There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“Episode 1,” from the science fiction series Humans. A co-production of the UK’s Channel 4 and the US cable channel AMC, Humans is set in a near future where strikingly realistic-looking androids called synths are increasingly being called on to perform menial or degrading work, from home care to housekeeping to prostitution. The series’s opening hour introduces the controversies and conflicts of this society primarily via three sets of characters: decrepit old inventor Dr. George Millican (William Hurt) and the outdated synth Odi (Will Tudor) he refuses to scrap; the Hawkins family, whose patriarch Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) has purchased a synth named Anita (
) over the protests of his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless); and a secret cabal of rogue synths, led a mysterious firebrand named Leo (Colin Morgan).
Because Westworld’s season finale airs this Sunday night.
It’s been a wild 10 weeks for HBO’s buzziest non-Game of Thrones drama, which, in its second season, has built on the “puzzles within puzzles” structure of its initial run, using mazes and mysteries as a metaphor for how living creatures develop consciousnesses and souls. The show’s complicated chronology — coupled with the addition of new “worlds” to complement the Western-themed amusement park that dominated season 1 — has given more analytical fans plenty to pick through each week, as they’ve tried to figure out exactly when and where each piece of the story is taking place, and why it matters.
But co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy also pulled back a little this year from their initial “there’s something important we’re not telling you” teases and fake-outs. Instead, while tracing the origins and aftermath of a violent revolt by super-sophisticated robots, Westworld’s second season has urged viewers to consider how this intricate, blood-spattered narrative might illuminate the skewed power dynamics and technology-driven alienation of our own culture.
Humans co-creators Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley — who adapted a Swedish TV series called Real Humans — have similar concerns. Though the show’s influences include the movies Blade Runner and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it also has a lot in common with The Handmaid’s Tale’s queasily relevant dystopian angst… and even the down-to-earth domestic melodrama of This Is Us.
“Episode 1” offers plenty of genre-rooted action and intrigue, driven both by Leo’s cabal of rebel synths and the equally shadowy government organization tasked to shut Leo down before the public discovers that their mechanical friends might be dangerous. But the episode gets its emotional heft from its “human” moments, like the scenes of android sex worker Niska (Emily Berrington) being objectified by men, George and Odi’s interactions as they take comfort in each other’s brokenness, and the heartbreaking depictions of the Hawkins household’s dysfunction, which is rooted in Joe’s selfishness and exacerbated by the addition of the alluring Anita.
Science fiction fans concerned about the ethics of AI.
Humans has a lot of relationship drama and poignant melancholy, which doesn’t block the show from engaging with some classic SF themes: machines that rise up against their makers, artificial constructs so detailed that they can’t be distinguished from humans, and so on. “Episode 1” doesn’t introduce all of the characters and ideas that’ll play a role in season 1 (and beyond), but similar to Westworld’s early episodes, Humans begins with the suggestion that when the creators of these advanced robots begin giving them subtler emotional responses, they inadvertently unlock the door between the inorganic and the organic.
In the episodes that follow, Humans considers what responsibility we have to our creations, and vice versa. Starting with its focus on the troubled, complicated Hawkins family in “Episode 1,” the series takes its sharpest look at the programmatic qualities of humankind itself, from the way parents raise their kids to the negligible distinctions between character flaws and faulty computer code.
Amazon Prime. The service is currently streaming the first two eight-episode Humans seasons. Season 3 just started airing on AMC a few weeks ago, so cable subscribers should keep an eye out for a possible full-season (or even full-series) marathon before the finale airs in late July. And for those interested in the original Real Humans, its two 10-episode seasons are available on Hulu.