AMC’s Humans Dives Headlong Into the Uncanny Valley

The new AMC drama gives us an elegant—and creepy—portrayal of our future robot overlords.

Niska is a prostitute. She’s also a robot. But in the first episode of Humans, the new AMC series based on the award-winning Swedish sci-fi drama, Niska’s synthetic origins melt away as she pleads with her human confidant Leo to liberate her from a hi-tech brothel. She can’t turn off her sensors and simply block out the endless line of johns, she explains, her glowing, artificial eyes brimming with fury: “I was meant to feel.”

Humans is an ambitious look at our robot-powered future. Set in the UK in the not-too-distant future, synthetic humans (or “synths”) have become ubiquitous in daily life, doing menial chores in suburban households, caring for the elderly, and pleasuring businessmen. The plot hopscotches back and forth between the strange constellation of relationships various humans develop with their synth companions. A family adjusts to servile Anita (Gemma Chan) over the objections of matriarch (Katherine Parkinson). A brilliant scientist (William Hurt) mourns his malfunctioning android companion (Will Tudor). The mysterious synth Leo (Colin Morgan) sees a strain of sentience growing in his artificial comrades as he flees the authorities. And Niska (Emily Berrington) yearns for freedom.

In terms of depth, Humans is both a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief. Where previous sci-fi visions of robots often skew towards the abrasively campy (Will Smith’s I, Robot) or are confined to a narrow storyline (abandoned Fox drama Almost Human), Humans offers an intimate examination of our post-human society. With elegant, understated production values and terse dialogue, Humans’ exploration of how the synths have warped the UK’s social and economic institutions calls to mind the acclaimed British series Black Mirror.

But where Humans really excels is in its portrayal of robotic life. The synths look physically human, distinguished only by the glittering luminescence of their artificial eyes (and, on closer inspection, blue blood), but there’s a distinct, glaring difference: They’re creepy as fuck. Director Sam Donovan manages to instantly throw viewers into the “uncanny valley”—a commonly-cited phenomenon in robotics and aesthetics where robots that look and move almost (but not quite) like a natural human evoke revulsion and disgust in observers. The uncanny valley explains why we’re more comfortable with beeping garbage can R2D2 rather than the anthropomorphic C-3P0: We’re increasingly comfortable with human-looking robots until they look and act too human.

Human actors don’t always excel at embodying the uncanny valley: Androids Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and David in Prometheus are obvious examples of where they fall short. But Donovan’s synths manage to give viewers the willies. They’re unnervingly precise in their movements without actually doing the robot, eerily calm and composed in a way no human should be. Anita’s natural laugh, stuck on repeat, moves from organic to disconcerting in a matter of seconds. Rather than relying on makeup or special effects, Donovan distills the anxiety of the uncanny valley in the orchestrated dance of his cast.

This is the core of the allure of Humans: The show isn’t just about the emerging sentience and struggle among a pocket of enslaved synths, but the uncertainty and anxiety of the humans they’re slowly displacing. AMC perhaps overstates the importance of the series by marketing the show as “a riveting look at the advancements in AI and the theories that become a little less hypothetical every day,” but the network isn’t entirely wrong. With its realistic writing and gritty portrayal of our “near” future, Humans offers far more existential anxiety about the fundamental nature of humanity than the robot mayhem of summer blockbusters (with apologies to the Terminator franchise). This is, after all, a good thing: As Niska puts it in the series pilot, we were meant to feel.

Photos by Des Willie / AMC