Inhuman Condition Review: Two Disclaimers and A Whole Lot To Say

This post originally appeared on Nick’s Blog Americain. It is reproduced here with Nick’s enthusiastic permission. It has been edited slightly to better fit this format.

Once again, a supernatural web series drags me wearily from blog retirement. Once again, it’s Canadian, and once again it’s very damn interesting. In this case, however, we’re going to need a few disclaimers:

Disclaimer the first: I am varying degrees of Twitter-friendly with some of the creatives involved; I claim no objectivity, so perhaps I will be too kind.

Disclaimer the second: I have a longstanding and deep-seated distaste, distrust, and dislike for shrinks; I claim no objectivity, so perhaps I will be too cruel.

That out of the way, here’s the quick-and-dirty spoiler-free version for my more text-adverse readers (sidenote: you are not very good readers): Inhuman Condition is consistently ambitious, often good, occasionally great, and frequently frustrating. It is a good show that probably should have been a great one, and the writer and producer have both done better shows in an apparently-but-not-actually similar medium, so approaching this one with comparison in mind would be a mistake, a disservice to both yourself and to Inhuman Condition. Both Carmilla and All For One have the advantage of building on the backs of established works of literature (and in All For One’s case, a masterpiece of one); Inhuman Condition must build itself from the ground up, and has a much higher execution threshold, conceptually, than either of those shows, which can and sometimes do lean safely on both their source material and the winking comfort of being at least nominally comedic works. Again, comparison is unfair, and I mention/fly in the face of that only to discourage you from making the same mistake; I enjoyed Inhuman Condition a lot more when I stopped thinking about it in relation to the work that came before and met it on its own terms.

That all said, Inhuman Condition *is* a good show, sometimes more than that, and there is precious little like it, conceptually, on the big screen, the small one, or the one on the tablet you watch on the toilet. The ideal Inhuman Condition viewer has patience for a slow start, appreciation for a unique format, and forgiveness for a protagonist that is a bit too familiar, and one that perhaps puts her writer’s needs ahead of her own. Those of you who love to watch characters wrestle with the hidden truth of themselves, successfully or otherwise, will find a lot to like here; it may in fact become one of your favorite shows, as I cannot think of another that dedicates as much time to that particular noble pursuit. Those of you who appreciate parable or interpretable fiction will be delighted. Those of you who can have an otherwise strong cast ruined by a single poor performance (not the aforementioned protagonist, for clarity; hers is a case where I question narrative, not performance), or those of you with a low tolerance for watching people sit and talk about themselves, should probably give it a pass.

Still reading? Cool. Let’s get into the spoiler-ridden, deep-divey conceptual writer-autopsy stuff I love so well. Buckle up, kiddos, this one’s going long.

Let’s start with the format, which is either the show’s greatest strength or its single biggest failing; I have given up trying to figure out which. Of course, I have to talk about it, so let’s look at both takes.

The “mostly in therapy” format of the show is rare to begin with, and outright unique for a show built, ostensibly, around the supernatural. The three non-shrink leads - Clara the zombie, Linc the werewolf, and Tamar the nebulous god-like stealth MVP of the show, are forced to spend most of their screen-time directly discussing their fundamental problems; few other shows put their characters through that kind of consistent emotional scrutiny. It works best for Tamar (mostly; more on her later), and largely dooms Linc (more on him later, too). Clara falls somewhere in between, but much closer to Tamar’s end of the spectrum than Linc’s. The format engages your imagination by forcing you to fill in the context, the things that actually happened, and showing you only the emotional fallout and the rationalizations the characters have crafted around it. If it worked even 1% better than it does, it’d be required watching for any writer who hasn’t mastered the internal lives of their own characters; as is, it’s merely strongly recommended.

On the other hand, though… it dooms the show’s weakest performer by trapping them in a space with no context, scenery, or action to hide behind, magnifying their failings. It is a deliberate and ballsy defiance of the traditional storytelling wisdom of “show, don’t tell,” and as a result almost all of the most interesting things that happen in the show… don’t happen in the show. We see only their consequences, and only then refracted through the artifice of a character self-censoring to a shrink none of them wholly trust. Here again it is tempting to compare to those other two web series, but there’s a crucial distinction in that while the *action* in those shows is largely off-camera, every major character moment, and the growth of every relationship, is meticulously documented on the screen. Here they are almost totally absent; we see only the fallout. We do not see Clara and Linc navigate from casual sex to love, we do not see Tamar’s crushing realization of Graham’s true allegiances, nor anyone’s immediate reaction to the attack on Kessler (more on that scene - the season’s biggest miss - in a bit). The therapy sequences at their worst play more like a recap than a performance, and we are left too often wanting to see the big moments we’ve become invested in.

There are non-therapy scenes sprinkled throughout the show, and they are often among its most effective moments, showing us more authentically who the characters actually are (the first of these saves Dr. Kessler from being a complete cipher just in time; it probably should have come an episode or two earlier). Ultimately, the format is at war with itself. Had writer RJ Lackie either committed whole-hog to the therapy conceit or deployed it as a storytelling tool rather than backbone, we’d have a very different, and likely stronger, show; give us nothing outside of the therapy sessions and trust your writing and our imaginations to tell the story, or embrace the freedom and show us the big stuff we actually want to see. Splitting the difference alienates two different types of viewers, and undermines the show’s core gimmick and consistency, while putting a brutal expositional load on the dialogue.  

Since I mentioned it above, and it does not fit organically into the flow of this review, let us now pause and talk about the scene where Kessler is attacked; it should be the show’s big mid-season moment, and it is instead its biggest blunder. There are two problems with it, one executional and one philosophical. On the executional side, the scene makes no sense; two attackers appear, one stabs Kessler, Linc tackles the other, the one who stabs Kessler wanders offscreen, Linc runs back in to comfort Kessler. Instead of reacting with “oh no, Kessler’s been stabbed!” we instead find ourselves wondering “why is Knife-Guy just hanging out in the corner admiring Kessler’s bookshelf or whatever instead of stabbing the shit out of our heroes?” Whether this is a failing of writing, direction, or editing I can’t say, but at any rate it sucks the pathos out of what should be a huge moment, and somebody should have caught it before it aired. Apologies to my internet-friends who work on the show, but there’s nothing to call it that’s kinder than “sloppy.”

The second problem is that the show does almost nothing with this big moment; we jump six weeks into the future, but nothing of substance changes in those weeks (which is normally what a time jump is for), and there is apparently no follow-up from the radical lycans who wanted Kessler dead (part of an unfortunate recurring trend of them being the least threatening antagonists ever). The violent attempted murder of our main character is… pretty much a non-factor. Kessler is almost killed, and the story moves on without meaningfully interacting with the fallout, or using the time-gap to implement any kind of status-quo shift or intrigue.  

The only people who much respond to it, in fact, are the supporting characters that make up Kessler’s broken family, which is as good a segue into talking about the supporting cast as I’m likely to get. There are eight supporting characters in the show, and they run the gamut from fascinating to plot-fodder. Without spending too much time on them, the first five are Tully (evil jerk werewolf that gets what’s coming to him; probably needed a meatier establishing character moment to get us invested in him), Will (Kessler’s ex-husband, a well-meaning semi-racist idiot who fucks everything up and exists mostly to move the plot along; his first and most benign scene is his most authentic and compelling), Rachel (Kessler’s estranged wife, who’s around mostly to give Kessler somebody else to cry at, but has precious little personality beyond her casting bio of “estranged wife who still loves Kessler”), and Mira (Kessler’s precocious daughter, who’s quite good and probably should have been given more to do). All five of these characters are well-acted and do their part to move the plot around; they are all casualties of the show’s format, sadly, and we see too little of most of them to really get a feel for them. In Inhuman Condition’s defense, you’d be hard-pressed to name a webseries that does right by its supporting cast*. There’s also Clara’s dad, but he’s in one episode and I don’t have anything interesting to say about him; he’s fine in his scene, and Clara’s great, but he’s little more than a plot point.

