If a year is a long time in politics (Harold Wilson, circa 1964), then it can also be a hell of a long time in the world of television. Debuting in July 2015 Channel 4’s Humans, based on the Swedish drama Real Humans, was a surprise hit with a notoriously fantasy-shy British audience, its first episode alone pulling in nearly seven million viewers and quickly establishing the show as the channel’s highest-rating new drama in well over a decade. Sadly the second season fared considerably less well, losing two-thirds of its first-run audience; part of this audience drift can be attributed to the fact that the second season was scheduled in the much more competitive winter season where it was pitted against louder, shoutier reality shows and popular swashbuckling costume dramas. How can a show like Humans compete with the appeal of watching someone from The Only Way is Essex eating a kangaroo’s back passage live or the prospect of the bloke off Poldark taking his shirt off? Again. Phoaaarrrr…
But perhaps the real problem lay in the fact that where season one had been ‘science-fiction by stealth’ – the largely-domestic story of super lifelike synthetic ’humans’ integrating into an uneasy human society - season two was pretty much out-and-out sci-fi with its head held high and, as we’ve seen demonstrated again and again in recent years, the British viewing public aren’t much given to embracing TV with a bit more imagination on display than the average Police procedural. Besides all this, of course the killer blow even for genre fans has probably been HBO’s wonderful Westworld, a sleek and monstrously-budgeted show which took the idea of artificial life and took to the sky with it when Humans, for all its strengths, was still taxiing around the runway.
The show’s rapid fall from grace is a disappointment though because this second run is bigger, bolder and broader than the tentative first season. These eight episodes are bristling with busy storylines, many of them picking up where the first season left off and with a few new characters and strands easing the show into higher concept directions. So we have the Hawkins family moving home and trying for a ‘fresh start’ after an unfortunate moment of human weakness for Dad Joe (Goodman-Hill), synth Mia/Anita (Chan), now working at a seaside café and becoming romantically involved with her employer whilst part-synth Leo (Morgan) is still on the run and trying to make contact with synths who are showing increasing evidence of humanity and independence. Season two sees synth Niska (Berrington) release the ‘consciousness’ programme into the network which slowly spreads across the synth community, awakening psychopathic tendencies in Hester (Sonya Cassidy). Niska, determined to prove that she is human, returns to the UK and tries to persuade the authorities that she is a thinking being and capable of being tried ‘as a human’ for her crimes in the first season. Then there’s the ice-cool Dr Athena Morrow (Moss), a San Francisco-based scientist brought over to the UK ostensibly to ‘uninvent’ synth technology – but even she has her own secret agenda.
It’s a rich stew of intriguing, intelligent storytelling and whilst it asks a lot from its audience it repays the attention demanded of it ten times over. Well-plotted and thoughtful and sympathetically-performed by its sprawling cast, the show suffers a little from its slow pace (although that wasn’t a huge problem for Westworld), and a surfeit of stories which means that sometimes characters are shunted aside in the haste to move on to the next plot development. But season two is infinitely denser stuff than the first series, a tougher ’ask’ for an audience who just bought into the idea of sexy robot servants in the first series and who perhaps weren’t quite ready to accept the deeper philosophical urgencies and troublesome ethical questions thrown up by the second series.
Despite its ratings crash Humans still deserves a third season, if only to wrap up those plot threads left dangling and to resolve a superb, subtle cliff-hanger which finally sees the synth ‘revolution’ begin as the consciousness virus finally appears to be kicking in across the country and, indeed, the world. It might not be quite ‘the rise of the machines’ but this is one series which really does not deserve termination just yet.
Special features: Making Humans 200 / Niska’s escape: behind the scenes
HUMANS – SEASON TWO / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / WRITERS: VARIOUS / STARRING: GEMMA CHAN, COLIN MORGAN, KATHERINE PARKINSON, TOM GOODMAN-HILL, CARRIE-ANNE MOSS, EMILY BERRINGTON, NEIL MASKELL, RUTH BRADLEY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW