Better Than Us: Dystopia with a Twist

(Caution–spoilers ahead!)

Superficially, Better Than Us, the science fiction series currently on Netflix, is a typical robots-could-take-over-the-world story. A lot of people have already been pushed out of jobs by bots, and the government is floating a plan to lower the retirement age to 45, with bots taking up the slack. Of course, once that happens, bots would be positioned to take over the labor market almost entirely.

But the series is far more nuanced than its title might lead one to believe. In that respect, it’s comparable to the British series, Humans, in which the androids are portrayed sympathetically. But whereas Humans raises the issue of how we define humanity, as well as prejudice being rooted in fear of the unknown, Better than Us takes a somewhat different approach.

In Humans, at least some of the androids have achieved sentience, but they don’t want to take over the world. Rather, they want to take their place in human society instead of being treated like slave labor.

In Better Than Us, sentient AI may still be a way off. Arisa, the most advanced bot up to that point, still seems to be a creation of programming, albeit very sophisticated programming. Only at the end of season 2 (presented as part of season 1 on Netflix) does she act in a way that seems inconsistent with her more recent programming, though still true to her original directive to protect her “family” at all costs.

Both shows have in common the idea that devices driven by sophisticated AI could cost humans their jobs. But in Humans, this view seems commonplace and is used as a justification for prejudice and even violence. In Better Than Us, the general public attitude seems positive, even downright consumerist. The Liquidators, the group that wants to get rid of the bots, are portrayed as young, scruffy, and overly violent. Thought most viewers would probably see them as misguided rather than evil, very few are likely to see them as being right.

Arguably, the most evil person is Viktor Toropov, but rather than trying to destroy humanity’s future with bots, his agenda is much more simple than that–swindle his own company and the government so that he can walk away with a huge payoff for a bot prototype (Arisa) that he doesn’t actually know how to duplicate.

In other words, the biggest threat in Better Than Us isn’t the bots–it’s human greed. The bots may pose more a threat in the future, though the way in which Arisa evolves suggests that such a threat isn’t inevitable.

Is Better Than Us worth watching? Definitely! It’s a refreshing take on an old theme. Acting and production values are both excellent. There aren’t a huge number of special effects required, but the bots are handled in a way that makes them believable.

Aspiring writers can learn a lot from this one. The biggest lesson, as you might guess, is that if you use an old theme, it’s much better to have an original take on it. The series is also a good illustration of the old advice that characters should be neither too good  nor too evil. Even Toropov has redeeming moments, and Safronov, the main hero, has some anger-management issues, to say the least. All of the characters seem realistic in that way.

(Featured image is copyrighted by Phonlamai Photo and licensed from Shutterstock.)

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