*Breaking my own comparison dictum again, probably Carmilla’s biggest failing is giving its extremely charismatic supporting players very little of substance to do, while All For One is perhaps the only web series I can think of off-hand that makes sure all its minor characters have compelling arcs of their own.

The other two supporting characters I have a bit more to say about. First there’s Frank, Clara’s looming chaperone, and the show’s biggest missed opportunity. He has maybe three lines in the entire show, but I am fascinated by Frank; what an interesting life he’s forced to lead, and I want little more than to know how he feels about it (we get hints, but not enough), or what sort of toll spending his days, for a period of years, waiting to see if today is the day he has to kill his boss’ lovable daughter has on the man’s psyche. It’s such a great setup, and the show just doesn’t have room to run with it… but it speaks to how story-fertile of a world Lackie & Co have constructed here, and in a review that’s thus-far spent more time on what could have been better, it’s worth pointing out that this is a show that is so concept-rich that a character who could carry his own pitch is relegated to loom duty. It’s a criticism that they did so little with him, yes, but it’s also a massive achievement that they made me want so much from a nothing part.

Finally, there’s Graham. Graham will be dangerously familiar to viewers of Orphan Black, but he serves the story perfectly; Lackie loves the ambush-bastard as a character type (Will’s another (less effective) one, and there’ s a great one in A4O) but Graham is an excellent and economical execution of the trope; he’s allowed to retain his humanity without selling out his value as a villain (whereas the Orphan Black character he’s doomed to be compared to never quite worked in either role), and he has a natural, subtle, and believable chemistry with Tamar; theirs are scenes worth revisiting once you’ve seen the whole season, and all the more rewarding on the second watch. His arc doesn’t get much of a conclusion (bring on season two!) but he’s an integral part of the show’s most effective plot line, and it’s astonishing for a show like this to take a character type that got three years of work on a major international production like Orphan Black and do it better in about ten minutes of total screen-time, let alone on a web series budget. There aren’t enough kudos for the actor or the plotting… assuming they get another season and stick the landing, anyhow.

Ok, onto the leads. There are four of them. Three of them are very well written, and three of them are very well acted. They are not the same three.

It makes sense to start with Kessler, the nominal protagonist and most frustrating of the bunch. Tori Higginson does everything she can with a character no actress could fully save, and her work in the part is legitimately great… but Kessler, in addition to being a total stock character (she’s a shrink who cares SO MUCH you guys, but even though she fixes other people’s lives for a living, she can’t fix her own heart *cue the string section*), is a total dead fish as a protagonist; she’s passive, preachy, and worst of all, boring. Her actions for the first two thirds of the season seem to be almost entirely motivated by what will cause the plot to move along, as opposed to anything organic to the character. She’s also the world’s worst shrink, emotionally manipulating her patients, breaking confidentiality at every opportunity, and spending way more time crying than her patients do. And oh man, does Kessler love to cry. She’s perpetually on the brink of tears, and while I haven’t counted, I suspect there’s more episodes where she cries or almost cries than not; weird trait to build a lead character around.

Near the end of the season she gets a little better, or at least becomes capable of taking action instead of just spending her time limply trying to convince her patients that she “gets it” with all the conviction of the “hip” guidance counselor you had in high school, but right as she finally becomes an active participant in the story the plot turns on her and she gets stuck in one my least favorite tropes: wise old white person redeems angry young black man. Can we retire this story already? The last time I remember it being anything other than an eyeroll was Finding Forrester sixteen years ago, and even that took the last great performance of Sean Connery’s career to work as anything more than trite.

