agriculture tasks are a vital part of the economy, but instead of young people and hard-working new immigrants toiling, it's all done by these humanoid robot figures. At a distance you would mistake them for humans. Up close, they are robotic servants.
We meet a middle-class family. Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) is stressed because his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), a lawyer, is away often, leaving him to deal with teenager Mattie (Lucy Carless) and two younger kids who can't be bothered to do any household chores. On impulse he purchases Anita (Gemma Chan), who is both helpful and, of course, obedient. Well-pleased, Joe is taken aback when Laura return home and looks on the Synth with deep skepticism. At first there's the feeling she's been usurped in her home, but then Laura gets the uneasy feeling that Anita isn't what she seems.
She's right: Anita is one of the Synths who have a degree of human feeling. That's where the thriller part comes in. We know from the first few minutes that a cop is investigating a group of renegade Synths and hoping they are not part of some revolution. They are. Their leader is the human Leo (Colin Morgan from The Fall) and his sidekick is a blonde, buxom Synth (Emily Berrington) who works in a scarily glossy brothel that looks like some sci-fi geek's fantasy.
While Joe and Laura try to adapt to Anita, Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a retired, lonely academic and widower, refuses to let go of his old-fashioned, wonky Synth Odi (Will Tudor), with whom he has a fiercely close bond. He just won't upgrade to a new Synth no matter how much the authorities demand. There is a grave sweetness to the old man's relationship with his best buddy.
At its very human heart, Humans is a light allegory that's very familiar. The story is as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It deals with the contemporary issue of "singularity" – the point at which machines become human – but with only glancing regard. It's deeper than The Stepford Wives, but not by much.
Mainly, Humans is less about robotics than it is about issues of class and labour. Some people's copious leisure time is reliant on the labour of others, from low-paid immigrant workers to young people starting out in life. Do we even think of them as human? And what if they all rebelled and demanded fairness, decent wages and working conditions?
Those are the key questions in this slick, finely crafted thriller. It's not that it's important TV drama. It's clever, though, and terrifically entertaining. And yeah, you'll want a Synth, too.