Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Writer’s Dilemma: Superman Syndrome and Almost Human

Mrs. Speculator and I have been enjoying the new Fox series, Almost Human. On the one hand, there is the really strong chemistry between the lead actors, Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. In addition, the writers have given some fairly serious thought to potential future technologies and their use (and abuse in the case of the criminals our heroes pursue every week). They have even managed some little things, like carrying minor plot points over into consecutive episodes, rather than make each episode act like a silo with only the macro story arc (the “mythology” in X-Files terms) connecting them. In fact, if there’s much of a weakness right now, it’s in Almost Human’s lack of a mythology. But the series is just starting out—it has to be given time to establish its rhythms and characters. Even massively mythology-driven shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had to take a while to introduce and frame the characters and standardize their interactions. Mrs. Speculator and I generally give new shows that we are interested in three episodes to sell us. In most cases, when we have that third-episode discussion, rarely do we talk about the over-riding story arc at that point. (In fact, here’s a corollary—if a series is pounding on its mythology that early in its run, it often will not make it past the first season, if it in fact makes it that far.) Unfortunately, Almost Human seems to have written itself into an unfortunate plot loop with its latest episode, “Blood Brothers”, and I’m curious to see if they did it on purpose to delight the viewers or if they are aware of what they did.

You may be familiar with the popular phrase that has been long associated with Superman: “Faster than a bullet, stronger than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…”. If you’re not familiar with the history of Superman, you may not be aware that this was originally a description of the upper limits of his powers. Superman could jump real high or real far, but flight was not one of his abilities. He could race a bullet and catch it in mid-flight, but he couldn’t travel at the speed of sound. So how did he get to the power levels he has in the popular imagination now? Think about it from a writer’s point of view: what kind of story can I tell about Superman that doesn’t seem exactly like every other Superman story? When Superman started out, he fought thugs and government corruption. But eventually, the readers are going to want something more, so the writers introduce villains that challenge Superman. What if Superman had to fight a villain who could also jump over buildings? There are two ways to overcome this—the hard way, which involves imaginative story-telling and creative use of the power set, or the easy way, by increasing Superman’s powers. Generally, the easy way wins out, so Superman strains a bit and then discovers that instead of being able to jump, say, a quarter mile, he can now jump a mile. And then a little while later, it’s five miles, then 20, and it grows and grows until eventually someone comes up with the idea of flight. During the late 50s and early 60s, the writers of the various Superman stories played with this idea by giving him ridiculous powers, like Super-ventriloquism. I’d like to believe that the writers were mocking themselves as they did this, and the stories are often a great deal of fun. But it may well be that this period was just a long detour down the easy path.

It’s this kind of power creep that I refer to as “Superman syndrome”, because eventually the problem circles back on itself—now that Superman can fly through space near the speed of light and can withstand having mountains dropped on his head, what kind of villain poses a challenge to him? The writer either has to keep amping up Superman’s powers or really buckle down and tell the story in a different kind of way or perhaps tell a different kind of story. It’s at this crux that the really good writing shines through, as the writers begin to move off into different kinds of story-telling. Alan Moore’s great “For the Man Who Has Everything” is a sly wink at the Superman syndrome—how do you challenge the man who has all those powers? Moore’s solution was ingenious, and the story-telling was well-conceived and implemented.

The point of all this? The writers of Almost Human, and especially the 9 December episode, “Blood Brothers” put themselves into a Superman syndrome loop, less than ten episodes into their first season. And, again, I’m curious to see if they attempt to resolve it. I want to believe that they have plans to address it—because again, that’s an impetus for really strong writing. But I’m also dubious.


The show introduced a minor character who acted somewhat as a plot advancement tool in the episode. Maya Vaughn (Megan Ferguson) is a witness to a murder and is scheduled to appear in a trial. She also has had an operation that increases her use of her brain’s capacity, but it has had an interesting side effect—she can talk to dead people when she touches an object that they have touched. (You could do some really interesting story things with this—what happens when she goes to the store and grabs a shopping cart?) The other witness to the murder is herself murdered, and Maya touches her scarf and begins communing with her. The android, Dorian (Michael Ealy) appears to believe that she now possesses what is usually termed a supernatural power, while the human, John Kennex (Karl Urban) does not believe her (that’s heavy-handed irony…). But by the end of the episode, and because of a few other interactions with her that have no real bearing on solving the murder case(s), we are made to believe that Maya really can talk to the dead.

So what’s the problem?

Given that the show is really a police procedural set in the future and that the show’s stars are a police detective and his android assistant, the writers have now made it possible for the police to get substantial help for every murder they investigate and every crime in which someone is killed. The police have been handed a tool, and since part of the premise of the show is that the police are falling behind in the technology race with organized criminals, they should use it at every opportunity. If there’s ever an episode where they spend the whole time trying to figure out a murder without consulting Maya, then the writing is questionable.
While the introduction of Maya closes off some obvious storytelling paths, it also opens up some really cool ones. Consulting an actual medium is not exactly the kind of logical progression of evidence that most courts would allow in a trial, so if Kennex ever does go to Maya to discover the identity of a criminal, part of the plot has to be about coming up with sufficient evidence to convict outside of Maya. Such a plot could lead to some interesting turns and twists. Or what if a connected criminal finds out that Kennex consulted Maya and tries to use that conversation in court to throw out a trial—tainted evidence, hearsay evidence? And Maya’s witnesses are dead—exactly how reliable are they after time spent in whatever happens to people after they die?

So now, in addition to the things I already like about Almost Human, I’m also going to be watching to see what they do with this development. I’ll try to remember to update the blog if anything comes of it.

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