Den bästa science fiction på TV is currently coming from Sweden.
After taking over the police procedural and the political drama, Scandinavian dominance of high-quality television has now moved onto Science Fiction in the form of Äkta människor, or Real Humans, SVT’s brilliant series about androids that has just started shooting its second season. While Britain (and BBC America) soldiers on with Doctor Who and the interesting Orphan Black, since the demise of Battlestar Galactica and Lost and apart from the JJ Abrams product Fringe, the best the US has been able to do recently is the entertaining Defiance. Meanwhile, Sveriges Television has managed to produce the best android story--and some of the best science fiction period--to grace any screen, small, silver or other, since 1982’s Blade Runner. And leave it to the Swedes to make them look like the most awesome, most super dynamite-est androids ever.
Seeking out the program will be difficult, especially in the US and UK. That will probably change this fall, since the show has been renewed for a second season, and an English language version is in the works. The stories are complex and deftly interwoven. It will be worth your while to seek it out.
So, the best advice is to leave this page and do that, however, if you are VERY SPOILER TOLERANT, then read on.
Creator Lars Lundström manages to weave together several distinct threads that explore our relationship with technology as only a story about robots can. It isn’t just good science fiction, it’s good television, with deft cliffhangers and sub plots that merge seamlessly. In these stories, we find love, hate, exploitation, crime, deceit, sexuality, companionship, and... the SCARIEST Robot of all
time: Vera, the senior citizen care-bot from hell.
Once there are highly humanistic androids in our world, people are gonna start falling in love. Three couples try to make it work. Leo and Mimi (aka Anita), Pilar and Bo and Therese and Rick. Of the three couples, only Pilar and Bo seem to succeed. Initially, Pilar and Therese are thoroughly committed to their “Hubot” partners. Therese buys Rick as a fitness trainer and then leaves her abusive husband, Roger to be with him. One night, after they are denied entry to a club (No “Pacmen” allowed) they even pursue a discrimination lawsuit with “Anita’s” owner, Inge.
Then Roger tracks her down and she makes the fateful decision to have Rick illegally modified to get around those pesky “Asimov laws” (If they were a capital crime, then Steven Spielberg should on death row--but I digress). He becomes a much better lover, but also turns into a dick. He gets possessive and aggressive with her son Kevin and she gets quickly tired of it.
The other stories are overshadowed by that of Leo and Mimi. The series opens with a group of “autonomous” androids, led by “hubot” Niska and human Leo, on the run, arriving at a remote farmhouse inhabited by a crazy old coot with a shotgun and his wife. Mimi is kidnapped by scumbag-hubot dealers and Leo spends the rest of the season trying to find her. It is their love for each other that rips at our hearts repeatedly throughout the series.
The series gets its title from the anti-hubot organization “Real Humans”. They are opposed to hubots in any but the dirtiest and most dangerous occupations. When Roger is dumped by his wife, he goes to a meeting and hooks up with Beatrice--a kind of blond Swedish Blade Runner--and Malte, who’s itching to do something with the cache of weapons and ammo he’s accumulated in his mother’s house. They target the Hubot Market.
Real Humans are not the only ones capable of hate. Niska, channelling Rutger Hauer is capable of truly appalling violence against humans--and dogs. She has a plan, and it appears to involve the destruction of the human race..
The Hubot Market is the same one to which those scumbag-hubot dealers traded Mimi in first episode. She ends up being re-programed and turned into Anita, a housekeeping hubot for the Engman family. She is given to the family for free when they replace Inge Engman’s father Lennart’s beloved companion Odi, with the terrifying Verabot. How much is too much exploitation is a major theme for the Engmans. We are first introduced to Niska, Flash, Gordon (see what they did there?), Fred, and Marylyn. They are the new hubot family. The Engmans are their traditional counterparts.
Inge struggles with the decision to allow a hubot into their home, at one point telling her children that they would still have to clean their rooms and that Sofia, their youngest, would no longer enjoy Anita’s patented back scratches.
Woe be the stray hubot who falls into the hands of the black market. Flash dreams of After Flash decides to leave her family, she is reduced to begging for change so that she can charge herself, the hubot equivalent of eating. She is swept up by the same scumbag-hubot dealer who kidnapped Mimi and turned into a sex worker. This is the same, sad fate of Odi. After Lennart goes on a joyride with the clearly-no-longer-roadworthy Odi behind the wheel, he ends up abandoning his hubot companion in the woods. There, he is found by an unscrupulous human and, in short order, after a little money changes hands, he is shoplifting by day and turning tricks in a modified bondage construction costume by night. The producers are so good at making you sympathize with the hubots in the story, It is hard to watch this sordid affair unfold.
Beatrice and Leo have secrets of their own. One is not entirely human and one is passing. Despite being a Real Humans activist, Beatrice is in fact a hubot, and one that appears to be in love with Roger. But it’s not clear whether or not she is simply using him, or if she seeks a true connection, as Flash did.
But Leo is different, he has an origin story that would make a Marvel superhero proud. We are initially led to believe that he is the son of the creator of the autonomous hubots. I will not reveal what secrets he keeps inside.
Of course, if there are androids, there is going to be android sex. In order to make ends meet, Leo finds work at the epicenter of hubot prostitution: Hubot Heaven. The scene where he meets the owner could have been left on Ridley Scott’s cutting room floor, but for the dialogue in Swedish. He modifies people’s private hubots to make them more sexual.
In one of the series’ great, creepy scenes, a customer wants him to make his large-breasted female hubot act like she’s in pain during their sex play. Inge Engman, son Tobia, in the meantime, discovers that he is sexually attracted to androids. He comes out to his father as a transhuman sexual.
Running almost in the background, is the story of Lennart, odi, and the terrifying Vera. This is the most realistic and contemporary part of the series. The idea of using robots to care for the elderly is central to the Japanese plan to support their aging population. In the first episode, Lennart is being cared for by the über-sweet Odi. He’s cute as a button, and sadly, his little robot brain is failing. He can no longer drive his buddy Lennart around, and even the simple task of buying groceries is now beyond him. The family replaces him with Vera. She has the strength of a truck driver--seriously, she is qualified to drive an 18-wheeler. She has medical training and enough nutritional knowledge to ride roughshod over Lennarts diet--no lasagne and tea instead of coffee.
Lennart doesn’t have the heart to take Odi to the recycling plant, and instead hides him in the basement, where he passes his time waiting for Lennart by painting Lennart’s model ships as a child would--covered with swirls of color and completely divorced from what an actual ship would look like. Lennart takes any chance he can to escape Vera’s all-seeing eyes to sneak down to visit his old buddy.
While the violent, sociopathic Niska is supposed to scare us, she has nothing on the Care-bot from hell: Vera. She doesn’t just regulate Lennart’s diet, she’s doctoring his food with sleeping pills. Swedish actress Anki Larrson makes Vera a menacing presence. Every time she’s on the screen you’re fearing for Lennart’s safety and sanity.
Vera perfectly captures the mixed feelings we have about technology. On one hand, we rely on technology to make our lives livable. On the other, life is really a never-ending experiment. Something that seems perfectly reasonable and desirable today, becomes a nightmare of destruction tomorrow. Science Fiction is literally built upon this premise. Larrson’s Vera perfectly captures it.
This is great science fiction and great television. Hopefully, BBC America or SyFy will figure out that there is a market for good SF regardless of the language in which it’s presented and throw it up on our screens. We may have to be happy hoping that the English-language remake is close to as good.