I’m being harsh here, so I suppose in this case disclaimer two is mightier than disclaimer one. At any rate, Kessler’s not always awful (though I’m not sure she has more a single good therapy scene in the first twenty episodes), and she’s usually at her best when interacting with her medium-mandated underdeveloped family; those scenes mostly land, and they’re the only times she ever feels like an actual character as opposed to merely the writer’s expediter. Even there, though, she’s got a pretty big problem in that she has no personality beyond the needs of the plot; I have no idea what kind of person she is, what kind of sense of humor she has, what makes her happy (besides sex with exes, I guess), what she likes about herself, what she doesn’t… she’s a plot conductor, and a dull one. Rare misfire from Lackie on her, and it’s a shame she’s at the center of the show, because a lot of the stuff around her is really killer stuff.

Interestingly, for a long chunk of my viewing time I thought Kessler was actually the best character on the show… but that’s because I was increasingly certain the show knew she was awful, and was doing it deliberately. I thought she was going to be the ambush bastard; I thought season one might end with an antihero heel realization, as opposed to a belated lunge for agency and a vague voiceover. Perhaps that is still coming, in which case all of the above is just masterful viewer manipulation by Lackie and Higginson… but I can only judge by what I’ve seen, and what I’ve seen is Kessler doing her level-best to derail what ought to be a great show. 

Luckily, though, we’ve got Clara and Tamar to save things.

 Clara Pasieka as Clara  Credit: KindaTV

Clara Pasieka as Clara
Credit: KindaTV

We’ll start with Clara, the show’s most consistent character; Tamar has higher peaks, but she’s a slower burn. Clara’s what kept me engaged through the snails’-pace first ten episodes, and while she’s occasionally prone to minor inorganic character shifts (and if Lackie has a weakness as a writer, it’s letting his characters have those), she’s got an urgency to her that keeps things compelling even when the plot isn’t doing her any favors. Played with a spiteful nobility by Clara Pasieka, I really can’t say enough good things about what she does for the show and her co-stars; not only does she handle one of the show’s headier ideas with the precise amount of panache needed for it to land, she’s the only actor on the show able to get anything of substance out of her scenes with Linc; season two will miss her for that. The weary existential dread that she somehow keeps in her eyes is one of those things that maybe seven or eight actresses on the planet could pull off; she pulls it off. She also yells at Kessler a lot, which is admittedly cathartic for viewers like me. It’s a shame she and Tamar never interact, as they’re the show’s strongest characters by far and either one of them could carry their own show as protagonist.

Speaking of Tamar… wow. I underestimated her in her early episodes, where she appears to be little more than a broken waif for Kessler to save. As the show progresses, she evolves from a stock Whedon-brand broken little girl with incredible power and little personality into an experiential tsunami. Played by Cara Gee, she rope-a-dopes the viewer in early episodes with stilted speech and nervous body language before erupting into the show’s most charismatic performer when her story starts to properly unfold. It cannot be easy to convey someone being confronted with every major fundamental human experience and emotion in a condensed period of time (amplified a thousand-fold by the stakes added by her incredible power and her empirically deprived backstory), but she manages with aplomb, and the episode where she first truly begins to revel in her freedom, passion, and power, is the season’s high-water mark. It is not all on Gee, either, as Lackie has in her crafted not only a compelling character (nevermind one that totally sneaks up on you), but the ultimate thematic chameleon; Tamar is an apt metaphor for whichever awakening speaks most to you, and there’s a universality to her that most of us keyboard hacks can only aspire to; I can’t imagine there’s anyone who can watch Tamar’s journey with a poker face; there’s more joy and pain in her big moments than in entire seasons of lesser shows.

 Thomas Olajide as Linc the werewolf  Credit: KindaTV

Thomas Olajide as Linc the werewolf
Credit: KindaTV

Her story sputters a little in the endgame, as the show chickens out of wrapping up any of her core conflicts lest they get a season two (understandable), so we’re left with—and I swear to you, I really did try to find a better metaphor for this—narrative blue balls, denied any kind of a climax to the show’s strongest plotline. Nonetheless, Tamar alone is worth the price of admission, and that there’s so much other good stuff around her means Inhuman Condition is a much better show than certain paragraphs of this review would have you believe.

