A GoPride Interview

J.J. Abrams

Human drama: J.J. Abrams, J.H. Wyman talk new Fox series

Thu. November 14, 2013  by Jerry Nunn

I think that the lucky situation for Bad Robot has been working with really wonderful people who are great show runners and storytellers.
J.J. Abrams
Premiering for two nights on Fox, Almost Human tells the story of Detective John Kennex played by Karl Urban and robot partner Dorian played by Michael Ealy who team up to investigate murder and missing person cases in a world of androids.

Emmy Award winning executive producer J.J. Abrams is already known for huge television shows such as Lost, Revolution, and Fringe as well as movie franchises Mission: Impossible, Star Trek and the upcoming new Star Wars trilogy. Abrams joins creator/ executive producer J.H. Wyman on this project after previously working together on the television hit Fringe.

ChicagoPride talked to them both before Almost Human airs Sunday, Nov. 17 on FOX.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Hi, guys. You both have collaborated on several shows with Almost Human and Fringe. What makes it such a fruitful relationship?

JW: (Joel Wyman) I think it is my singing voice.

JA: (Jeffrey Abrams) I think I have to agree with Joel. I think that the fun of working with someone who loves the ‘what if' and is able to imagine situations and characters that make you laugh as much as it makes you squirm because the ideas are so close to what's possible. On Fringe, as crazy as things were, and it got pretty crazy, they were so often things that felt like, God, that just seems like something that might be happening right now. Then almost invariably you'd read about something within weeks or months that proved that out. It's always been fun working with Joel and Almost Human is no different.

JN: With all of your shows like Person of Interest, Revolution, and now Almost Human. How do you keep them all straight, J.J.?

JA: Well one is set in the future. I think that the lucky situation for Bad Robot has been working with really wonderful people who are great show runners and storytellers. With Joel, who worked on Fringe for five years, when he pitched me the idea for Almost Human, I felt like that little kid that I used to be watching Six Million Dollar Man and all excited about the idea of what the show could be.

When Eric Kripke pitched Revolution, I thought that it would be a really amazing, epic story to tell. It was very ambitious.

When Jonah pitched Person of Interest, we were having a meeting about a feature. He said, "I have this idea for a TV show" and he pitched Person of Interest.

The great thing is it's like having friends who are great storytellers who are also running these shows. While we read the scripts, and we give notes, and of course look at edits, and all that kind of stuff, it's not like any one of us is running any or all of these shows. They're all separate endeavors by people who are incredibly talented and we feel very lucky to be working with.

JN: The character is not completely human since he has the robot leg. Does he grapple with the fact that he is something that he doesn't like?

JW: Yes. That's a very large part of his character because at the root of it he's a little bit worried about the advancement of technology, where that's led humanity, what the world looks like with this onslaught of new developments and the unchecked growth with technology.

He feels, while he appreciates technology, such as things like the new bulletproof vests or better weapons for the police, he still has a problem with the line between humanity and robotics, or synthetics. He looks at that and is forced to kind of deal with the idea that his well-being now depends on this technology that he sometimes holds with a sense of contempt. That's the journey for him, is that he's starting to realize it's not the technology that's bad; it's how you use it.

JN: Talk a bit about the character that Lili Taylor plays named Maldonado and the choice of making her a woman.

JW: Yes. Originally we conceived her as a man, the concept of Maldonado. Somebody had brought up, I'm not sure, I think it was April Webster, our casting director, that said ,"What about Lili Taylor?" Then once we started talking about, we are huge fans of hers, that concept we realized that the character of Maldonado would actually be far superior if it was a woman.

The character started to take on all these incredible aspects that really weren't there in a male version of her. We just embraced the idea and we're so fortunate to get her because we just all really adore her. That's how that came about. It wasn't originally designed as a female, but we went down that road when it was presented and we loved it.

JN: With Civil Rights being such a big issue right now, are there going to be robot rights, maybe robot marriage explored on the show?

