It’s been at least a year since I heard the Swedish TV show Äkta människor (Real Humans) was going to be adapted for a British audience. I was excited by the prospect – British broadcasters have great success with dramas and with a distinctly English feel that is undoubtedly unique. Black Mirror is the staple of Channel 4’s drama programming, being praised for it’s extraordinary sc-fi dystopian storylines laden with clear themes opposing the robotic hegemony. And with the success it’s had, their dramas are becoming increasingly reliant on those darker aspects of human nature and mental illness. For example, Southcliffe about an army veteran dealing with mental illness; and This is England set in the 1980’s at the height of the ‘skin head’ movement and the start of the racist political group ‘National Front’. But with those series comes a hefty amount of British talent including Director Shane Meadows (Dead man’s shoes) and writer Charlie Brooker (Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe). So can Humans live up to the reputation that Real Humans has built? And what changes do we see compared to the Swedish version?
Firstly the plot of Humans is pretty much identical. As a summary, ‘synths’ are robots that were created to help humans with various mind-numbing tasks so we can spend our time doing something else (like reading, working, or generally sitting around and doing nothing). The main plot focuses around the Hawkins family who have just purchased a Synth (naming her Anita) to help around the house. On the return of Laura, the Woman of the household, she is not best pleased with her perceived ‘replacement’. A few strange occurrences later and Laura is concerned about Anita not being a tin-can robot that obeys her every whim. We also delve into the story of George and Odi, an old man and is Synth who had been together for 6 years – which is much longer than recommended. A malfunctioning Odi attacks an employee at a supermarket and is declared broken. Taking him home, George then tries to fix his best friend hoping he is not beyond repair. The changes that we see are that the character Roger has been dissolved in Humans and included in the detective character to quicken the pace of the show. not necessarily a negative change as long as the storyline of the political fight against Synths is included. Leo and his band of ‘Sentient’ Synths have been introduced however from episode 1 it’s unclear to us how their plot will develop.
Aesthetically, there are some changes in the British version. ‘Synths’ (or HuBots in the Swedish version) don’t have the smooth complexion synonymous with Äkta människor which is disappointing. As well as this, having only a few models of HuBots gives us the perception that these are built in bulk and not actually Human at all. In Humans they are all built so they look different for each customer which for me is missing the point of the Synth. When you buy a manufactured item you know that the other million of that product are exactly the same. There might be some slight change in colour or model but in essence they are selling the same function. Regardless, It’s reassuring to see Gemma Chan (who plays Anita) play a Synth perfectly and keeping a faultlessly still face during all of her closeups. Will Tudor (Odi) – who looks identical to his Swedish counterpart – also plays a Synth brilliantly and keeps the smilling, joyous (and somewhat confused) character true to its roots. Simon (Rick in Swedish) who is the Synth physiotherapist to Jill has rather big boots to fill. In Real Humans he has a big role to play in the story and to be able to ‘out-act’ Johannes Kuhnke might well be an impossible task.
Thematically it’s much the same – technology is at the cusp of making humans redundant just like in some aspects of our own lives. We haven’t got into that enough in Humans however I hope it plays a large role in defining why Synths are such a risk to the population. Although the threat of them remains in Humans, Anita seems to infer that she is evil and all Synths will turn out evil. But that is simply not true. Anita was part of a rebel group but she is not evil nor would she purposely hurt any human. This isn’t conveyed clearly enough and the idea of a ‘sentient’ Synth is not dealt with as well as the Swedish version. They should have a range of different personalities, characteristics, mannerisms and emotions just as we have, however the main idea presented is that they would all rise up and overthrow us if they became sentient. Leo’s HuBot group are well defined in that regard, unlike in the British version.
What Humans has done to great effect is introducing a multi-platform advertising campaign. Over the past few weeks, channel 4 has been advertising Synths during commercial breaks in order to create hype around the series. It’s trying to integrate the storyline into your own life in hopes that you will invest more in the story – which I think works fantastically. It would also be interesting to know how many people took no notice of the advert and – more importantly – who immediately Googled ‘where to buy a Synth’. The show even went as far as renting a store on Regents Street and decorating the outside with posters advertising the new opening of ‘Persona Synthetics’. The effort to blur the lines between TV and reality is commendable, and with 4.3 million views for it’s first episode It would appear the campaign succeeded.
One of the scenes I’m glad Humans kept was the supermarket scene with George and Odi. The shot of Odi lying down in apricot jam is supposed to symbolise blood – which in Georges mind is exactly what it is. He knows Odi’s just a Synth, but the personal relationship is much greater than that of other consumers – even to the extent were he calls Odi ‘son’. I think it’s an important scene in order to represent a wide variety of people and their opinions on Synths and whether they are inane robots or friendly companions.
To a lesser extent, Humans falls a little short of the mark. A few poor casting choices and scraping of scenes leaves it less in-depth than Real Humans. I also find the choice of ‘rebel’ Synths poor. None of the characters have been developed in the first episode which leaves me wondering why I care that they’re kidnapped at all. Channel 4 have just as much time (if not more) than the Swedish version yet insist on turning two characters into one and replacing important scenes with less dialogue and exposition. Yet, with all of this negative I still find it an entertaining watch. A British version is culturally relevant to us and adds to the realism the program is trying to convey. But if you don’t mind subtitles then watch Äkta människor. I believe it is much better and without the foreboding apocalypse that Humans is trying to pedal with every long 1,000 yard stare and mysterious non-diegetic sound effect.