Sci-fi showdown: ‘Almost Human’ vs. ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (TV commentary)

 

With Fox’s “Almost Human” and ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” both at about the halfway point of the season, I thought it’d be fun to pit the two most-hyped new sci-fi law enforcement shows against each other in a category-by-category showdown:

CONCEPT AND SCI-FI THEMES

“Almost Human” is set a few decades in the future when – we’re told in the opening voiceover – emerging technologies are impossible to regulate. That certainly sets a statist tone to the series; however, many episodes – including this week’s, where a faultily designed police-bot wreaks havoc – show that the police can create problems as well as solve them. While the city sometimes feels like a police state, with drones and robot cops immediately on the scene after crimes take place, it visually looks like a thriving futuristic Hong Kong. As the series has progressed, it has become comfortable with this contrast, and while some episodes have missed the mark (hostage crisis), others have embraced the sci-fi fun (Terminatrix-type police-bot on the loose).

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is much more black and white. Our government agent heroes are unequivocally good; the villains – operating outside the law — are cartoonishly bad. The bad guys’ motivations are often unclear; we just get a general sense that they are cornering the market on cutting-edge technology and using it for evil purposes. With many episodes – underneath the rapid-fire action and high technology — I fail to get a sense of the point of it all.

On neither show do we get much of a sense of what life is like for John and Jane Q. Public, unfortunately, although I think “Almost Human” is the more likely show to tiptoe into this direction.

Edge: “Almost Human”

PRODCUTION VALUES

“S.H.I.E.L.D.,” thanks to the team’s super-plane, can travel all over the world. It’s refreshing to see so many different sites, from forests to deserts to cities. Meanwhile, the plane itself gives the show an ironically grounded sense of place. “Almost Human” only takes place in the city, but it’s a cool, futuristic one, like a cleaner “Blade Runner.” The tech-loaded police precinct is the equivalent to the other show’s airplane. Both shows are in need of more major locales; “Almost Human” has more potential in this regard, especially with the introduction of “The Wall” and the possibility of an entirely different city on that side.

Edge: Even

MAIN CHARACTERS

Without coming off as heavy-handed, “Almost Human” explores Dorian’s human traits and Kinnex’s increasing appreciation that his partner’s life has value and meaning even though he’s synthetic. Their banter – including Dorian logically scanning Kinnex’s enlarged testicles and the human’s understandably uncomfortable reaction – is highly entertaining. “S.H.I.E.L.D.” seems to be entirely populated by supporting characters; I supposed Skye and Coulson are the de facto main characters, but neither has been developed the way “Human’s” leading men have.

Edge: “Almost Human”

SUPPORTING CHARACTERS

But the fact that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” features the team that supports the main-character superheroes in the “Avengers” franchise gives it an edge in this category. Skye, Coulson, Mae, Grant, Fitz and Simmons are all distinct and well-drawn, giving this show a deep roster of characters, any of whom could step to the fore. On “Human,” while Detective Stahl (Minka Kelly) is certainly nice to look at, there’s not much to her character (yet); Captain Maldonado is also present mainly for exposition. Rudy, the tech guy, sometimes provides decent comic relief.

Edge: “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

WEIRD/COOL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

I enjoy it when “Almost Human” strikes a “Blade Runner”/“Terminator”/“Robocop” vibe and matter-of-factly shows us what our future could look like, all of it extrapolating from today’s reality. It hasn’t gotten as flat-out weird and imaginative as I would’ve hoped, though, especially since the show is arguably Fox’s spiritual successor to “Fringe.” “S.H.I.E.L.D.” has weirder ideas, including the time-warp device from this week as well as an earlier device that altered gravity, leading to fight scenes played out on ceilings and walls. It’s the more imaginative of the two shows, although again, I struggle to grasp the overall point of some of it.

Edge: “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

MYTHOLOGY

David Conrad’s vaguely ambitious tech mogul and the mind-controlling “clairvoyant” he works with seem to be the big bads on “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” but none of the villains are as enjoyable to watch as the bantering team of agents. With former hacker Skye pretty much entirely integrated into this government agency now, and the mystery of Coulson’s resurrection from death largely resolved, the show is lacking a big-picture hook at the moment. Meanwhile, “Almost Human” is gaining hooks. Most intriguing is “The Wall,” which separates the city we’ve seen from some mysterious other city, presumably one that’s hellish and war-torn. Also, teasers suggest that we’ll soon learn more about Stahl and what her genetically modified status means in her life.

Edge: “Almost Human”

OVERALL

Right now, “Almost Human” is clearly the better series (IMDB voters agree with me, as they give it an 8.4 to 7.2 advantage), and it also appears to have a brighter future. I care about the main characters more, and the sci-fi ideas land more crisply, even though its rival show is more likely to push the boundaries of imagination. “Almost Human” continues the strong sci-fi themes of those classic 1980s “What does it mean to be human?” movies, whereas “S.H.I.E.L.D.” feels like a slick spinoff of “The Avengers” that’s still trying to justify its reason for existing.


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