JW: That's a really good question. J.J. had set us up with some very, very brilliant people from MIT, and one of the brilliant people was a woman who studies robot ethics, which is pretty amazing because when you talk to her, you get the idea that, wait a second, this is definitely coming. Some of the amazing things with these robots that are now what we see in the future are definitely robots, not human. They're not becoming human, but they're definitely becoming beings.

That's a moment where you're thinking, they're real. They are thinking beings. What are their rights? Where are those lines drawn? A lot of those things are examined in some of our later stories. Those concepts of what exactly is a robot? What is an android? What is a being? If it's able to think, if it's able to be, then what? We're definitely interested in those types of things.

JN: What makes this show different than other things produces by Bad Robot, J.J.?

JA: While we have been involved in a number of different series, none of them were approached from a strategic point of view, meaning we didn't really try to figure out how is this unique? We just tried to do it from the inside out and figure out what makes us care. I think that the specifics of this one, obviously, the story is very different than anything we've done before.

The type of show in that it is very much a cop procedural show, which is a very familiar show. We've seen a million buddy/cop shows and the fun of that was twisting it in a way that Joel came up with, which is having it set in a place and with specific characters that allow for conflict and cases every week that don't feel like everything you've seen a million times before. I think that this show has a level of humor that is distinct from what we've done. I think that part of it is just the relationship between Karl and Michael's characters.

JN: How has other science fiction work you have done influenced this particular show?

JW: For me, on Fringe, I got to, in a lot of the research that I did and got to experience on a week-to-week basis, really definitely influenced the direction of this program and how it was conceived. When you start to get involved in what's possible, what technology is out there, how is science dangerously out of control, what are we up against as the human race? It just really starts to make your mind expand with all these concepts that you sometimes worry about and sometimes go, wow, that's really wild.

It definitely, that for me was a huge influence. It actually, looking at what's to come, in my experience on Fringe, it definitely was the seed of this program. I've always loved to talk about what ifs and scenarios of look where we're going. This is a perfect platform for these cautionary tales and what if scenarios.

JN: Quick Star Wars question. Why were there changes in the script writing team?

JA: Working with Michael Arndt was a wonderful experience and I couldn't be a bigger fan of his or adore him more. He's a wonderful guy. He was incredibly helpful in the process and working with Larry Kasdan, especially on a Star Wars movie, is sort of unbeatable.

It became clear that given the timeframe and given the process, the way the thing was going, it became clear that working with Larry in this way was going to get us where we needed to be and when we needed to be. That doesn't preclude working with Michael again in the future at all. I couldn't say enough good things about him. He's really, just obviously, one of the smartest guys and one of the best writers around.

JN: Did the film Blade Runner have an influence on Almost Human?

JW: In my mind, you can't touch something in this wheelhouse, or in science fiction, without owing a huge debt to Blade Runner. It's definitely one of my favorite films. It has so much to look at. It was just so amazing and instructive as a young person watching that movie on how not just what's happening in the scene, but what's happening ten layers behind the scene.

There is something about those types of things that I definitely did not want to go for. I hope that we're not really in that territory and that we were successful, because what occurred to me is in watching all these incredible science fiction, or reading all these incredible science fiction books, the future is largely, oh, look what you humans have done. You've really messed up and now what are you going to do?

I am a hopeful person. I really believe that the world is going to get it right somehow. I wanted to make it a brighter environment where it's not raining all the time, the atmosphere is not completely ruined, that people still have children and are very excited about their daughter's seven-year-old birthday party. That they'll want to do what they can to get her that present that she wants. That there is a sense of going forward and a sense of this is the future in 40 years.

It's still going to have a lot of the same stuff that we deal with now. It will have some things that are much better. It will have some things that are more dangerous, sure, but we're resilient and we're going to succeed. That was the difference. But as far as, of course, setting a world in the future and things like that, that's a huge influence on me.

The buddy cop double header begins on Sunday, Nov. 17 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) and Monday, Nov. 18 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.


Interviewed by Jerry Nunn. Jerry Nunn is a contributing writer to the GoPride Network. His work is also featured in Windy City Times, Nightspots Magazine and syndicated nationally.