Speaking of those paragraphs, let’s talk about the show’s resident charisma-sink, Robert Lincoln. While Kessler is a great performance trapped under uninspired writing, Linc gets all the best lines in the show, but lacks the gravitas to sell a single one of them. Played with obvious effort and enthusiasm (but little efficacy) by Thomas Olajide, Linc is on a mission to remind you that what you’re watching is not a tormented young revolutionary trying to reconcile his fundamental humanity with his justifiable rage, but an actor reading lines in front of a camera. I haven’t seen Olajide in anything else, and I suspect he’s usually better than this; the problem here is that what he’s going for is really hard to do well. There are actors in the world who can sell laconic intensity, but they are few and far between (Mads Mikkelsen is probably the best one doing it today, Humphrey Bogart tops the all-time rankings; Don Cheadle, Bruce Willis, Matt Bomer (just talking about his acting here, comments section), and Charles Michael Davis also spring to mind; I’m sure there are others, but this parenthetical is already laughably overlong and badly in need of an edit I’ll likely forget to make). Unfortunately, Olajide is not one of them. He comes off more as a teenage poser trying to convince everyone else that he’s the badass he knows deep down he isn’t, and I initially liked his performance until I realized that wasn’t remotely the story being told. At no point is Linc convincing as a threat, a lover, or a friend, and he has no chemistry with any of his costars (except, once or twice, with Clara). Scenes between Linc and Kessler are usually death, and those episodes were pretty universally the ones that interrupted my binge and turned what should have been three or four sittings to view into twelve or fifteen. At no point does Linc, the character with the strongest beliefs, ever sound like he believes a single word out of his own mouth. In a world without Clara and Tamar, it’d be a show killer. As is, his scenes are mostly just a good time to check your email. 

I’m aware that I was pretty hard on Kessler and Linc up there; one need only check Twitter to see that my opinion is far from law, but you’re reading my review, so it’s what you get. You like those characters? Great. I envy you. You probably enjoyed the show more than I did, and that’s a good thing. Moving on.

 Oof. We’re 3.5k words into this, and I’ve only scratched the surface; there’s really a lot going on in Inhuman Condition, and any attempt to talk about all of it would likely end up longer than the show. I’m resorting to bullet points now, like the internet hack I am, to get through of a few more of the big ones:

* The show peaks in the act two/early act three stretch. There’s a lot of moving things into place in the first ten episodes, and a general commitophobia towards the plot near the end; only Clara’s story has anything much resembling an actual conclusion. Part of the nature of the beast for a serialized show, but it also means a less-filling final course than you might be expecting.

* I worry I understated how good some of Linc’s lines are in the above; a couple of them are of the “goddamnit that’s so good it’s shoulda been mine” variety; poor delivery doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a ton of credit.

 * I don’t have a ton to say about the direction. It’s… competent? I was never wowed, but minus that one scene, it never got in the way either.

* One thing this show does extremely well for all four of its leads is paint the picture of a life lived prior to the story; too many works of fiction, and especially too many webseries, rely on characters who seems to have been born on page one. These four people, though, were born a long time ago, and experienced a lot of life, before they wandered in front of a camera.

* In a related story, the world-building here is next-level stuff, and there’s an impressive level of expositional restraint on display. The specifics of things like the inner workings of the shadowy organization manipulating Tamar or exactly how Clara’s condition works are meted out in exactly the best dosage for the story. Too many writers are in a hurry to explain their exciting new world to their audience; Lackie is savvy enough to let you explore it, instead, and that sense of mystery and depth never wavers. I remain possessed of a great deal of curiosity about this world, some of which will never be sated even if they do a dozen seasons; this is a world with a history and internal logic that has nothing to do with the four people the story’s about, and it’s likely that they could keep telling new stories about this twisted little timeline without ever exhausting the recesses of its continuity. 

