There’s a chilling cliffhanger to this first episode of Channel 4 and AMC’s adaptation of the Swedish success story, Real Humans, set in a world like our own but where synthetic humans (Synths for short) are sufficiently advanced to do many of the boring or unpleasant jobs (of all types) that people would prefer not to do – from watering the plants in garden centres to prostitutes in a brothel – as well as assist around the home as a very efficient au pair. The story mainly centres around two groups – the Hawkins family, who buy ‘new’ Synth Anita; and Leo, who is searching for a band of Synths who were kidnapped a few weeks earlier. These latter – which include Anita – are one step beyond the ordinary robots, capable of emotions… and of faking a lack of them.
The former plotline, which features Katherine Parkinson as the mum who’s worried that her place is being taken in both her husband and children’s affections and their lives by Gemma Chan’s Synth, is the more gripping of the two, as the pieces are put together and we realise that Anita is the Synth whom we saw at the start of the show looking up at the moon. Parkinson’s mother is uneasy around the Synth; her daughter has given up studying because she can’t see the point if Synths are going to be able to do everything; the teenage son and his father find their minds wandering to other potential uses for Anita; while the youngest girl simply accepts her as a new best friend – and Anita seems to be bonding with her far more than she should. Chan’s reactions are perfectly pitched, maintaining the fake smile but just occasionally letting the mask slip…
The other central group follows Leo, played by Colin Morgan, who is trying to get his group of Synths back together. One of them is in a garden centre, but is captured; another is a sex worker; another can’t hide in plain sight because of his nature. There’s a group hunting them too – think Blade Runner without the testing. The scenes are well put together, but there’s a familiarity to them, at least in this first episode, where, frankly, they could as easily be a group of spies undercover in a foreign country.
The final strand features William Hurt as an old man, George, whose Synth is malfunctioning, quite seriously. The NHS wants to give him Rebecca Front as a very frosty, Nurse Ratched-esque replacement… but George obviously has some links with the Synths, as he’s desperate to repair the Synth himself.
The worldbuilding is excellently done – go back and watch the early scenes, and you can see how the production has layered the Synths into the everyday life going on in the background. There are a couple of bits of stilted dialogue and a Channel 4 News broadcast hammers home a few points rather unsubtlely, but the show triumphs with its small moments: Anita watching over little Sophie; the relief on the prostitute’s face when she thinks she’s going to be able to flee – and then the anger and hatred when she realises otherwise.
Verdict: A very strong opener that sets up the world and the dilemmas quickly and efficiently. 9/10