* In spite of what I said above about both direction and Linc, shout out to the fight scene in the alley; that’s some very solid, effective, guerilla filmmaking. If only I cared enough about either character to have been invested in the stakes, it’d be one of the season’s best scenes.

*The pace in general is a mess. There’s a commitment to telling the story in order, which I can appreciate in theory, but it leads to long stretches of nothing, and what would normally be the third act for Kessler doesn’t come until the last fifteen minutes or so of the show, and barely comes at all for Tamar or Linc. The three act structure is not a must-have, but some kind of rhythm probably is; the massive gaps in quality between the Tamar and Clara arcs and the other half of the show exacerbate that problem, as the episodes following their big swings can’t help but feel like filler.

*As a KindaTV show, it’s probably worth talking about the sexuality in Inhuman Condition, but I don’t have anything brilliant or insightful to say about it. Two of its leads are bi, but in both cases it feels largely incidental. That’s not a criticism, by the way; a big of part of writing queer characters is that there’s a lot more to them than the fact that they’re queer, and nothing’s worse than a character who exists only to check a box (these aren’t those). I bring it up only because if you’re coming to this show categorically looking for a queer show, that’s not really what Inhuman Condition is about. This note wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t on Kinda, but I worry that a lot of that audience might come into this show expecting something closer to Carmilla or All For One and find themselves disappointed, and that’s a bummer; this show isn’t doing what those shows are doing, but it is doing something worth checking out regardless of its relative queerness. Once more, for the cheap seats: Inhuman Condition is its own thing, and should be met on its own terms.

* Much like Sudden Master, this is a show all but guaranteed to take a quantum leap in its second season. It isn’t clear how many of its characters will be back (though I’d guess most of them), but it’s a show that was often self-correcting and figuring itself out as it went; given a year off, I imagine most of the kinks (except, perhaps, for Olajide’s community theatre performance) would be worked out, and we’d be left with a truly special and unique show.

And that brings us to the big question at the end: what the fuck is Inhuman Condition? It’s not a masterpiece, though it sometimes feels like it could be. It’s not a trainwreck, though it occasionally goes off the rails. It’s certainly not Carmilla or All For One, in both good ways and bad. It’s not something you absolutely have to watch, though it’s something you probably should, especially if you want to see a show trying to break an awful lot of the conventional rules and mostly getting away with it. It’s not a star-making turn for any of its actors, though later seasons definitely could be. It’s certainly not a show that knows what it wants to be, and only maybe half of its characters could convincingly explain their own motivations moment to moment if you asked them… and yet there’s some charm in that messiness. It’s not a show for people who don’t like dialogue. It’s not a show for people who like overtly heroic protagonists; the best person in the show might legitimately end the world next season.

For me, ultimately, it’s what a lot of people think fiction most needs to be: an escapist emotional simulator. While the plot structure isn’t perfect, there’s a meticulous foundation beneath its strongest characters and stories, built to let you engage with big feelings and big ideas. And if you want to learn from that experience, or shrink from it, or investigate why those ideas beget those feelings? That’s up to you. It’ s a strange, safe place, far removed from anywhere else you’ve been or anything you’ve seen, that lets you hold up the magical funhouse mirror of metaphor to your own psyche, and play around in the circus of human experience and identity. It’s a chance to see things differently, and take what you can from that viewpoint. It’s a chance to take ideas from people impossibly different from yourself, and smash them up against your own. It’s a chance to challenge yourself, or a chance to make sure you don’t. End of the day, it’s a chance to engage with the human—sigh—condition, and your own broken little version of it, without fear of judgment, consequence, or reprisal.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty much what therapy is supposed to do, right?

Nick Feldman, in addition to occasionally writing reviews of TV shows, is a novelist of some dubious repute. You can find his most recent books—following PI Mina Davis—here